Photograph by Katheryn Wickham

Buff Brown reviews the 2006 Downtown Parking Garage Survey that he mapped and organized for BTOP. The survey gave BTOP credibility as a citizen group in Bloomington, and it spawned debated over downtown parking in Bloomington.

Buff Brown's alarm clock buzzed at 4:30 a.m. the entire week of Sept. 26 to Oct. 2, 2006. He woke up and got dressed each day before he started the task that required him to wake so early, surveying downtown Bloomington's three parking garages.

Brown, the founder and president of Bloomington Transportation Options for People (BTOP), chose the 5 a.m. shift to survey how many cars were parked in the parking garages.

"At 5 a.m. it was pretty dead, and it was dark and cold," said Brown of his survey experience. "There was a cleaning guy the first day at one of the garages who saw me and asked me what I was doing, and after that he didn't bother me for the rest of the week."

What Brown was doing was gathering data that went into BTOP's groundbreaking 2006 Downtown Parking Garage Survey. This survey's results generated a community discussion about downtown parking. But the discussion has not transformed into tangible actions, according to Brown and BTOP.

The results

BTOP's survey addressed Bloomington's three downtown parking garages, which are the Fourth Street Garage, the Seventh and Walnut Garage, and the Morton Street Garage. The survey mapped each parking spot in all three garages, and data was collected in four different shifts.

The motivation for BTOP's survey came from a walk that Brown randomly did during the fall 2006. An advocate for alternative transportation who calls himself an environmentalist, Brown kept hearing from his involvement in different citizen groups that the garages did not provide enough downtown parking.

"I went through the garage, and it was empty," he said. "Less than half of the spaces were full on a workday."

Fine Light Strategic Marketing Communications, an advertising company housed in downtown Bloomington, had proposed building an office building at the corner of Kirkwood and Washington and wanted the city to build an adjacent parking garage on the corner of Fourth and Washington. BTOP's survey helped spawn the discussion about downtown parking and the need for that garage.

The data found that at peak times just over half of the parking spaces in all three garages were being used. This information conflicted with the long waiting list of citizens who wanted parking passes to park in the garages. According to Brown, this list held over 400 names of citizens who wanted passes.

Photograph by Katheryn Wickham

Almost-empty parking garage floors, like this one at the Seventh and Walnut Garage, sparked Buff Brown to create BTOP's survey about Bloomington's parking garages.

It also disclaimed Fine Light and others who complained of limited parking downtown in garages and on the streets. The three garages contain 1,242 spaces, roughly 600 of which were not being used on a regular basis, according to BTOP's survey results.

The survey created such a buzz that the Mayor Mark Kruzan postponed action on the Fourth and Washington garage and hired Walker Parking Consultants from Indianapolis to conduct research on parking in downtown Bloomington. Walker's results mirrored BTOP's, and further community discussion followed concerning the garages and downtown.

Government action

The downtown parking conflict and underutilized garage space did not surprise Deputy Mayor James McNamara. McNamara had been aware before BTOP's survey that many spaces were "economically occupied" but not physically used by Bloomington drivers. He said that REI, the property management company from Indianapolis that the city contracted to manage the three garages, has improved the parking situation.

"REI has helped us move from reserved individual parking spaces to a much greater reliance on non-reserved permits," said McNamara. "These permits guarantee parking but just not in a specific space."

REI's assistance and management of the parking situation has decreased the waiting list for parking spaces, according to REI Account Manager Gary Thompson.

BTOP's survey said that decreasing the waiting list and better management are ways to address the parking problem.

Other ways, according to McNamara, would be increased uses of alternative transportation, such as the bus system and a possible trolley.

"The city has also budgeted for the purchase of a downtown trolley," said McNamara. "If operational, the trolley could reduce automobile trips by moving people around the downtown."

Council view

Steve Volan, District 6 city council member, would like to see this trolley downtown, along with metered street parking in the future. Volan knew about the parking "situation" because the garages are in his council district. The survey results from both BTOP and Walker confirmed Volan's opinions on parking garages and their use. Volan would like parking to not be subsidized.

"If we're going to subsidize anything," he said, "it should be our bus service, our sidewalks, and bicycle parking."

BTOP's survey, along with subsequent studies, have allowed Volan to better justify his opinions about downtown parking and use. He opposes more cars downtown and is an advocate for alternative transportation.

"Parking is the lowest and worst use of land," he said. "It only encourages more cars at the expense of all other forms of transit, which are more efficient uses of natural resources and better for public health."

BTOP: Not enough

Brown and BTOP agree with both these city officials. But Brown would like more than consensus about parking. He would like change. He specifically is disappointed with the mayor's response in the parking issues downtown.

"The mayor needs to pull together the interested parties and create a solution to make these things happen fast and successful," Brown said about downtown parking changes. "Their (the government's) policies continue to help drivers."

This aid to drivers some BTOP members, like Eve Corrigan, the outreach director who wants to make parking cost more to the driver. Corrigan surveyed the garages with Brown in 2006 for BTOP.

Brown and BTOP's mission is to facilitate alternative transportation in Bloomington, like walking and bicycling. He would like to make downtown transportation more difficult for car owners. Changing parking methods is one of these changes.

But Brown's visions have yet to be fully appreciated by the government.

"I still feel that the mayor doesn't understand parking," he said. "We have made some steps in the right direction, but more in the wrong direction."

Katheryn Wickham is a sophomore at the IU School of Journalism from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at .