Using GIS to Evaluate Parking Availability

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This student/faculty research project at Bloomsburg University takes a look at parking availability in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania by analyzing parking space usage using GPS and GIS.  Article written by Tony DiBiase, Jeff Brunskill, Matt Hess and Chris Podeschi.  

The availability of parking is often a contentious issue in college towns that experience a significant influx of students during the academic year. The Town of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, is no exception. Located along the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania, Bloomsburg is a small college town of just over 14,000 residents.[1]

Competition for parking in a college town

Bloomsburg is home to Bloomsburg University (BU), a state institution with an enrollment of 10,000 students.[2] The university’s main campus is located in close proximity to Bloomsburg’s downtown. Competition for parking in this region amongst students, residents, business owners and patrons is a common source of tension between the university and the town.

In the fall of 2013, this tension came to the forefront when the Bloomsburg University Foundation closed off 29 public parking spaces to construct a new building in the downtown. Resulting concerns over the temporary loss of parking prompted the university and town to request a formal study of parking in the street-side and town-permitted parking lots.

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The primary objectives were to determine if there was enough parking downtown, and if the permitted and metered spaces were being used effectively. The study was conducted as an educational field experience involving students and faculty from the geography/planning and sociology departments at BU.

Assessing Parking Availability with GIS

A two-pronged methodology was used to conduct the study. First, given the project’s spatial nature, geography and planning students used Trimble Juno GPS units to map the use of the 832 town-maintained parking spaces in the downtown region.

To accomplish this, the study area was divided into five zones that could be walked at hourly intervals. Parking sweeps were then conducted from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on six different weekdays during late October and early November 2013.

For each sweep, student volunteers walked each zone, noted empty spots, and collected license plate, town permit and BU permit attributes for each occupied space. The data collection process required 43 student volunteers and over 500 person hours to complete.

Once collected, the raw dataset, which consisted of over 50,000 observations, was organized, corrected, analyzed and mapped using Microsoft Excel 2013 and Esri’s ArcGIS 10.2. The following spring, students from the sociology department distributed written surveys to the owners, employees and patrons of downtown businesses to investigate their parking behaviors and their perceptions of parking availability in downtown Bloomsburg. In all, surveys involving 117 patrons and 81 business employees/owners were administered and analyzed for the study.

Figure 1.0: This map displays the overall percentage of observed hours that a space was occupied over the six-day study.
Figure 1.0: This map displays the overall percentage of observed hours that a space was occupied over the six-day study.

Results of the parking analysis with GIS

The results of the parking study provided town and university administrators with tangible data to use as a basis for discussing parking in downtown Bloomsburg. The most important question this study answered was whether there was enough available parking.

The results of the street sweep study found that overall parking was widely available. Over the six-day data collection period the town’s metered and permitted parking spaces were open 50 percent of the time on average (See Figure 1.0). And, even during peak demand hours, over 30 percent of the spaces were still available. As expected, though, the study found that the spatial distribution of parking was not uniform.

The majority of the available spaces, particularly during peak demand hours, were located on the periphery of the downtown region, or in locations with fewer businesses. In this regard, the results provided an important basis to shift the discussion from a concern over the quantity of downtown parking spaces, to broader questions of how to more effectively communicate the locations of available parking, and facilitate access to that parking.

The second research question was to determine if the metered and permitted parking spaces were being used effectively. A primary concern was that downtown business owners and employees were taking up metered spaces in front of their businesses for long periods of time, as opposed to parking in owner/employee permitted lots that are located the periphery of the downtown district.

Somewhat surprisingly, and contrary to owner/employee statements made in the surveys, the results of the street sweep found that instances of people parking in metered spaces for long periods of time (i.e., feeding the meter for more than two hours) was not particularly prevalent. And, the results suggested that individuals who had a parking permit (e.g., employees, business owners and residents), typically parked in their assigned lot, and not metered spaces. This result was encouraging, because it suggested that the permit system works.

One proposal that resulted from the study was for the town to develop a specific parking permit for student employees that would further incentivize students to purchase permits and park in peripheral lots during their shifts. At present, it is often cost effective for students to simply park in metered spaces as opposed to purchasing the town’s standard six-month permit.

The Town of Bloomsburg parking study provided an excellent opportunity for geography/planning and sociology students to apply their disciplinary skills in a multidisciplinary, practical setting. In particular, this project provided an opportunity for students to develop and implement strategies for collecting, managing, and analyzing both spatial and qualitative datasets, and to present the results of the overall study in both academic and community based settings.

The results of this study were presented at two regional geography conferences and, in the spring of 2015, a final report and public presentation were given to town and university officials. The project provided an important opportunity for the local community to see how geographic information systems can be used to address problems of a spatial nature in the region.


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