Business Journal Editor Westergaard Flubs the Business of Parking

After reading a column by Neil Westergaard in today’s Denver Business Journal, you have to wonder if he’s ever bothered to brush up on the basic economics of transportation and planning policy. The piece careens from the dread of density to eradicating “the bums” from the 16th Street Mall, then finally settles on the need for more free parking downtown.

Free parking in downtown urban spaces is an antiquated idea. Photo: Sean Carruthers via Flickr:
Free parking on downtown streets is an antiquated idea. Photo: Sean Carruthers via Flickr

A few snippets from the article:

Or perhaps people fear the mayor and city council want a city of high-density, high-cost, high-rise urban apartments that only rich out-of-staters can afford to live in.

Based on the city’s decisions of late, it looks like city leaders want Denverites to get around not in private automobiles, but rather on bikes, buses, tiny rental cars and Uber.

Or, how about making the parking meters free downtown after, say, 7 p.m.? If the city truly wants people downtown at night, why does it have that fleet of extraordinarily efficient meter maids cruising around until 10 p.m. writing tickets?

Westergaard wants to get more people downtown, but making curbside parking free will have the opposite effect, as the research of former UCLA professor Donald Shoup has shown. Free parking leads drivers to squat in a space, deterring turnover and shrinking the customer base for local businesses (see: LoDo on a Sunday). While the lucky drivers squat, others add to congestion by circling the city, looking for a spot.

Parking spaces are not a birthright, they’re a scarce commodity that should be priced accordingly. Shoup recommends pricing on-street parking spaces to maintain about one empty space per block. That way, there’s always a space available to drivers in search of a spot, and they don’t cruise fruitlessly in search of parking. You’d think the city’s leading business publication would get behind charging for a commodity based on market forces.

That’s exactly what Seattle does. The Seattle DOT is in the middle of replacing its old-school parking meters with smart meters that adjust pricing based on the hour of the day. The solution, which spurs economic activity, is driven by data — not paranoia that the government is trying to take away your car.

Stephen Fesler of The Urbanist reports:

The paid parking program is managed on the basic principles of supply and demand. With a limited number of available parking spaces and inconsistent demand throughout areas and time, SDOT uses price and time limits to manage how consumers choose to occupy space and smooth out utilization. There are a number of practical reasons for managing parking in this way:

  • Help users find parking easily within a close walking distance of their intended destination(s);
  • Turnover of spaces so that other users can access an area for business and boost economic activity;
  • Reduce traffic congestion, wear and tear, and noise resulting from vehicles circling for parking spaces; and
  • Conserve fuel and reduce vehicle emissions in the search for parking.

At $1 per hour, parking rates in downtown Denver are absurdly low. Rates in Seattle range from $1 to $4 per hour, depending on demand.

I spoke with John Desmond of the Downtown Denver Partnership, who said downtown’s parking policy needs to be re-examined.

“We as a city really need to analyze this comprehensively based on demand and utilization of existing spaces, and study pricing strategies that are currently in place,” Desmond said. “On-street parking is a public resource that we need to figure out how to best utilize for the maximum public good.”

Making a campaign promise to charge less may have helped John Hickenlooper get elected mayor in 2003, but Denver is a different city now, and parking policy needs to catch up with best practices in other cities, whether Westergaard likes it or not.

  • Bernard Finucane

    If you are too stingy to spend a couple bucks on parking, you aren’t much good to downtown merchants anyway.

    • I actually disagree with this. They’ll object to paying 1 dollar for parking on the principle of it, because they can get it for free elsewhere. I’m not saying this value proposition makes sense, people are not particularly good with numbers, but it is the one that people make.

      • Bernard Finucane

        I sort of have that syndrome on the internet, so I know what you mean. Still, I think cities need to learn to say no to people.

        • Oh absolutely, I’m not saying making parking free is the answer. But I think accepting that a large group of people won’t pay for parking is necessary. Or you know, mandating pay for parking at malls.

          • neroden

            This is why you charge for parking *when the parking is basically full already*. That indicates that you’ve got enough people who will pay for parking…

            The rule of thumb is to manage the price to keep the parking 80%-95% full (depending on what you think is best) but not 100% full. In some of those mall parking lots, they’re so empty that it isn’t worth the cost to maintain the asphalt.

          • Most malls are empty most of the time. This is a problem, and yes, market rates for parking don’t make sense here. In this case, parking is operated at a loss, and I pay for that loss when I take the bus there. Why should I pay for other people to park their cars?

  • nwestergaard

    Tell me something, David, as an “expert” on all things streetwise: Why doesn’t the city charge for street parking on Sundays and holidays? And how come meters in Cherry Creek turn off in the early evening every night? There must be a reason.

    • neroden

      There’s very low demand for parking at night. That’s why it’s made free at night… and it’s still half-empty.

      If the parking is full at night, the meters should be running.

      The same traditionally applies to Sundays — fewer people want to park their cars, the spaces are half-empty, so the parking is made free. I’m not sure if that’s actually valid any more, but it used to be valid.

      The same traditionally applied to holidays: people stayed home on holidays, so nobody was using the parking spaces. I’m quite *sure* this isn’t true any more (except maybe Christmas and Thanksgiving).

      I believe the current rationale for free parking on holidays is that the meter maids who put out the parking tickets are on holiday!

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