Tag Archives: parking

Needed: The Right Parking Policies for a Growing Richmond

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by Stewart Schwartz

Editor’s Note:  The City of Richmond has launched a parking study focused on seven distinct areas of the city and is holding seven public meetings this week. Meeting dates and locations.

Parking is perhaps the most important aspect of a city to get right if we are going to address traffic, make housing more affordable, and create a sustainable, walkable, bikeable city. The City of Richmond is growing, but if it’s to grow without making traffic really bad, we need to get parking right. Too much parking, especially free or underpriced, will lead to more driving and traffic. Too much parking can also drive up building costs and housing prices, making it harder to provide housing affordable to the full range of our workforce.

As we grow, we need to provide good alternatives by expanding our transit system and adding more dedicated bus lanes over time, and adding bike lanes — especially protected ones, and make walking safer and interesting. Combine these with car sharing like Zipcar and Car2Go, taxis, and ride hailing like Uber and Lyft. With all of these options, you may not need a second car, and for some people, any car at all.

Cities around the U.S. are adopting a range of creative parking policies that combine both market-oriented and regulatory approaches to managing parking. These include:

1) Setting the right price for parking on the street so that there is good turnover in retail districts and 20% of spaces are rotating open at any one time.

2) Using residential parking permit programs but pricing the parking passes appropriately and adding car sharing options to the neighborhood.

3) Dropping use of parking minimums and putting in a maximum limit on number of spaces, while exempting small buildings from having to have any parking. Today our city actually has many zoning districts which actually do get parking right — without requiring too much.

4) Sharing parking between users — one example is daytime office parking used for nighttime entertainment parking.

5) Pricing all off-street parking in lots and structures and separating the rental of parking spaces from the apartment lease or condo purchase price, and from the office lease. This makes clear the high cost of providing parking and always results in lower demand.

6) Equalizing employee commute benefits — instead of just offering free or subsidized parking, an employer should also offer a transit pass benefit, or even a “parking cash out” where an employee offered a parking space can “cash it out” for an equal value in a transit pass + cash, or cash + walk or bike to work.

For a comprehensive presentation on modern parking policies, I recommend this presentation to the City of Portland, Oregon by Jeff Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard. Jeff is one of the premier national experts in parking policy. Or for the scientific and technical basis for changing a city’s parking policies, see UCLA Professor Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

If Richmond wants to maintain its quality of life as it grows, the city needs to get parking right. Hopefully, the ongoing study will lead to the adoption of the best combination of market-rate and policy solutions for our community.

Stewart Schwartz is a board member of the Partnership for Smarter Growth and executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Parking Space


Following up on thoughts in the previous post about what is to be done about the Washington Metro… Here is a basic maxim to remember: If we want more people to avail themselves of shared ridership, be it commuter rail, bus, or shared ride-hailing services, they need to pay the full cost of their transportation choices. At present, nobody pays the full cost. Just as mass transit is heavily subsidized, so is automobile mobility.

Here in Virginia, motorists pay a portion of what it costs to maintain and build new roads, bridges and highways through retail and wholesale taxes on gasoline. But they also pay taxes on the purchase of new cars, which is unrelated to how many miles they travel and the wear-and-tear they put on the road system. They also pay a sales tax, which has no connection to transportation at all.

Transportation funding is just the tip of the subsidy iceberg. The current system for allocating parking spaces represents another wealth transfer, and the subsidies are all the more insidious for being invisible. However, Donald Shoup, the nation’s foremost academic authority on parking, has published a new book that sheds light on those subsidies. I have not yet read the book, “Parking and the City,” but I crib here from a review in Public Square, a publication of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

The first nationally representative survey shows that urban garage parking is costly to renters, for example. “We find that the cost of bundled garage parking for renters is approximately $1,700 per year, and the bundling of a garage space adds about 17 percent to a unit’s rent,” CJ Gabbe and Gregory Pierce write in Chapter 11. This is true even though many of these renters don’t own cars, and many of these spaces go unused.

A study in San Francisco showed that off-street parking requirements make housing more expensive. Having off-street parking raised the average household income needed to qualify for a mortgage to $76,000, from $67,000. “If the parking requirements had not existed, 26,800 additional households could have afforded condominiums,” report Bill Chapin, Wenyu Jia, and Martin Wachs. Parking reform downtown and in several adjacent neighborhoods allowed for development with 60 percent less parking and a 30 percent reduction in the construction cost of dwelling units—“enough to allow for market-rate housing that is more in line with the typical San Francisco household’s income.”

As of 2009, the average value of a motor vehicle was $5,200. Yet the average cost of an underground parking space is $34,000, and the average cost of an aboveground garage is $24,000 per space. “One space in a parking structure … costs at least three times the net worth of more than half the African-American and Hispanic households in the country,” Shoup points out.

Parking requirements play a part in determining what kind of housing is built and discouraging the “missing middle,” according to researchers. “Because parking can consume so much space and money, parking requirements needlessly reduce variety in the type and location of housing available,” notes Michael Manville.

Policies to promote off-street parking reduced the economic development in cities studied by Chris McCahill, Norman Garrick, and Carol Atkinson-Palombo. “For the six cities we considered, each parking space added since 1960 reduces potential property tax revenues by between $500 and $1,000 per year,” they write. Parking is both a cause and effect of driving, “yet the changes in commuting behavior in cities that added more parking suggest that more parking increases driving.”

Parking is expensive. In a functioning free market, automobile owners would be willing to pay for some of that parking, just as they pay for gasoline, auto insurance, tolls, and other mobility-related costs. But the practice of mandating parking is absurd. If motorists paid the full cost of parking their vehicles, people would own fewer cars, drive less, and choose more shared-ridership transportation modes.

Alas, Virginia’s transportation system, like that of every other state, is so permeated with subsidies, cross subsidies, and subsidies to counter other subsidies, that rational economic decision making is impossible. Political decisions to support “mass transit” or “road building” are driven by ideological, partisan and special-interest considerations. The scale of the misallocation of resources is mind-numbing.

Asphalt City to Reform Parking Regs

Wow, what a great way to utilize urban land almost fronting the Potomac River!

The Old Town district in downtown Alexandria is the very model of Smart Growth — it was built during the golden age of urban development when city planners believed in such things as street grids, mixed uses, and urban densities. And in recent years, portions of Alexandria’s downtown have been re-developed according to the same principles. But the city, like many of its peers, succumbed during the post-World War II era to the siren call of suburban zoning codes, and the results outside of Old Town have been dismal.

A key component of any self-respecting auto-centric suburban zoning code was a set of regulations dictating how much surface parking was required for everything from strip malls to garden apartments. It appears that Alexandria planners applied those requirements with relish.

An astonishing 10% percent of the city’s surface is covered by parking lots, a task force comprised of Alexandria residents, developers and city leaders has found. The average peak occupancy of 60 sites surveyed was 59%, reports the Washington Business Journal. Nearly 59% of Alexandria hotel visitors reach their destination by taxi, Uber, or Lyft; 52% of restaurant patrons do not drive. And some landlords are leasing their space to others to utilize excess parking.

While on-street parking serves some beneficial purposes in defining the urban fabric — parked cars create a barrier between pedestrians on the sidewalk and moving cars on the street — excess parking is destructive to the environment and urban design. Impermeable parking lots contribute to storm-water runoff. They trap solar rays and contribute to the urban heat-island effect. Parking lots consume space that could be devoted to higher-value urban uses, either buildings that enhance property taxes or parks that enhance well-being. And they fragment streetscapes, thus undermining walkability.

The task force will submit recommendations to City Council tomorrow.

Among the major changes under consideration: Setting a minimum and maximum parking standard for everyone — as opposed to the minimum-only scenario currently in place — exempting small neighborhood businesses from the parking minimum, and allowing for shared parking between businesses.

Sounds like a big improvement over the current policy, which hasn’t changed in 50 years. But personally, I would go further. Unless a compelling public need can be demonstrated to exist, eliminate all parking mandates, period. Next, reform zoning codes to make it easy for property owners to recycle parking lots into buildings. Finally, convert on-street parking to dynamically priced metered parking that varies with supply and demand. Then you’d be talking real parking reform.

A Once-in-a-Century Opportunity to Get Transportation Right

Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

by James A. Bacon

Take the Uber revolution of summoning rides with a smart phone. Then add driverless cars, which eliminate the expense of paying someone to drive the car. Then overlay the emerging business model of Transportation As a Service, in which people pay for rides when they need them rather than buy cars that sit idle 90% of the day, often incurring parking fees in the process. Shared self-driving cars could take up to 80% of all vehicles off the road, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study noted in a Wall Street Journal thought piece by Christopher Mims.

How would the impact of such an eventuality ripple through the rest of the economy? While acknowledging that such things are impossible to predict, Mims speculates that shared, self-driving cars will spur “suburban sprawl.”

Nearly everyone who has studied the subject believes these self-driving fleets will be significantly cheaper than owning a car…. With the savings you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children.

As for the putative preference the Millennial generation has for living in the city, writes Mims, it’s a myth. “Not only do 66% of millennials tell pollsters they want to live in the suburbs, they are moving there, as population growth in suburbs outstrips growth in cities.”

I don’t agree with Mims’ conclusion, but these are ideas worth exploring. I’m most intrigued by the MIT forecast that the shared, driverless-car future will take 80% of all vehicles off the road. For purposes of argument, let’s say that shared, driverless cars take only half of all vehicles off the road. That’s still an astounding number.

My first question is this: Will the streets, roads and highways in a world of shared, driverless cars be less crowded? To answer that, we must distinguish between the number of vehicles and the number of trips taken. Unless people take fewer trips, they still will need means of conveyance. If everyone rides solo cars, the country may need fewer cars but there will not be fewer cars on the road. Only if people share rides — either in conventional cars, vans or micro-buses like the one pictured above — will there be a need for fewer cars on the road. I think it’s possible that we’ll see fewer cars on the road, but no one can make such a prediction with any confidence.

Here’s what we can predict: A shift to shared, driverless cars will reduce the number of vehicles needed to serve the population. To the extent that fleet operating companies maximize the asset value of their fleets by running them 24/7, most cars will be on the streets (or in maintenance garages or recharge stations) instead of sitting in parking lots and parking decks. The most confident prediction we can make is that America will need fewer parking spaces.

Shrinking acreage dedicated to parking will have a profound impact on human settlement patterns. While it will free up some land in densely settled urban areas — putting a lot of parking garages out of business — the biggest impact will be in the scattered, low-density areas we think of as suburbia. Millions of acres of parking lots across the country will become redundant and unnecessary.

If localities are intelligent enough to eliminate minimum parking requirements, retailers would have every incentive to convert acres of land into something useful — offices, townhouses, apartments, parks, whatever. So much land would be freed up from redundant parking lots that there would be no need to develop another acre of greenfield land for another generation. Localities that anticipate this opportunity by revising their comprehensive plans and zoning codes will enjoy a huge advantage over the laggards in attracting new development.

Now, back to Mims’ observation that Millennials prefer “the suburbs” by two to one over “the city.” That’s a meaningless statement. True, young families may prefer so-called “suburban” jurisdictions with quality school systems, but the operative factor is the quality of the schools, not the low-density and auto-centric design of the communities. Other research shows that Millennials also prefer walkable, bikeable communities. The preference for good schools may be stronger, but that doesn’t mean the Millennials wouldn’t jump at the chance to live in a community that offered both good schools and walkable-bikable places.

In contrast to Mims, I do not think that shared, driverless cars will spur more of the scattered, disconnected, low-density that we call “suburban sprawl.” To the contrary, I believe it will stimulate the redevelopment of low-density, auto-centric communities into walkable urban places.

Localities across Virginia will enjoy a once-in-a-century opportunity to convert parking lots into taxable development without incurring the offsetting liability of needing to upgrade the transportation infrastructure to support the denser population. But this will happen only if they stop mandating parking lot requirements and revise their comprehensive plans and zoning codes to accommodate the new possibilities.

Likewise, the Commonwealth of Virginia, which once again (and as predicted) finds itself short of dollars to fund the roads, highways and rail systems, needs to re-think the twenty-year future. The transportation infrastructure of the 21st century will be Uber-fied. Throw out all long-range traffic projections! Rather than sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into expensive new highways, light-rail rail and Bus Rapid Transit systems, we need to start thinking what kind of investments will expedite the coming of shared, driverless cars.

States and localities that work out the solution first will be winners. Those that stick to the current transportation paradigm will lose.

The Invisible Parking Garage

Draft rendering of planned apartment building at Libbie Mill-Midtown shows how garage rooftop will be used as communal space.

Draft rendering of a planned apartment building at Libbie Mill-Midtown shows how garage rooftop will be used as communal space. Illustration credit: Gumenick Properties.

by James A. Bacon

It is axiomatic among New Urbanists and like-minded brethren in the Smart Growth movement that parking garages create dead space in the urban fabric that discourages walkability and depresses neighboring property values. Some architects try to dress up the structures by giving them facades that imitate the look of regular buildings, draping them with plantings or otherwise making them visually interesting. Another strategy is to hide garages underground or relegate them to the middle of the block.

There is nothing new under the sun, as the old saying goes, so the Gumenick Properties design for a planned apartment building in its Libbie Mill-Midtown project may not be the first of its kind. But I feel safe in saying that it is unique to the Richmond real estate market — and it’s a solution that, economics permitting, should be employed more frequently.

Libbie Mill-Midtown is an 80-acre mixed-use development in Henrico County roughly midway between downtown Richmond and the Innsbrook Corporate Center. The company is billing the $434 million community as “ten minutes from everything.” When complete in ten years or so, depending upon market conditions, the project is expected to have 994 for-sale homes, 1,096 apartments, 160,000 square feet of retail space, a public library and office space. Marketing the project to people who want to rely upon the automobile less, Gumenick is placing tremendous emphasis on walkability.

The development will contain a grid street system and wide sidewalks, and designers are paying close attention to the science of “place making — creating public spaces where people enjoy spending time, as I gathered during an interview last week with  Shane Finnegan, Gumenick’s vice president of construction, and Ed Crews, company spokesman.

This schematic shows the ground-level view of the retail-apartment building planned for Libbie Mill-Midtown.

This schematic shows the ground-level view of the retail-apartment building planned for Libbie Mill-Midtown. (Click for larger image.)

One of the basic rules of place making is to minimize the expanse of parking lots and to hide the parking garages from view. Having erected two retail-office buildings, Gumenick now is designing the first apartment building, which will consist of 40,000 square feet of street-level retail space and 327 apartment units above. In a nod to market reality, the developer acknowledges that most suburban Henrico tenants, while wanting to live in a walkable community, still will own automobiles. Rather than surround the apartments in a sea of asphalt parking, which would diminish the appeal of the streetscape, Gumenick plans to encase the parking garage inside street-facing stores.

Other developers have done the same thing but Gumenick is going one step further. It’s building a pool, terrace and public area on the roof of the parking garage. The parking lot will be totally hidden from view, not just from the street but from the perspective of the tenants living in the apartment building.

Bacon’s bottom line: Gumenick did not divulge financial details of the planned parking structure, but it doesn’t take a construction engineer to figure out that reinforcing a garage so it can support trees, decks and a swimming pool is not an inexpensive proposition. But the invisible parking garage accomplishes two important goals. First, it allows Gumenick to create a shared recreation/courtyard for its tenants. Second, it tucks parking into the middle of the block, preserving pedestrian-enhancing streetscapes. It will be interesting to see how the market responds. Will people pay a premium to live in a walkable community with such amenities? I would. I’m betting others would, too.

Anticipating the Demise of the Parking Meter

pay_by_phoneAs the City of Charlottesville ponders an upgrade to its downtown parking technology (see “Paying for Onstreet Parking in Cville“), parking guru Bern Grush is looking two steps ahead and thinking about how municipalities should handle the inevitable demise of the parking meter.

At some point in the foreseeable future, parking will be managed in the greater majority of all these cities by all-digital means including phone, Web or in-vehicle, self-paying meters. Accompanying this will be a uniform enforcement approach that uses the license plate number to read parking credentials from the cloud. …

With the top two cell-pay providers in the US each claiming “hundreds” of cities as customers, the trend toward virtual parking meters, digital parking payment, and license plate-enabled parking (LEP) and enforcement credentials appears unstoppable. Many in our industry are increasingly seeing fully wireless parking payment management as the self-evident future.

But that does present a transition problem. Maintaining both parking meters and a wireless system is redundant and expensive. But switching prematurely to an all-digital system can alienate people not comfortable with the technology. Writing in Canadian Parker (flip to page 16) last year, Grush had a few suggestions on how to think about the switch-over.

— JAB

A Radical Notion: Paying for Onstreet Parking in Cville

Image credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow

Image credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow

Irony time: Virginia soon may get a test in market-based parking in… the People’s Republic of Charlottesville. The city would start charging for 800 on-street parking spaces downtown, now free, and install a system of smart traffic meters under a proposal advanced by Mark Brown, new owner of the Charlottesville Parking Center (CPC).

The city reverted to a system of free parking two years ago, creating a severe misallocation of parking spaces. Downtown employees grab the free on-street spots, making it exceedingly difficult for visitors and shoppers to find convenient parking spots. The idea is to encourage downtown workers either to park in long-term structured parking, which would free on-street spaces, or to ride bicycles or use mass transit.

“The promotion of free parking on the street is at odds with the promotion of walking, cycling and mass transit,” said Mark Brown, the owner of Yellow Cab and the Main Street Arena who became the sole shareholder of the CPC last summer, reports Sean Tubbs for Charlottesville Tomorrow.

The proposal, very conceptual in nature and subject to revision, is to install about 60 kiosks where parkers would enter their license plate information to pay. There would be two zones, a core zone with more restrictive parking lengths and higher rates, and a peripheral zone, where people could park longer and pay less. On-street parking rates would encourage long-term parkers to use structured parking. A smartphone app would provide real-time information on parking availability and rates. A portion of the parking revenue would be dedicated to transportation alternatives such as a free trolley, park-and-ride-options and cheap monthly bus passes. The remainder would go to a Business Improvement District.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m sure some of Brown’s ideas will prove controversial. Downtown employees won’t want to give up their free, convenient parking. But there is no compelling public policy reason for subsidizing their hogging of downtown’s supply of on-street parking. Indeed, quite the contrary. Parking spaces have a cost; they are not “free” to the city. Parking is a scarce good that people are willing to pay for. Charging the right price for parking is a critical element of any downtown development strategy. Although the details may need to be modified, Brown has the right idea.

With all the tools available today, every large and midsized Virginia city should be asking the same questions as Charlottesville.

— JAB

Where the Parking Is Easy

Jay Primus, manager of SFPark, stands next to a variable-price, pay-by-phone parking meter.

Jay Primus, manager of SFPark, stands next to a variable-price, pay-by-phone parking meter.

San Francisco’s smart parking experiment — setting prices for on-street parking based on supply and demand — has brought lower average charges, made it easier to find a space and reduced parking-related anxiety.

By James A. Bacon

San Francisco has a reputation in many parts of the country as a bastion of left-wing politics. Haight-Ashbury and hippies. Harvie Milk and gay pride. The People’s Republic of Berkeley. (OK, Berkeley is across the Bay but it’s nearby). Between the municipal labor unions, high-speed trains and high taxes, if the city were a country, some might say, it would be more socialist than Sweden.

But there’s at least one government function in which the City of San Francisco has led the way in applying market-based principles — on-street parking. The city was one of the first in the world to scrap the time-honored practice of charging drivers a flat rate for a parking space regardless of time or location. San Francisco has put into place a state-of-the-art system that varies the charge for a parking space in response to supply and demand.

Imagine that. While cities and states that supposedly believe in the efficacy of markets are stuck in the socialist mindset of charging everyone the same rate for on-street parking, California’s citadel of liberalism installed a system of sensors, pay-by-phone billing and advanced algorithms to allocate roughly 25% of the city’s on-street parking using the price mechanism. Two years into the experiment, San Francisco officials and outside scholars are pronouncing the system a success. The program still needs tweaking, but the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority is considering how to expand the system throughout the city.

“We have a much better sense of our parking supply, and of demand for that finite supply. We can make more informed decisions,” says Jay Primus, manager of SFPark. While charges in high-demand blocks went up, the price of many parking spaces declined. Overall, San Franciscans pay less for on-street parking than they did before, he says, and they enjoy greater convenience because open spaces are almost always available.

Confirming the positive outcomes in an in-depth March 2014 study, “Is the Curb 80% or 20% Empty?”, three academic economists concluded that SFpark had cut the number of people clogging streets while cruising around looking for empty spaces. “[We] conclude that rate changes have helped achieve the City’s [60% to 80%] occupancy goal and reduced cruising by 50%.”

For seven decades San Francisco managed its on-street parking like every other American city – mechanical meters charged flat rates for short time limits to meet vague, oft-conflicting political goals. The result, as it was most places across North America, was confusion. Some spaces were always full, prompting motorists to drive around in circles looking for an open spot. Sometimes, on-street parking was cheaper than in nearby garages, a discrepancy that flushed drivers out of the garages and into street parking. Other spaces remained empty, costing the city revenue.

Economists have long argued that such problems could be solved by varying the pricing for on-street parking based on local supply and demand. UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup, arguably the Albert Einstein of parking, has long contended that cities should set prices at the block level to keep parking spaces occupied 60% to 80% of the time. If parking utilization falls beneath that range, city officials should cut rates to make the spaces more attractive and fill up more of them. If spaces are full more than 80% of the time, cities should raise rates and create more vacancies. But the tools to administer such a scheme cost-effectively did not exist and the theory remained just that, a theory.

In recent years, however, the advent of new technologies – sensors, wireless communications, cheap storage for Big Data and advanced algorithms, all part of what is known as the Internet of Things – has driven down costs associated with on-street parking. Inexpensive sensors can tell when parking spaces are empty or full and can transmit that data via wireless to the data warehouse. Drivers can download apps to find open parking spaces and pay with their smart phones. It is a simple matter to notify drivers when their time is about to expire and let them renew by phone. That option cuts down on the anxiety of people worrying about their time running out and getting a ticket.

In 2007 San Francisco was selected as one of five cities across the country to participate in a federal program to test the idea of demand-responsive pricing. The transportation authority won a $19.8 million federal grant, to be supplemented by nearly $5 million in local funds, to set up the program. The purpose wasn’t to maximize parking revenue but to reduce congestion and optimize convenience, thus encouraging people to live and do more business in the city. Continue reading

New Richmond Stadium Plan Deserves a Close Look

The_Diamond

The Diamond today

by James A. Bacon

A private development team has offered to build a new Richmond baseball stadium on the Boulevard without taxpayer dollars, the Times-Dispatch reported Wednesday. The developers, who include Chesterfield County Supervisor Daniel A. Gecker, a principle with Urban Development Associates, has presented an overview to City Council and the Jones administration.

“From what I have seen, this plan is real, and it’s ready to go save a few minor details,” Councilman Jonathan T. Baliles told the T-D.

It’s great that the city has an alternative to the proposed Shockoe Bottom development backed by Mayor Dwight C. Jones, which has a public cost of $79.6 million. But it’s too soon to reach to draw conclusions until details of the  plan are revealed. What we know so far:

Under the broad outlines of the proposal, and 8,000-plus capacity stadium would be built entirely with private money on about 10 acres of Boulevard land. … The first phase would involve a small amount of residential, retail and restaurant development. The developers also would have the option of building out the rest of the 60-acre Boulevard area that city officials believe is primed for revitalization.

“All the money is coming from the private sector,” said Robert S. “Bobby” Ukrop, who played a role in brokering the public-private partnership that built the Diamond, the aging baseball stadium on the Boulevard that needs replacing.

That’s great news, if true. But does “all the money” really mean all the money? A few obvious questions:

  • Will the private investors pay the City of Richmond fair market value for the land where development on the Diamond and neighboring properties would occur? Or will the city donate the land, an implicit subsidy?
  • Will the project be financed by tax-free Industrial Development Authority bonds? Would the issuance of such bonds impact, directly or indirectly, the strength of the city’s balance sheet?
  • Would construction of the ball park require construction of a parking deck? Will developers ask the city to issue bonds to build the parking deck?
  • Will the project require public spending on infrastructure like streets, sidewalks and utilities?

The Boulevard location, easily accessible from Interstate 95, is widely preferred in the region. An opinion poll last year found that 64% of respondents wanted Richmond baseball to stay on the Boulevard, where it has been for six decades. Furthermore, the loss of the stadium doesn’t mean that re-development of Shockoe Bottom won’t continue. I can’t imagine that Kroger and Hilton would make their investment in a grocery store and hotel respectively contingent upon the building of a ball club. The city still should be able to proceed with the Shockoe-redevelopment option.

The only big loser from the new proposal is the slavery museum, which would receive a massive subsidy from the city in the Shockoe alternative. As much as I would like to see such a facility built — I’d even donate a small sum — I don’t see a groundswell of support by people actually willing to put up their own money for the project. When I see someone creating an organization to begin raising money from the community, I’ll take the idea seriously. Until then, it’s  all hot air and politics.

Roanoke Experiments with Paid Parking

roanoke

Downtown Roanoke

by James A. Bacon

In 1999 the City of Roanoke went socialist with its on-street parking downtown — it removed the last of its parking meters with the idea of making downtown more “hospitable” to visitors. Fifteen years later, city officials are planning to experiment with free markets and actually use price as a rationing mechanism for scarce on-street parking spaces — but only on a 90-day pilot basis.

Whether the meters stay will depend on how they are received, said Assistant City Manager Brian Townsend, as quoted by the Roanoke Times. “If we find there’s not general acceptance by the public, then, no, we won’t proceed.”

That’s not especially reassuring. The general public generally likes things for free. If you take the free things away, they get unhappy. Therefore, I don’t expect Roanoke’s experiment with market economics to end well. But at least I give the city fathers credit for trying.

The initiative is aimed at correcting what Parking Administrator Debbie Moses terms an upside down parking system in which the highest-demand spaces in the downtown core are free while less popular spaces in parking garages charge a fee. The article doesn’t say so explicitly, but it’s easy to predict that when people don’t have to pay for premium parking spaces, they are less cognizant of time and will occupy the spaces longer than they would otherwise. Premium spaces should turn over rapidly; “free” parking turns over slowly. (I put “free” in quotation marks because free parking really isn’t free. Downtown parking spaces have economic value. On-street parking spaces could be converted to bike lanes, car lanes, wider sidewalks or other uses.)

Roanoke officials will use the latest technology. The new meters will take cash, credit and debit cards as well as payment by smartphone. They will notify users by text message when their time is about to expire and allow them to extend time remotely. (While that’s great for people who own smart phones, it may not be so great for the old geezer who want to put a quarter in the slot. That’s why I expect the new parking spaces to lose the geezer vote.)

City officials position the initiative as creating more choices for people who work downtown and patronize businesses there. They pay a premium price for the most convenient, on-street parking. They pay less for moderately convenient parking garages. And they get two-hour free parking if they are willing to walk a few blocks to parking lots on the downtown periphery.

The article did not address one really important question: Will the prices be fixed, will they vary according to day of the week and time of day, or will they vary according to supply-and-demand conditions? The latest thinking suggests that prices should be set high enough to aim for 85% occupancy, a level that maximizes revenue while ensuring that someone looking for a space always will be able to find one. Also, the writer made no mention as to whether Roanokers would be able to use smart-phone apps to find vacant parking spaces. 

Taking away peoples’ “free” parking is hard, just like taking away their right to use the roads for “free” — i.e. taxing someone else pay to pay for building and maintaining them — is difficult. But it is a small but necessary step toward making downtown Roanoke more fiscally sustainable and economically viable.