When I applied to graduate school, I expected long hours spent studying, tough exams, and new experiences. The Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at James Madison University, however, takes this a step further by allowing students to participate in more practical, hands-on projects in the surrounding communities.
From the onset, I was afforded these opportunities as I started my graduate years completing an economic development study with the town of Dayton, VA. Despite being an integral member of the research team for that study, there were several other groups (i.e. faculty, undergraduate students, town residents/officials) that were also heavily involved. However, that study – along with the skills and knowledge that I learned throughout my two years in the program – prepared me to go even further and take a hands-on leadership role in a parking study completed for Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance (HDR). This study was completed as part of the MPA program’s final, culminating Capstone course.
While the MPA department is typically eager to partner with local organizations whenever possible, a willing partner is also needed. HDR and, in turn, the City of Harrisonburg, were just as excited to combine efforts to produce a new parking study for the downtown area as we were. Several years back, the city hired a private contractor to conduct a similar study. While that study provided some useful information – like a comprehensive count of available downtown parking spaces – some issues still needed addressing. Primarily, the revitalization of downtown had not yet fully occurred during the time of the first study. With an increased number of restaurants and businesses came an increased amount of downtown visitors. Presumably, these visitors, at least for the most part, drove to the downtown area and began using the available parking locations at an increased rate. Our study aimed to accurately capture the potential increase in usage, especially during the peak hours (nights/weekends) for the newer businesses – something that was not captured in the first study.
Our study examined the overall usage of and thoughts/feelings towards downtown parking. In order to accurately assess the downtown parking situation, we divided our study into three groups/sections that examined the administered surveys (qualitative responses to usage of/feelings towards downtown parking), signage, and bicycle usage, respectively. I took a leadership role in the bicycle usage research, and, as a group, we conducted bicycle rack counts, administered surveys, and delivered materials to the city that highlighted where each bicycle rack was located, what type it was, and its usage capacity. There had been a palpable fear of many in the area that the majority of parking spaces – i.e. the two parking garages – were outdated for the current needs of downtown. While I am a bicycle enthusiast, we conducted the analysis under the assumption that we would show that either bicycles were being used to supplement overburdened parking spaces, or there was potential for such supplementation was present.
We found, however, that while some of the parking lots were heavily utilized (i.e. Elizabeth St. deck during court hours, Farmers Market area during open Market hours, Water St. deck on some evenings/weekends) during specific times, the majority of parking downtown was adequate enough to meet current needs. However, if substantial growth for the immediate region continues to occur, additional parking spaces may need to be built or expanded. We did find that certain improvements could be made to existing infrastructure, however. For instance, it was recommended that signage, lighting, and other cosmetic improvements be made to increase the positive perceptions of the facilities (most notably the two parking garages) currently in place. Furthermore, my group found that, while the bicycle racks, lanes, etc. were adequate for current usage, they could be utilized at a much higher level. Therefore, we suggested that a marketing campaign could be potentially undertaken in order to increase bicycle usage and, consequently, lessen vehicular parking needs.
While I have provided a brief overview of the study, there was a substantial and comprehensive report that was presented to HDR and Harrisonburg City Council by MPA Program Director Dr. Nicholas Swartz. You can read the report in its entirety here and watch a report from local TV affiliate WHSV here. For information on JMU’s MPA program, follow this link.