I’ve recently read ‘Walkable City’ by Jeff Speck. It’s a great book with a lot of information and inspiration about how to create more walkable places. There is chapter in the book entitled ‘Getting the Parking Right’. When creating a walkable urban environment, it is extremely important to ‘get the parking right’, and many of our communities have been getting it wrong for decades at the expense of the pedestrian. Jeff acknowledges Donald Shoup as being the inspiration for much of the information in the chapter. Donald Shoup is a parking ‘guru’ who has written a book called ‘The High Cost of Free Parking’ which goes into great detail (in 751 pages) on how we’ve been getting parking wrong, and what we need to do to get it right.
Jeff spends a good deal of the chapter discussing the economics of parking. Because parking is so plentiful and, more often than not, free, most of us take it for granted and assume it must cost little to build and maintain. As Jeff points out, this is far from the truth. Parking is expensive to construct, especially when it is structured parking, and maintain. A space in a surface parking lot on inexpensive land costs about $4,000 and parking space in a structured parking garage can cost over $15,000 per space. And land in most urban locations, even a small town like Sebastopol, is not inexpensive; it’s generally some of the most expensive land in a community. And the long and the short of it is we all end up paying for these costs, even if we do not use it. Developers do not build parking spaces and donate them. They pass the cost on to the tenants who then pass on the costs to their clients. We all end up subsidizing the ‘free’ parking when we shop in a business with a parking lot, even if we walked or biked. Maintenance of public parking lots and street parking comes from the city’s coffers. So a portion of your tax dollars are used to subsidize the ‘free’ parking whether or not you ever use a public parking space. As Speck writes, ‘People who walk, bike or take transit are bankrolling those who drive. In so doing, they are making driving cheaper and thus more prevalent, which in turn undermines the quality of walking, biking and transit.’ It becomes a downward spiral.
Now obviously there are other city services my tax dollars pay for that I do not necessarily benefit directly from. I hope to never need to use the fire department, for example, but I’m happy my tax dollars go to the support of one. But parking is an easy ‘service’ the city can change to a fee-for-use format rather than fully subsidizing. People don’t expect city provided water service to be free. I may grumble about the cost, but I pay my water/sewer bill each month, based on the amount I use and I’m happy that city water is available. Why should I have to support someone the parking habits of drivers when I walk or ride my bike around town?
It is generally assumed that merchants will do all they can to prevent the implementation of paid parking whether it be street parking or parking lots. They are concerned that as they compete for clients with suburban shopping centers with seas of free parking that they will lose business. Jeff discusses the situation of Old Pasadena and Westwood Village in his book. Both these shopping districts, located in Southern California were economically challenged in the 1980’s. In the early ’90’s, Old Pasadena installed 690 new parking meters and it allowed developers to pay in-lieu fees in support of municipal parking lots rather they build the parking required for their projects themselves. While the merchants of Old Pasadena were originally vehemently against the installation of the meters and the elimination of free parking the change was the beginning of a revival of the neighborhood. The city committed to spending the revenue from the meters on physical improvements and services in Old Pasadena. Millions of dollars a year were put into improving sidewalks, new lighting, landscaping and street furniture. As evidence that the meters were not in fact keeping shoppers away, sales tax revenue tripled the first six years after the meters were installed. Westwood Village’s response was to cut the price of on-street parking and enforce its ‘replacement parking’ policy which requires developers building on a parking lot to both meet their parking requirement in addition to replacing half of the removed spaces. This effectively makes redevelopment cost-prohibitive forcing construction of expensive parking garages in an area with a demonstrated over-supply of parking.
I do not believe that making drivers pay for parking would harm business in downtown Sebastopol in the least. It is a desirable and unique shopping experience and people in the area are very committed to shopping locally and supporting our local businesses and would continue to do so even if required to pay a nominal parking fee. And we continue to attract more tourist traffic which would not avoid Sebastopol if they were required to pay to park. If the money collected by the city for parking were put into improving sidewalks and crosswalks, installing nice lighting and landscaping and put into a fund that would be available to businesses for facade improvement grants, or low-interest loans it would be a huge benefit for the community in the creation of a more pedestrian-friendly experience which would most certainly translate to increased business at downtown merchants.
A central argument by Shoup and Speck is that parking should function based on free-market principles of supply and demand. They propose to set the cost of parking to influence the behavior of people who drive. Parking, they suggest, should be priced such that the cost of parking should be set at a level such that an occupancy rate of 80% is established. This would allow that 1 or 2 spaces per block would be available at all times which would reduce the amount of time (and gas) people spend looking for parking. In many communities people are willing to circle in search of the inexpensive street parking space. This increases congestion and pollution and decreases the safety of pedestrians due to more cars on the road (plus the fact drivers looking for parking seem to be so focused on their mission that they tend to ignore pedestrians even more than usual). San Francisco is experimenting with a system that prices public parking in response to demand. SFPark has been adjusting rates at 7,000 parking meters and 12,250 parking garage spaces in response to demand with the goal to encourage drivers to park in underused areas reducing demand in overused areas.
In Sebastopol, all parking is free, but people still spend time circling looking for the closest parking space to their destination, rather than park in a parking lot where they are all but assured of getting a parking space. Preferred parking lots are the lot around the plaza, the North High Street lot adjacent to the library and the South Main Street/Burnett Street lot and of course the street spaces on the 2 center blocks of Main Street. There are 2 public parking lots in Sebastopol that pretty much always have availability, South High Street and the lot behind the Chamber of Commerce. They are both located toward the southern edge of what I would call the downtown core of Sebastopol, but certainly within a 5-10 minute walk of most downtown destinations. A parking study undertaken by the city in 2011 showed that these lots have an average occupancy of 22% and 10% respectively. The only parking lot with an average usage above 80% is the plaza parking lot (87%).
I almost always see vacant spaces downtown, in lots and on the street, but people do complain that parking is difficult here. To those people I say, park in the South High Street or Chamber parking lots and you will find a space. Years of parking in suburban parking lots have led to a belief that we should be able to park adjacent to any destination. Even though we are willing to walk 200′ or more from a parking space at Costco, then another 1,000′ or more walking to the back of the store and back to the register and then 200′ back to our car, for some reason, walking the same distance from the South High Street or Chamber parking lots to the Main commercial block of Main Street seems ‘too far’. I suppose this is part of what defines us as Americans.
As happens far too often in our communities, our parking system favors convenience for the automobile driver at the expense of the pedestrian. Surface parking lots, parking garages and driveways are detrimental in the creation of good walkable places. Surface parking lots are particularly deadly in the impact they have on the pedestrian. Streetscapes need to be interesting to keep the pedestrian engaged and there is not much less interesting than walking along the edge of a parking lot. Surface parking lots create dead zones that discourage pedestrian crossing. A commercial street with surface parking on its frontage creates a dead zone that pedestrians will avoid to the detriment to the businesses on the opposite side of the parking lot. Surface parking lots spread out destinations making it further to walk between destinations.
Parking needs to be carefully considered when trying to create a walkable/bikeable/transit friendly environment. Too often we require suburban parking standards in these areas to the detriment of the pedestrian experience. Parking needs to be looked at wholistically, and should be made available and priced to reflect the market demands for it. Too often our communities are overparked and underpriced because that is what we’ve been doing for years. And because lack of parking availability is such a common complaint city leaders are often adverse to doing anything that might be construed as to be anti-parking. Even in light of the parking study in Sebastopol that showed less than 80% average occupancy in almost all the city lots some city leaders feel we need more parking.We must change our parking policies so that they support communities designed to the benefit of people and not cars.