Parking: The Bigger Picture

The City of Evanston has increased parking rates, in case you haven’t heard, and swapped out coin-fed individual meters with Pay-by-Plate boxes and a smart phone parking app. It’s caused a bit of a stir. The hourly rate for on-street parking and the method of payment are changing at the same time.  While the method of payment may still need tweaking, the increased price of parking is consistent with our collective goals of increasing access to the downtown by walking, bicycling and transit and yes, fighting climate change. Read on to understand why.

Many Americans feel entitled to endless quantities of free or cheap parking in the city centers, convinced that it is the primary driver of economic activity. The idea of reducing a downtown’s parking supply, charging (more) for it and enforcing it seem like un-American ideas. However, we now know that city centers function best, economically and otherwise, when they are served by all modes of travel.

On-street and garage parking, particularly in the downtown, is a public asset -- just like the beach, like the ice-skating rinks, like all city-owned facilities and city-run programs. In well-run, financially-responsible cities, with destination downtowns, like Evanston, parking supplies should be highly managed and fairly enforced. Downtowns should also prioritize and continually improve access by other modes of travel, i.e. walking, bicycling, transit use -- making them the nicest, easiest, safest, and cheapest ways by which to access the downtown.

This complete streets approach is good for business. Evanston is lucky. We have a relatively dense (older) development pattern, a mostly-complete sidewalk network, neighborhood schools that kids can walk to, two train lines, bus transit, bicycle facilities and a destination downtown for shopping, employment, service and entertainment. We also have a limited supply of parking. It is up to the City to manage this important asset carefully, discourage traffic congestion and also try to support local businesses, which are already threatened by online retail. Downtowns designed for walking, bicycling, and as a result transit users, can actually promote more economic activity by coaxing customers out of their cars before reaching their destinations, reducing the perceived distances between destinations, and extending the length of a trip to the downtown.

Cheap parking is not a solution. Parking pricing is a entire research field of its own but in short, cities strive to find the right balance between the number of parking spots available in a zone at any given time and the “magic” rate to charge: the rate that maximizes revenue, keeps the target number of parking spots open without discouraging trips to the downtown and without creating unwanted traffic congestion. Free or cheap parking results in fewer parking spots available, which results in cars circulating while looking for a parking spot, causing excess traffic congestion,  frustration for drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists and more pollution.

The right amount of parking at the right price is a balancing act. For thriving downtowns with a very high demand for parking, (we are all familiar with Chicago) hourly rates can be $6-$10 at a meter. In the centers of world-class cities that are highly-served by transit and bicycle infrastructure, on-street parking is on its way out (see Amsterdam’s new plan) and in small towns with struggling downtowns, parking is ample and typically free. In cities like Evanston, it’s a careful balancing act, but we are moving in the right direction as we try to increase the walkability, and bike-friendliness of our downtown. Too many cars downtown make our roads less safe for pedestrians (transit users) and cyclists, take up *a lot* of valuable room, contribute to climate change and generally decrease public health and livability. Yes, businesses need customers and many of those customers arrive downtown in a car. Businesses also need high rates of turnover in parking, meaning particularly for on-street parking, that the rates charged should discourage parking for longer than is necessary and keep spots turning over for new customers. Our parking pricing is still in the sweet spot for similarly-sized cities and it is this author’s opinion that if you have the opportunity to choose how you travel to the downtown, you should consider the impacts of parking for the whole community and possibly make a parking space available for someone who has fewer choices than yourself, if only on that day in that place.  

We need to walk the talk on Climate Change. In December of last year, City Council adopted the Climate Action and Resiliency Plan setting a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. The transportation sector accounts for about ⅓ of all greenhouse gas emissions; reducing our dependence on private automobiles while increasing the number of trips made on sustainable modes of travel is the key. See this recent CityLab article for more on that. So, it finally time for us to make some tough choices. Are we really committed to changing our behaviors? Even when it means paying a little more for parking or allotting a little more time for travel? Climate change is going to force us to consider our choices carefully, try something new and probably forego some amount of comfort and convenience; and unfortunately, because we humans are sometimes flawed and don’t always make the right choice, there are incentives and disincentives to help us, like paid parking.

There is room for improvement. The City needs to address a number of issues resulting from the new payment methods and might consider other improvements to the parking program in the future.

  • Merchants are concerned. Best practices recommend using a portion of increased revenue from the parking fund (hourly charges and enforcement) to improve the walkability &  bike and transit-friendliness of a downtown to assure business owners and residents that although parking is becoming more expensive, other ways of accessing downtown are improving and they are less expensive (free) and sustainable. The City should think big on this topic. How can the streets, sidewalks, transit shelters and stations -- even the access to parking structures support pedestrian and bicycle access as the *preferred* mode?
  • Reported lag-times between paying for parking with the app and the enforcement team’s receipt of that payment need to be reduced or eliminated.
  • The City ordinance that bans parking within the same parking zone in a 24-hour period needs to be amended. (It’s not the App that created this problem - it’s just that the App has made enforcement of this ordinance easier.)
  • Shoppers do not need a car parked close to their destination to shop but they may need a car to pick up their purchases, such as furniture. The City should work with merchants to create strategic loading zones or off-street access for customers to load large purchases.
  • Now that individual meters are a thing of the past, the City may also be able to consider seasonal parking rates, which could make parking rates a little lower in the winter, when walking and bicycling are a little less pleasant and stores often report a drop in sales. This kind of dynamic pricing (based on seasonality, time-of-day, or other changes in demand) is being piloted by bigger cities, like San Francisco, and it is made possible by the upgraded technology of pay-boxes.
  • The removal of individual meters will probably result in a shortage of ad-hoc bicycle parking; The City might consider using some of the increased revenue from parking to add attractive, functional and convenient bicycle parking.
  • The City should consider making a third hour of parking possible for on-street parking in certain locations at the edges of the downtown area, at a higher rate to cover the App’s service charge.  The App’s ability to extend your parking window and collect more money could serve this purpose well.
  • Finally, there is a need to be patient during this learning phase, while people memorize their license plate numbers and get a little quicker at the pay-box. For now, if you use the app - prepare yourself for service charges for shorter parking durations but the app can be quicker (and warmer in your car during certain months.)

If your appetite for information and research about parking policy continues after reading this, I encourage you to read the famous book (ok, relatively-speaking) by Donald Shoup, “The High Cost of Free Parking.” It does an excellent job of explaining the full costs of parking and how those costs have been subsidized by public and private entities for decades, at the expense of a sustainable, multimodal transportation system.

Posted by Vickie Jacobsen