BALTIMORE'S nightmarish downtown parking situation is about to get some relief. Starting Monday, frequent Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) buses will transport commuters from satellite parking lots to the business district. And for the long term, several big parking garages are under construction.
But these are inadequate Band-Aid solutions that offer no real cure. The reason: Shortsighted public policies over the last four decades have created an abysmal shortage of parking spaces.
Downtown parking will remain a problem as long as city zoning laws are interpreted so loosely that they allow developers to erect skyscrapers without adequate parking.
It's not a new problem: The 25-story Blaustein Building at Fayette and Charles streets was constructed in 1962 without a single parking space.
Successive City Hall administrations, in their desperation to encourage development, have exempted many other buildings from the zoning requirement that one parking spot be provided for every 2,000 square feet of space after the first 50,000 square feet.
"Many of the buildings that were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s are under-parked," says Lisa Raimundo, who handles parking issues for the Downtown Partnership, a coalition of city businesses that is sponsoring the shuttle plan.
That's why the new garages will only play catch-up, without providing much relief for visitors in search of parking. This is particularly true because of the apartment conversion of several big downtown buildings. Many, like the 202-unit 501 St. Paul Place, will not have parking on the premises.
A genuine improvement in the parking situation can be achieved only by making sure no future buildings are constructed without adequate on-site parking. Already, many other cities are more restrictive than Baltimore. The District of Columbia, for example, requires one space for each 1,800 square feet in downtown buildings bigger than 12,000 square feet.
Downtown Partnership's DASH experiment will gauge the willingness of commuters to park at satellite lots. It costs $50 a month compared with up to $200 in downtown garages.
But the service is available initially only to about 300 employees of seven companies that sell monthly passes. While the number of pass holders is expected to perhaps quintuple in the future, it's unlikely the DASH parking will ever be available for daily visitors.
Thus, the most realistic solution calls for more parking, because a chronic shortage of spaces makes Baltimore's economy suffer. And it can't afford to suffer much longer.