The problem with free downtown street parking

As talk of downtown development grows, the calls to change the neighborhood’s parking policies have also increased. Specifically, many have lobbied the city to eliminate parking meters to spur more visits to the area.  On the surface, eliminating parking meters seems like the panacea for slumping downtown businesses. Why would you pay to park downtown when parking is free everywhere else? Unfortunately, this idea has always been a mirage in the desert of downtown revitalization. Cities and improvement districts think they can kick start businesses with free street parking, but when they actually do it, they never get the exact results they were looking for. 

If demand is low for parking-- as shown here just south of the waterfront-- should the city be charging for it?

If demand is low for parking– as shown here just south of the waterfront– should the city be charging for it?

How could free street parking possibly be a bad thing? There are a couple of specific reasons why, but the simple answer is supply and demand. If parking is not priced to meet the demand, then there will be inefficiency between the availability of parking spots and cars, resulting in major congestion on the streets and empty parking garages.

In “Walkable City,” author and planner Jeff Speck explains how free parking stymies downtown businesses by increasing traffic congestion and reducing shopper turnover. For example, if you head downtown knowing that street parking is free, there is no way you’ll be willing to pay for a spot in a nearby garage. The problem is, everyone else heading downtown has the same mentality, creating a demand so high for street parking that the supply is quickly over whelmed. As a result, there won’t be a free spot available for everyone, forcing drivers to circle block after block waiting for that one spot to open up. According to Speck, studies of six urban areas have shown that about a third of all traffic is a result of people looking for parking. This does three things: (1) wastes the driver’s time, which could be better spent spending money at a local shop or getting to their movie on time, (2) hurts businesses by keeping shoppers (and their disposable income) in their cars for longer periods of time, and (3) creates unnecessary traffic (not to mention the extra emissions from wasted gas). All the while, a city’s multi-million dollar parking garages—built for the specific purpose of giving people a place to park easily—remain mostly empty.

The solution? Instead of offering free parking, the city should price street meters to meet the demand (defined by parking luminary Donald Shoup as an occupancy rate of 85% at all times). Speck presents several case studies to bolster these claims, noting that Ventura and Aspen each saw a drop in congestion and a more balanced use of all city parking facilities as a direct result of eliminating free street parking. Both cities enjoy prosperous downtown areas. Old Pasadena updated its parking policy years ago to reflect demand, and is now a very popular destination for locals and tourists alike. On the other end of the spectrum, Speck points out that Westwood Village in Los Angeles offers free parking, but still suffers from an abundance of empty store fronts, despite its prime location and guaranteed consumer base in the adjacent UCLA campus.

But if we’re talking supply and demand, then it stands that some areas slightly further from Stockton’s core may be charging more than people are actually willing to pay. Speck notes that in areas where activity at street level is dead, overpriced street parking may be to blame. In these cases, it may make sense to suspend parking meter enforcement to stimulate activity as there are many more spots than there are visitors to that are willing to pay to fill them. In Downtown Stockton, there are many blocks that are not exactly tourist destinations, so lowering or eliminating parking fees in these areas is a possibility for the time being.

The Stockton Arena garage

The Stockton Arena garage sits empty most of the time

However, sometimes parking policies are related to things other than parking. It turns out that  the Stockton Police Department actually uses parking meters as a crime deterrent and removing or not enforcing meters could have unintended negative consequences for public safety. By allowing cars to park all day without having to feed the meter, drug dealers never have to leave public spaces, making it difficult for officers to make arrests since loitering in public parks is not a crime. However, by requiring park patrons to refill the meter every couple of hours, officers are then allowed to enforce anti loitering laws once that drug dealer steps foot on the sidewalk. Last year, the Economic Development Department lowered the allowable parking times around Fremont Square for this exact purpose, and the result of this change (along with other tools) has been a safer park.

In short, parking is quite complicated, and fixing Downtown Stockton is not as simple as making parking free. In Stockton, the inability to find a cheap parking space on a desirable street is incorrectly labeled as a problem. On the contrary, isn’t it good that there appears to be so many people downtown that parking is not easy to come by? We certainly don’t have parking figured out yet, but change is definitely coming. The city will soon take up a new parking master plan, as reported by SCL’s Kristine Williams last week. Hopefully, the city can find the right balance of parking to accommodate all visitors to Downtown Stockton.

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Categories: Community Commentary, Transportation

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia created SCL in March of 2012. Garcia is a Stockton native with a background in urban policy and planning, holding a Bachelor's Degree from UCLA as well as a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He currently serves as the Policy Director at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. David was also COO at Ten Space, a real estate development firm focused exclusively on Downtown Stockton, and continues to advise on their projects. Prior to that, he worked three years as a researcher/analyst for a Congressional research agency in Washington, DC. The views expressed on this site are entirely of the author's

One Comment on “The problem with free downtown street parking”

  1. Jon Seisa
    February 12, 2014 at 12:44 am #

    To be frank, Stockton’s parking strategic master plan really needs to be catapulted out of the Neanderthal Stone Age and into the 21st Century. City Hall should seriously examine and consider San Francisco’s pilot “SF-Park” plan, the most advanced parking management system on the entire planet, which features “demand-response parking rates adjustments” applied to meter parking and public garage parking via new technologies and additive mobile apps and web maps.

    Parking meters can even be credited with extra time via phone pay technology without having to go to the actual meter and the patron is alerted by phone when their parking time reaches a critical point to implement the transaction. SF-Park’s state-of-the-art meters are easy to use and allow drivers to pay with coins, credit/debit cards, and SFMTA parking cards. In late 2010, the SFMTA replaced existing parking meters with these new coin and card meters.

    New meters, sensors, and demand-responsive pricing made it easier to find parking in SF, leading to cleaner air, safer streets and a clearer path for Muni and emergency vehicles. Increased parking availability benefits drivers, Muni riders, bicyclists, pedestrians, visitors, residents, merchants and more.

    Demand-responsive pricing opens up parking spaces on each block and reduce circling and double-parking. Rates may vary by block, time of day and day of week. Rates are adjusted in small increments by no more than 50 cents per hour down or 25 cents per hour up, and no more often than once per month.

    And, parking meters on blocks within walking distance of the ballpark now operate until 10pm Monday to Saturday and are priced between $5 and $7/hour for events. In addition to the parking information map available on the homepage, information on parking availability is distributed via a free SFparkiPhone app, Android app, and the region’s 511 phone system.


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