While many people and businesses are happy that the parking meter program downtown has been suspended, everyone seems to have forgotten why it was implemented in the first place: to reduce congestion downtown and make it easier to find a place to park.
As a 2008 downtown parking study determined, parking availability wasn’t necessarily the problem (there were 6000 recorded parking spaces in Downtown Charlottesville, of which about 5,000 (84%) were off-street and about 1,000 (16%) were on-street, and 1,200 were private )— the free two-hour on-street parking spaces were. As the study pointed out, commuters and other long-stay visitors were creating a problem for short-stay visitors, i.e. shoppers, eaters, concert goers, etc. because they were monopolizing the “two-hour” free on-street spaces. Indeed, the study found that the two-hour spaces exceeded 85% occupancy during the day and that 20% stayed over the two-hour limit and that 10% of those using the two-hour spaces were either performing the ‘two-hour shuffle’ or staying in the same space for four hours or more. “Although these are a relatively small proportion of the vehicles, their all-day presence gives them a disproportionate impact on parking occupancy. At the busiest times of day, more than 30% of the two- hour spaces are occupied by these people,” the study said.
And that was nearly 10 years ago.
Back in the 1990s you could walk across Market Street when it was one-way without even looking, parking was a total non-issue, and everyone you ran into you knew. But that has changed dramatically. The downtown area has flourished, has become a real urban center, and with that, like all urban centers, parking has become a serious issue. Today, during peak times, you’ll have serious trouble finding free on-street parking on the Market Street side of the DTM. And that wasn’t the case just a few years ago.
This is a problem that is not going to go away, and will only get worse, as long as the DTM continues to be a popular destination and the allure of free street parking remains.
As many parking studies have shown, and Yale economist and parking issue guru Donald Shoup has pointed out, having free parking available (in the midst of a lot of pay lots and garages) creates an incentive at odds with reducing downtown congestion and making it easier to find a space to park, simply because when free parking is available people will go out of their way to find it, which promotes “cruising” around looking for one, and provides an incentive to avoid those pay lots and garages. It’s not unlike selling something in a grocery story, like Thanksgiving turkeys, only on one aisle they cost $10 and on another aisle they are free. Not an economically sensible way to move those Turkeys, and a sure-fire way to cause congestion and chaos in the free turkey aisle.
Indeed, the 2008 parking study determined that “in a busy, desirable downtown such as Charlottesville….it is difficult to provide both (a) free on-street parking and (b) assurance that customers and visitors can always find a convenient space. Charging for the most convenient spaces provides the most effective tool for managing the system and ensuring spaces are available.”
Of course, the 2008 study provided an option to keep the free street parking, by implementing inner and outer parking zones with different time limits and penalties, but pointed out that the city would “not gain the ability to manage on- street parking availability through a price mechanism…and that enforcement would be the only available mechanism for discouraging the two-hour shuffle.”
The other option, charging for on-street parking, was “more complicated to implement and would require an up-front investment in ticket machines or meters,” the study determined, “but would provide a revenue stream to fund parking management and potentially other downtown enhancements; would provide a way to manage on-street parking availability, thus ensuring that drivers can find a space easily; and would discourage commuters from using on-street spaces that are needed for shoppers and visitors.”
“Charging too much or too little for on-street parking can cause a lot of harm,” says parking expert Shoup in a recent interview. “ If the price is too high and many curb spaces are vacant, adjacent businesses will lose customers, employees will lose jobs, and cities will lose tax revenue. If the price is too low and no curb spaces are vacant, drivers searching for a place to park will congest traffic, waste fuel, and pollute the air. Consequently, the right price for curb parking is the lowest price that can keep a few spaces open to allow convenient access. This is the Goldilocks principle of parking prices—not too high, not too low, but just right.”
Shoup also mentions new technology we should think about, like San Francisco’s SFpark pricing program, which establishes price based on demand. The system adjusts parking prices every six weeks in response to occupancy data, charging more for peak times and less for down times.
“With conventional parking meters, the price stays the same throughout the day but the occupancy rate varies,” says Shoup. “ With dynamic parking meters, the prices vary but the occupancy rate stays the same—one or two spaces are open. Goldilocks prices will give all drivers great parking karma, and will guarantee front-door access to all businesses.”
Again, while we won’t have to feed parking meters this year, without a plan the downtown parking situation is not going to get better.