Study: Parking Shortage Not The Issue In Chatham

by Alan Pollock
A community service officer helps a motorist parallel park on Main Street last summer. FILE PHOTO A community service officer helps a motorist parallel park on Main Street last summer. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – If you’ve ever driven downtown and couldn’t find a parking spot, the problem wasn’t a lack of spaces. Trouble is, you didn’t drive quite far enough.

Parking data collected by the Cape Cod Commission on four busy days last summer showed a clear trend: even when parking lots closest to downtown were filled beyond capacity, plenty of parking spaces could be had at outlying lots like the ones at Chatham Elementary School on Depot Road.

“It’s clear to me we have enough spaces, but we don’t have enough utilization,” select board member Dean Nicastro said.

On Nov. 3, the town’s parking solutions working group heard an update from Cape Cod Commission Senior Transportation Planner David Nolan, who showed preliminary data for the Chatham Parking and Circulation Study. Requested by the town and funded by state and federal transportation programs, the study officially began on Oct. 1.

“But we did jump on the ball for data collection this summer, knowing peak season of course, that’s when everything’s happening in downtown Chatham,” Nolan said. “We wanted to make sure that we had the data to work with once this project really began.”

Commission staff visited the downtown area and photographed various parking lots, taking note of the state of parking lines, signs, parking patterns and violations and other factors. On July 3, staff sat on the lawn of the Methodist Church to count pedestrians passing by, and over 12 hours observed more than 6,000 people walking in each direction. Researchers also installed a pedestrian counter — a small black box — on a utility pole near 569 Main St. and tallied pedestrians between June 30 and Aug. 27.

“We basically have data from this entire summer from this specific point on Main Street,” Nolan said. The device tallied more than 341,000 people passing. “That’s only counting one side of the road,” he added. On July 2, just over 11,000 people passed the counter. On the slowest day, a rainy July 12, more than 2,500 people still passed.

The parking data was of most interest to the working group, however. Staff members conducted hourly counts of vehicles in around a dozen lots and parking areas on four days, providing a detailed picture of where downtown visitors were parking. The first day was Friday, July 28, when there was a Chatham Anglers game and the band concert. The lots at the town offices, Kate Gould Park, the community center and Veterans Field were filled to capacity at times, with the Veterans Field lot at 140 percent of capacity at 6 p.m. But for most hours of this day, parking remained available at the Eldredge Garage lot and on the front and side lots of Chatham Elementary School.

Saturday, Aug. 5 had a craft fair at the community center, with the same downtown lots going over capacity, but with spaces available at the school. Crews returned on Monday, Aug. 7, when Mondays on Main was taking part, and found that the lots closest to the downtown area were over capacity at times. “I was not expecting a Monday to be as busy as a Saturday,” Nolan said.

Finally, crews returned on Tuesday, Aug. 22, when there were no special events taking place downtown. “It was a generic summer day, middle of the week, where maybe not much was going on,” Nolan said. “And it was still very, very busy in downtown Chatham.” Again, the most popular lots were filled to capacity, but there was space at Veterans Field and at the elementary school.

“There’s a lot of these outer lots that had a lot of room for folks to be parking in. Like the school, the railroad museum area, the Veterans Field lot, the community center, had a lot of availability that day,” he said. The challenge is to get motorists to those lots, “and then get them into downtown. That’s a parking management strategy that we want to be able to look at,” Nolan said.

Members of the parking working group praised Nolan and his team for their careful data collection, even if it mostly reinforced what they already knew.

“We do have some parking capacity, especially in the height of the summer, but not necessarily right downtown,” select board member Jeffrey Dykens said. “My mantra has been, for a number of years now, to get a shuttle system in place and utilize those outlying areas to get folks downtown.”

“The data corroborates the suspicions of all of us as to what’s really happening,” fellow board member Dean Nicastro said.

Working group member Dee Dee Holt noted that the well-utilized lots behind the Chatham Squire and the Orpheum Theater are not owned by the town.

“Is there any guarantee that the property owners won’t exercise their right to use that property only for their customers?” she asked.

“We haven’t seen that at this point in time, but they could certainly do that,” Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan said.

The unpaved parking lot at Veterans Field has no lines or lights and would be better utilized with those improvements, working group member Joan Craig added. “That’s something I hope we could look at in the future,” she said. She also urged Nolan and his staff to consider the issue of off-site parking for downtown employees, which was tried unsuccessfully. “They’re not willing to walk the distance,” she said.

The Cape Cod Commission study remains in its early stages, with staff and town officials analyzing alternatives for parking and traffic, in preparation for a review of the alternatives next spring, followed by a large public meeting to “get a sense from the community what they’d like to see done in downtown Chatham,” Nolan said. The draft report will be prepared by next summer, with a final draft complete before Sept. 30.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t have some smaller recommendations possibly heading into the summer, if there’s some management strategies the town would like to try out going into this 2024 summer season,” he said.

Nolan said he expects to provide an update to the working group again in January or February.

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