“Parking is not free”. Except when it is. And it WAS in my town until two years ago when the city installed meters throughout the downtown area, changing the landscape forever like a giant coin operated meteor hurdling into town.
After two years of living with the changes, the city in which I live recently created a Parking Commission whose job it is to study and report to the city council on issues related to parking, particularly downtown. I interviewed for this commission but was not named as one of its members. That said, I will offer my own thoughts on the parking situation and will continue to do so because of its dramatic effect on my own personal and professional life, as well as that of those around me.
The city gave the usual arguments for the meters when they were being considered. Turning over cars in the spaces. Socially engineering the town to reduce the number of cars driving in it. Forcing people into the garages. Of course ultimately it was all about the money, and they were right in their predictions. The city has made millions in revenue on the meters since their installation.
Cities talk about the money they make from the meters to show they are successful and people are continuing to park regardless of their presence. What is always hidden in that are the costs, both direct and hidden. As for direct costs, the city buries the costs of both the meters themselves (including maintenance) and the enforcement of the meters. Even costs such as electricity to run the meters, snow removal to uncover them, even cleaning costs from bird damage is covered up and buried. But not all costs are so obvious. Since the meters have been put in, there has been turnover of over half the shops on the courthouse square downtown. Most of the owners of the shuttered businesses place blame largely on the loss of customers following the meter installation. Even those that remain open, including large chains, report significant loss in revenues following the meters’ installation. I would encourage the city to be more transparent in its finances on this issue and to conduct a more thorough study among the downtown businesses. It is difficult to analyze the issue properly when the data is so hard to come by.
One of the original issues in parking was a symptom of having the county courthouse downtown. Because free two-hour parking was available, many county employees (of which there are over 200), would park on the street and move their cars every two hours to avoid a ticket. Locals even created a name for this: “the two hour shuffle”. It was like roaches scurrying away after someone shined a flashlight on the county courthouse.
One major issue that has contributed to the growth of the downtown parking issue is the explosive growth of the student-oriented apartments downtown. These apartments are not built with enough spaces to provide a parking space for each unit, and many who have cars ultimately house them on the street. The city has given the entire student housing market (read: developers) a boost by approving a never-ending stream of these buildings. I can look out my downtown office window and see three under construction as I type this. Because of these developments, parking downtown is likely to worsen before it improves.
Another issue with downtown parking was that the city built several garages which were costing more than they were bringing in and were largely underutilized. The city blamed the ability to park for free on the street for no one paying to use the garages for long term parking. The city’s solution, after putting in the parking meters, was to allow limited free parking in the garages. But not uniformly. One garage never had free parking. One was free for three hours before 6PM and always free after and on weekends, and another was free for three hours until 6PM. Makes perfect sense in government logic. Of course it confused the residents and visitors alike.
The city itself admitted that the garages were underutilized when the discussion on whether to approve the meters was happening. The garages sat more than half empty nearly all day because they were not free, while people would circle the blocks to look for free street spaces. Therefore, there never really was a parking shortage problem, it was always a parking utilization problem. Even today, several of the city’s lots and garages sit partially unused. The city could easily have cracked down on the free parking without eliminating it. Had the city created a “parking zone” that included the area where the meters are currently located, it could have limited parking to, for example, three hours of total parking in the zone, which would have stopped the “two hour shuffle” roaches and pushed them to the garages.
The city provides parking to its workers at city hall for the price of a $2 parking pass. This pass enables them unlimited parking at the city hall regardless of whether they are working. The county recently spent $9 million of taxpayer funds to build a parking garage solely for the county employees who now could not scurry out of their offices multiple times a day to park for free on the street because the city installed the meters, but instead were forced to either pay to park in the aforementioned underused garages, or continue to park for free three blocks away at the convention center. I am still waiting on the free “downtown office worker” garage for the rest of the taxpayers who work downtown and are now both paying for their own parking and subsidizing that of the government employees who can do so for free (or nearly free).
I expect the meters will remain in place for the foreseeable future. In doing so, I hope that the city can be more transparent in how the money is being spent. The first reason given for their installation was the ongoing expense of the garages. I would expect that the profits from the meters be poured into maintenance and upkeep of roads, and working to pay the garages down to the point of ultimately providing them as a free resource for local citizens to park long term, or at least as a place that employees downtown can apply for fee waivers to park there for free.
I have never paid a parking meter here. I do not pay parking meters, as I already pay for the street and the spaces painted on them via my property taxes. If the only parking in an area is metered, I go elsewhere. Or I go home and shop on Amazon and the local economy misses out altogether. I am not alone in this thinking. Parking meters tell the wrong story. It says this town cares less about the residents, visitors, and storekeepers than it does its own bank account. It sends a message loud and clear to casual visitors that “You are welcome here only if you pay, and only for a short time.” Let’s rethink the whole idea of meters and parking and welcome back those literally driven away by their presence.