A few weeks back, the Carrboro Aldermen held a discussion about parking, mostly pertaining to downtown. After some debate, the sense of the Board majority (though not all Board members) was that it is better to encourage aggressive private towing — instead of having anyone pay for public parking at any time.
This is unfortunate, since there is a much better parking management alternative that:
- Gives visitors to downtown more choice in how long they shop
- Costs taxpayers less to enforce than enforcing free 2-hour parking
- Prevents all-day Park & Ride Parking to UNC in town lots
- Makes it possible to find a lot with many open spaces online or by smartphone
- Makes it more likely that visitors to downtown find a space easily
- Reduces cruising for parking which leads to increased congestion and emissions downtown
- Generates potential revenue for improvements that expand non-auto access to downtown
- Helps generate revenue for businesses with parking when their business is closed
The alternative I am referring to is called Performance Parking Pricing.
Performance Parking Pricing – How It Works
Performance Parking Pricing starts with the following three principles:
- The ideal utilization of any group of parking spaces is 80-85% full and 15-20% empty, because this leaves enough spaces to help anyone entering a parking lot, parking deck, or on-street row of spaces to quickly find a space and START SPENDING MONEY at local businesses instead of cruising around looking for a space.
- You set the price per hour to the lowest price you can charge, INCLUDING FREE — and still have 15-20% of spaces open.
- If a block of parking spaces is consistently more than 80-85% full in a given time period, you RAISE the hourly price for that time period. If the block of spaces are consistently less than 80-85% full, you LOWER the hourly price for that time period.
Technology has advanced to make monitoring the number of free spaces in real time quite inexpensive, and text-enabled mobile phones, smartphones, and on-street kiosks make it easy to use.
Benefits of Performance Parking Pricing: For Shoppers
There are many benefits that Performance Parking Pricing has over trying to enforce 2-hour limits on free parking spaces. Imagine you’ve come to downtown Carrboro to do some shopping and have parked in a public lot. You shop for about 1.5 hours, and then run into a friend you haven’t seen in a while. They ask you to get lunch at one of downtown’s sit-down restaurants. “Sorry, I can’t- I’m going to get towed in 30 minutes unless I move my car.” With a smartphone or single text message, you could extend your parking downtown by one hour and not have to walk back to your car to do so. You get to enjoy lunch with your friend. And a restaurant gets another customer.
Benefits of Performance Parking Pricing: Customer Turnover for Businesses
With the coming pricing of Chapel Hill Transit Park & Ride lots, town officials are correct to be concerned that downtown public parking lots will be used by commuters to the UNC campus. Maximum parking time limits during class hours on weekdays can significantly deter park/ride activity, but fewer parking attendants can be deployed since the pricing encourages people to watch their time, and smart sensors can alert parking staff to violators so that tickets can be issued quickly.
Benefits of Performance Parking Pricing: Costs to Taxpayers
Enforcement costs money. A decision to enforce parking rules without adding revenue either adds cost to town budgets, or redirects employees who have other duties at present. I’m grateful that crime is much less common in Carrboro than other communities. But do we want to take police away from more important duties to enforce two-hour time limits? If not, the town will likely need to hire new staff. Mayor Chilton was quoted in a recent WCHL story saying:
“if you mess up so bad that you get a parking ticket in the Town of Carrboro, there is nothing that I can do to help you.”
This suggests that current parking enforcement in Carrboro is somewhere between non-existent and very lax. I personally do not think I have seen a single parking ticket on a windshield in the twelve years I have lived here. Inconsistency in enforcement of any rule tends to lead to non-compliance, which means when enforcement begins, more people will be surprised to get ticketed or towed, which means more people will have bad experiences and unmet expectations about visiting downtown. Vigorous enforcement will be needed to break habits and that will not be free to the town budget.
Implementing a parking system like this, of course, also has costs- but pricing brings REVENUE to recoup the cost of the system, and after that point has been passed, the system can generate revenue for the town to improve access to downtown by means other than the private automobile.
Benefits of Performance Parking Pricing: Much Better Than Encouraging Towing
There are lots of reasons to prefer parking pricing over towing. Here are just a few:
- Outsourcing enforcement to the private sector. The Town can use its regulations to promote turnover in public lots by towing vehicles, but any revenue generated by motorists who violate town rules winds up going to tow companies and not the Town. With the Town managing pricing, violation fines can be put to public purposes, such as running buses later in the evening on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, making it easier to get downtown without a car in the first place.
- Towing is generally much more expensive than a parking ticket to a shopper who violates the rules. Chapel Hill has recent experience with some of the towing firms that are likely to “serve” downtown Carrboro that may be instructive, with tow fees reaching up to $250! We don’t want people to monopolize public parking downtown and prevent it from turning over for new customers, and enforcement should send them a signal that they should behave differently. But a parking ticket is a much better mechanism than towing, and can get the point across without gouging. There’s a big difference between a $50 ticket and your car is where you left it and a $250 tow fee and you have no idea where your vehicle is, and now you have to pay a cab to take you to a remote lot. Who’s more likely to return to downtown Carrboro to shop: the guy who drove home as planned and mailed in a $50 check to Town Hall, or the guy who had to find his car in the woods at 1 a.m. and fork over $200 cash, after the cab that drove him out to somewhere on NC 54 between here and Graham already left?
Benefits of Performance Parking Pricing: Give Local Businesses a Revenue Opportunity
The Daniel Building on West Weaver Street has a series of businesses that are almost all closed at night, and they have several parking spaces. Their sign discourages people from parking there who are not visiting those businesses. That’s their right and this is important during the day for Modern Fossil and others in the building, but generally not at night. If we had a town-wide parking system, the owners of The Daniel Building spaces could add some or all of their spaces to the Performance Parking Pricing pool, and generate revenue from their idle spaces at night, while also expanding the parking supply for late-evening downtown visitors patronizing Open Eye, Steel String, and Tyler’s.
Benefits of Performance Parking Pricing: Real-Time Parking Information
One of the most frustrating recurring parking problems I face in Carrboro is trying to park somewhere near Carrburritos at dinner time. You drive over there, and find that the four spots at Carrburritos are full. So you drive into the Rosemary Lot across the street from BowBarr, and you see a space! Just as you’re about to pull in, you realize it’s the one wheelchair accessible space in the lot and you turn around and drive out. As you exit, you pass someone with a hopeful look driving in, who not only saw a space, but sees you leaving, which means they think you vacated the space! Their hopes are similarly dashed moments later, and your hunt for parking continues, as your car continues to emit emissions and add congestion to the street grid.
Among some of the other benefits listed here, a Performance Parking Pricing system would by definition keep track of which lots in the system had spaces available, in REAL TIME. Many cities have data like this these days using systems like the ParkMe web and smartphone app.
Imagine driving to downtown Carrboro with a map like this that someone in the passenger seat could use as you drove there:
You’d never hunt for parking again because you’d know exactly where to go.
Benefits of Performance Parking Pricing: THERE WILL STILL BE FREE PARKING DOWNTOWN A GOOD DEAL OF THE TIME
Before completely moving on from the map above, notice the price for less than 1.5 hours in Santa Monica: FREE. There are plenty of days and times every week in downtown Carrboro where current lots are not 80% full even at zero cost and (let’s be honest here) pretty much zero enforcement. While adding pricing to high-demand locations at peak times will help fill under-used lots, under a Performance Parking Pricing strategy, lots that remain below 80% occupied at $0/hour stay priced at $0/hour. Until they go above 80% occupied, when it becomes difficult to guarantee an empty space to the next visitor, they would remain FREE.
Performance Parking Pricing vs More Enforcement of Time-Limited Free Parking: Summary
I recognize that for many people and business owners, the idea of paying for parking in a place where it has always been free represents a big shift in thinking about downtown Carrboro. But simply stating “we’re not ready to charge for parking” and saying we’re going to ramp up enforcement on two-hour parking limits doesn’t seem to do the two things that I think would bring merchants the most steady stream of customers, which are:
- making the process of finding parking EASIER for customers at high-demand times
- establishing a public policy that supports turnover of spaces for commerce
Returning to my Carrburritos example, I’m there enough to know that most people eating there are not staying longer than 1 to 1.5 hours. Even under strict enforcement of a 2-hour limit, all the challenges at the Rosemary Lot I described will almost certainly persist. The 2008 parking study also found that only about 20% of those parking downtown were staying longer than three hours. How many spaces can we really enforce to turnover if most people leave in under two hours anyhow? What if the real gain in spaces for businesses occurs by converting 60 minute downtown visits to 30-minute ones? Making the first 30 minutes free and the time after that paid? The first 60 minutes free? If either of these are true, then enforcing a two-hour limit will be a big waste of time.
What if the optimum time for people to stay downtown from a commerce point of view is a little over two hours? Now the scenario where someone comes downtown to visit one store and then decides to stay longer and get a meal can still get cut short by needing to go move their car, and a local restaurant just lost a customer. Maybe that’s why Santa Monica has their pricing set the way they do? Who knows. Maybe we should ask Town staff to talk to Santa Monica staff.
What I fear an enforcement-only approach means is that a commitment to free parking at all costs is just a guess at what will generate greater parking availability for businesses, and that it will be a costly one in terms of town funds, with no guarantee of actually making more parking available for customers. Beyond the financial aspect, it also looks like a commitment to continued extra cruising in and out of the Rosemary Lot when Carrburritos is slammed, and the same at the Century Center Lot on Thursday evenings when Weaver Street Market has an event. For a community that prides itself on accolades from the Sierra Club and similar organizations, it’s a commitment to extra greenhouse gas emissions that come from that extra cruising for parking. It’s a commitment to more traffic and congestion than necessary, and more time for people who WANT to spend money at downtown businesses to wait until they get to make a transaction while they hunt for spaces. Oh, and if they decide they want to stay longer and shop or dine for more than 120 minutes- sorry, they can’t make that choice legally without walking back to a lot and moving their car.
If simply “more enforcement” of two-hour limits is the answer of an alternative policy to pricing, then the Town should at least be clear about how much the Town budget and taxes might increase to pay for this additional enforcement, or detail which other activities by existing town staff in specific departments will be curtailed to redirect their energies towards parking enforcement.
Finally, there should be a clear metric to measure “success” in a greater-enforcement-but-still-free-public-parking environment downtown that doesn’t involve the number of cars ticketed or towed. If the goal is to have a greater number of spaces available at all times for customers patronizing downtown Carrboro businesses, then that’s what we should count. If anyone can think of a cheap, accurate, statistically viable way to do this without sensors, let me know.