Why you should think twice before signing the parking petitionAugust 6, 2009
If you live in Oakland, you’ve probably heard about the parking protests by now: a number of businesses and residents are up in arms over the increase in parking rates (from $1.50 to $2 an hour) and hours (up to 8 pm) for metered spaces throughout the city, in addition to a big uptick in enforcement of many other parking violations. The City Council devised this new parking program earlier this year to close a $4.5 million hole in the budget.
Anyway, Thursday is the official day of parking protest, and many businesses—led by the Grand Lake Theater, which I find really bizarre given that they have free parking already, but that’s another story!—will be shuttered in an effort to get residents to understand how much business is being hurt by increased parking rates. (I’m a bit fuzzy on the nexus between closing businesses and raising awareness of parking rates, unless the idea is just that people will pay to park and then come to the business, only to find it closed. But there ya go.) I was a bit saddened to see a petition to completely rescind these changes circulating at several of my favorite businesses in Grand Lake last weekend, though, so I wanted to take a moment to explain why I do support the parking rate and enforcement changes (although it’s worth noting that I do think the changes were pretty poorly implemented and could have been better thought out—but more on that later!)
UNDERSTANDING THE PARKING PROBLEM
It makes sense to begin with the reason the Council made changes to the parking policies in the first place: they needed to address the budget hole, which is devastatingly large this year (as it is in cities across the country). The idea was to use parking-associated revenue to fund key services and amenities in our city that we would otherwise have to do without. However, when I mentioned to some neighbors that I’d rather pay a bit more for parking than lose police officers, shutter our branch library another day a week, or cut arts and parks funding (which we definitely benefit from in Grand Lake!), I got some blank stares. I get the feeling that many, many people signing the petition are missing the fact that the two are intricately related. But the reality is that our essential services—and the libraries, culture, arts, parks, and other amenities—are part of why people come to and stay in Oakland. If we do away with them, we don’t just hurt residents—we hurt our business districts too. If people (and especially families as our family-oriented programming is decimated) move out of the city, so do their shopping dollars. And that’s bad business.
So maybe you still want to sign the parking petition. But first, you need to be sure you understand what the petition is asking City Council to do. You are asking Council to rescind the parking rate increases and find an alternate way to cut $4.5 million from the budget. What is this alternate solution likely to be? Based on the conversations thus far this year, there’s a good chance that it looks something like this:
- Further cuts to Neighborhood Service Coordinator (NSC) positions and other non-sworn police positions
- Increases in other taxes and fees to generate revenue
- Closing of branch libraries, the Main Library, and recreation centers for additional days each week (or entirely)
- Further cuts to the arts and related programs
- Further cuts to senior services
- Further cuts to Oakland institutions like the Museum, Chabot, and the Zoo
- More layoffs at the City, further reducing or eliminating city services
For some Oaklanders, these are tradeoffs that they are willing to make in exchange for keeping the parking rates lower in commercial districts. However, it’s critical to consider the lasting impacts that cuts like these will have on the city, and specifically on Oakland businesses in the years to come if we continue to chip away at quality of life services and amenities. For me, an extra fifty cents an hour to park is a very small price to pay to preserve these amenities, since they’re a large part of why I live here. (It’s also worth noting that we are one of dozens of cities across the country looking to parking revenues to help close budget gaps; some have also adopted Sunday meter hours.) So I’d like to find a way to address the major problems with the new parking policies in a way that makes the changes—or alternatives—viable.
ADDRESSING THE BIGGEST CONCERNS ABOUT THE PARKING CHANGES
It’s crucial that everyone concerned about parking—whichever side you’re on—understands the key concerns driving the parking protests. Some, I’d argue, are a bit far-fetched, but many are very real, and need to be addressed.
Concern #1: Raising parking fees has hurt local businesses.
If it turns out that people are no longer shopping at local businesses, this will be a very big problem. However—and this is important—we don’t yet know if this is happening. Yes, I know there are plenty of businesses on both sides of the aisle with numbers that say it is or isn’t happening. But the reality is that the new fees and enforcement policies have only been in place for a month, and that simply isn’t a long enough period of time to draw any conclusions or determine causal relationships between changes in business activity (good or bad) and increased fees and enforcement.
Realistically, we’re looking at three possible outcomes for existing Oakland shoppers:
- Option A: Customers will stop shopping at Oakland businesses altogether. Clearly, this is the primary concern for local businesses, and it is a real one.
- Option B: Customers will continue to shop at Oakland businesses, but those who once drove will now choose to bike, walk, or take transit there. Although this decreases parking revenue, it has a number of co-benefits, so I’d say this is one potential outcome we want to be fostering. To do this, the City should be creating added incentives for biking and walking. (One place to start: install some bike racks in front of the Grand Lake Theater!) It’s also important to remember that there are some customers who didn’t drive to begin with and certainly won’t begin doing so now, and thus are somewhat off the radar.
- Option C: Customers will continue to shop at Oakland businesses, and will continue to drive and simply pay the increased parking rate.
The City needs to understand clearly how many shoppers are in each of these three categories. It’s critical to know how much, if any, business the commercial districts are losing that’s directly attributable to the parking fees and not to the economy overall. (I’ll add that in Grand Lake’s case, my read as a neighborhood resident is that business has been down for months—it’s not a new thing. We’ve lost a number of businesses, and most of them closed well before the increased fees kicked in, so I’m wary of attributing too much to a drop in July business.) We need to wait this out a few months to have better information, and particularly more information once the academic year begins again, because people’s buying patterns do vary in the summer months. Year-over-year data are also valuable, but the current recession is such an outlier that it’s very hard to point to changes over last year or the year before and connect them to parking or any other single variable.
Finally, it’s especially important to know how many people are in the last group, because it may turn out that on balance the increased fees don’t actually net the City more revenue. It’s a bit like the transit fare dilemma: sometimes raising fares actually decreases your ridership and leaves you in worse shape than where you began, so you need to understand where that tipping point is. If $2 is past the tipping point, we need to explore where it is. Maybe we go to $1.75, and that’s viable. Maybe we need to go below $1.50 to maximize meter revenue! But we shouldn’t just automatically revert to the old rate without getting some better information.
Concern #2: If we charge $2 for parking, Oaklanders will go to Walnut Creek to shop instead.
Okay. This particular claim, which I’ve heard repeatedly, is a bit bizarre. At $2 an hour, two hours of parking (the limit on most meters in the commercial districts, by the way) costs an extra $1 over the old rate of $1.50 an hour. In contrast, a trip to Walnut Creek—30 miles roundtrip from Lake Merritt—costs you a gallon of gas if your car averages 30 mpg, plus anywhere between 40 minutes to two hours of your time to drive there and back. Some basic math will tell you that at $2.79 a gallon, free parking in Walnut Creek isn’t saving you any money. There’s also the argument that if you’re headed out for a $30 dinner, the extra dollar you will pay for parking for the evening is unlikely to be a major factor in your decision-making process. (If it is, you should probably be reflecting on the advice my grandmother once gave me—go out and have a good time, but remember that if you can’t afford the cab ride home, you also can’t afford the drink!) I’m going to go out on a limb and say that there aren’t any Oaklanders who are driving to Lamorinda for dinner solely because of the increase in parking fees. Alameda or Berkeley? That’s in the realm of possibility, I guess, but even so, the headache of getting there (the Webster Tube at dinner hour?) and finding parking (downtown Berkeley?!?) is a hardly worth an extra buck for me. And are Oaklanders headed to Walnut Creek for shopping? Maybe, but if they are, it’s more likely due to the lack of regional retail centers in Oakland—not the cost of parking.
Concern #3: The City is ticketing for infractions that they never ticketed for before, which isn’t fair.
Oy. Yes, they are ticketing for things that were often ignored before. However, this is not unfair. In fact, it’s much fairer than it was before, when violators reaped the benefits of parking illegally to the detriment of their neighbors’ safety. Please be aware that parking on the sidewalk (even if it’s part of your driveway), blocking your neighbor’s driveway, and parking in the red zones are all illegal and have always been illegal, even if you’ve been getting away with it for years! If your driveway is not long enough for your car to clear the sidewalk, you do not have off-street parking.
I understand that a lot of people do not like this. But these rules exist for a reason, and I, for one, will be extremely excited when they finally start ticketing the many people who routinely park across the sidewalk with their rear bumpers hanging into the street, and especially the guy on my block who always pulls in sideways so that he’s parked horizontally across the sidewalk, completely covering it. I’m really tired of having to walk all the way out into the street to get around these cars when I walk my dog, or (worse!) watching my neighbors with babies do the same with their strollers—nevermind that we live on a hill where drivers coming up it can’t see pedestrians who are walking in the middle of the street! (The one thing I do support is issuing warnings rather than tickets for the first few months for meter violators between 6 pm and 8 pm, since there are still a lot of Oaklanders who don’t know about the new regulations, and there are many signs and meters that have not yet been updated—and that is unfair.)
Concern #4: The City is targeting Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods for ticketing, which is unjust.
If this turns out to be true, I agree. However, in the past few weeks I’ve had people from Montclair, West Oakland, Grand Lake, and Rockridge all tell me that their neighborhoods are the ones being unfairly targeted. In my own neighborhood, I’ve spotted more cars sporting tickets in the last two weeks than in the rest of the time we’ve lived here. My suspicion? Enforcement is up across the entire city. Everyone is noticing it, but I doubt there is any neighborhood profiling going on (although it is worth noting that in some neighborhoods there are many more potential and routine violations, so there may be more tickets being issued overall there). This is something to keep an eye on, though, since it is the case that there are sometimes more patrols in higher crime neighborhoods (which are also generally lower income neighborhoods). This may translate into more tickets in those areas, so we should be urging the City to monitor this and ramp up enforcement in higher income neighborhoods if there is a huge disparity.
WHAT WE SHOULD BE ASKING COUNCIL TO DO
Okay. So maybe some of the problems being thrown around are a bit overblown—but that doesn’t mean that we can’t ask Council to do better and fix the problems with the current parking policies. This doesn’t necessarily mean a wholesale reversal of the parking changes, though. We should be asking for a more comprehensive parking plan for the city. (Some cities our size even have parking master plans—though I’m not convinced we need to go quite that far!) What we got last month was a quick fix to fill a budget hole, but there’s a lot of potential to do things right in a way that generates the needed revenue while also making parking experiences in the city infinitely better.
1. Adopt a policy of issuing warnings rather than tickets for the first six weeks that any new parking policy is in place. Yes, people should read signs, but we all know they often don’t. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and ramp up to ticketing (especially now that they’re more costly tickets) by issuing warnings first. (Note that this does not mean warnings for violations of rules that have always been in place, but have generally been ignored. Those are fair game, in my book.)
2. Consider charging different meter rates in different parts of the city. This is finally possible now that the meter kiosks are in place in many parts of the city. Such a strategy allows the City to price parking according to availability and demand. For instance, one commercial district may have an abundance of parking options, whereas another may have very tight parking. Similarly, some districts have infinitely better transit than others (e.g., Rockridge). Prices and meter limits should be adjusted accordingly. The City should also be tracking the number of public parking spaces relative to the size of the commercial district so that they can understand whether full spots versus empty spots are reflective of the supply or cost of parking.
3. Charge different rates at different times of day. Ideally you would combine this with the strategy above, allowing you to charge lower evening rates in commercial districts with limited night life, for instance, while keeping rates higher in those districts where evening parking is still very much in demand. To avoid making this confusing for drivers, establish a citywide primary rate, but offer discounts for off-peak hours. This is only possible in areas served by meter kiosks, and is already being explored by Council for some districts.
4. Adopt different meter hours in different parts of the city. This is a corollary to the recommendation above. (It’s not just Grand Lake appeasement—I swear!) In some cases, charging different rates may actually mean charging nothing at hours when parking is not in demand. In other districts it might make sense to charge on Sundays as well. I have no problem with meter hours and days that vary throughout the city provided they are clearly and accurately signed on the street and on the kiosk! This part is critical.
5. Extend meter time limits to four hours where appropriate. Generally speaking, we have meter limits to prevent all-day parking (and especially to prevent employees, commuters, and residents from parking in spots intended for customers). For some districts and in front of some businesses, short time limits make sense. In many other areas, though, a four-hour limit could be beneficial on many fronts. Districts with theaters, for instance, could stand to benefit because many movies run longer than two hours—and if you want to eat too, you’re pretty much stuck. An added benefit: many people simply pay for the maximum time available to cover their bases, so you might end up with a lot of drivers paying for four hours but only using two or three. Since the City now recaptures this time in areas using meter kiosks, that means more revenue. This could also be a strategy for evening meter parking, since that’s a concern for restaurants and other nightlife in many business districts. In areas with meter kiosks, it should be relatively simple to up the hour limit to, say, four hours after 4 pm.
6. Roll out meter kiosks in those commercial districts that don’t yet have them. Yeah, I know the Cale kiosks are pretty pricey, but it’s possible that the savings in the monitoring and maintenance of the older meters—and the revenue lost on broken meters—might actually mean that they pay for themselves fairly rapidly. Plus, once they’re installed, the City is better able to control and adjust parking rates and policies. (Hopefully the City has the numbers on this one.)
7. Wherever possible, convert free city lots to metered lots. For instance, Grand Lake is particularly up in arms over the parking fee increases. I can see a good solution there: revert to the lower meter rates, but add meter kiosks to the lot under 580 and to the Trader Joe’s lot (or at least the public garage there; I imagine the primary lot may belong to the development). Merchants won’t be excited about that, but it seems very fair given that residents in other parts of the city already pay to park in city lots, and it might even help the parking chaos there since right now cars queue up to wait for spots in the free lots and create all sorts of headaches for other drivers. Plus, it would likely net the City as much or more revenue than simply upping the rates on the existing meters there.
8. Implement residential parking permits in residential neighborhoods adjacent to commercial districts (provided residents support this). Not only does this generate additional revenue as residents buy permits, but it ensures that residents have a place to park and discourages people visiting the commercial districts from parking in the residential neighborhoods to avoid the parking fees. In select cases, this also creates an opportunity to allow cars with permits to park in metered spaces in the evening hours (or even all the time) in neighborhoods where this is appropriate, addressing one concern about the extended meter hours.
9. As streets are repaved throughout the city, demarcate parking spots, even where there are no meters. In areas where the stretch between curb cuts is not long enough to meet the minimum space length, paint it red. This helps people park more intelligently and ensures that they are not blocking driveways or inadvertently using up multiple spaces. This is also likely to create more spaces overall, thereby alleviating pressure on the metered spaces. And as a bonus, it facilitates adding meter kiosks later in areas where this may make sense in the future.
10. Monitor and regularly evaluate parking policies in the city. Seems like a no-brainer, but as policies are tweaked, this part is critical. It’s okay to test something out to see if it works. It’s not okay to ignore it once you determine that it’s not working. The City should be working with merchants to track responses to changes and to compare those to measurable and quantifiable data on what’s happening on the ground. Which spots are empty? Which are full? How long are people parking for? The meter kiosks give us all of this information and more. (Not so simple with the older meters, sadly, so those might require a bit of physical monitoring.) Will this cost money? Yes, but it’s worth it to get the parking program right in the long run.
11. Coordinate with owners of private parking lots to ensure that they are operating effectively and efficiently to complement public parking wherever possible. While the City can’t dictate how or when private lots operate, they can be in communication with operators of lots that serve commercial districts (e.g., the Levant lot on College in Rockridge) to help those lots provide additional parking options that benefit both the operator and the commercial district.
12. Continue to promote better transit, bicycling, and pedestrian options in the city. This won’t help much on the revenue front, but it’s key to ensuring that businesses aren’t losing potential customers due to parking problems. We can continue working to make it safer to bike and walk through the city, and we can push for better AC Transit funding to ensure that bus service and shelters are up to par. In Grand Lake’s case, thousands of Oaklanders live in easy walking or biking distance of the district, and many (like us!) are already opting to get there that way most of the time. Will I stop going to the Grand Lake Theater because of the parking fee increase? Nope, because it doesn’t affect me one bit. (I might stop going because of the parking fee protest, but that’s another story altogether….)
Some more good ideas from others:
- Add motorcycle parking spaces to commercial districts, and price motorcycle parking below car parking, as it takes up less space. Apparently motorcyclists are now being ticketed for parking between parked cars (another of those erstwhile-ignored rules), but there’s no designated spot for them in many parts of the city. This also stops motorcycles from needing to take up a full car space in order to park legally. Makes sense to me!
- Post notifications about impending parking changes. Maybe it makes sense for the notification and warning periods to overlap before a change goes into full effect?
LEARN A LITTLE MORE ABOUT PARKING IN OAKLAND AND BEYOND
Last but not least, I’ll throw out some reading material. Parking wars aren’t unique to Oakland, and there’s a pretty hot debate going on in communities across the country on whether free parking is a good thing or a bad thing, and how to price parking in cities.
On parking in Oakland:
- The City’s “official” parking FAQ
- A Better Oakland: Grandstanding at the Grand Lake Theater
- Fragmentary Evidence: Hell hath no fury like a parker scorned
- Fragmentary Evidence: If you build community, they will leave
- Oakland North: Lakeshore businesses protest parking hikes and talk of a general strike
- Oakland North: General strike for Lakeshore on Thursday
- Harrioak News: General strike to protest parking crackdown
On parking in general:
- Donald Shoup talks parking with Streetfilms.org
- InTransition: Putting Parking into Reverse
- Streetsblog: There’s No Such Thing as “Free Parking”
- Boing Boing: Free Parking Costs a Fortune