Sunday, September 27, 2009

Parking - How Much to Pay?

There has recently been a lot of fuss over City Council’s decision to require paid parking at meters on Sunday.  Opposition to it garnered a petition, and was significantly opposed in the city’s survey on the issue.  Perhaps to make the issue go down a little easier, the funding from Sunday metering will be used to fund local daycare and environmental grants. Presumably this will take some budgetary oversight as I’m sure the parking meter money all just ends up in the general revenue stream. 

This got me thinking back on some articles I had read about market demand based parking meter rates.  The theory is parking meters are meant to encourage turnover of parking spaces to allow a greater number of customers to access local business and services.  Too low a rate, and people will park all day, reducing the number of people coming through.  Too high a rate, and no one will park in the area.  Having appropriate levels of parking available also helps reduce congestion by reducing the need for drivers to circle endlessly looking for space. 

According to studies, having the parking spaces 85% full is the magic number.  This leaves room for more people, but does not forgo revenue by having too many unused spaces.  There is often a fear amongst businesses that raising the rates will discourage traffic, and lowering the rates will encourage people to stop and shop.  This is only true if the parking is not full.  If, like in New West, the parking spaces are fully used through most of the day such that parking is difficult to find, reducing rates will not increase customers as it will only increase demand for a commodity that is already fully sold out. 

A few years back, San Francisco (Redwood City) started testing such a program.  According to the Downtown Development Manager, the program has been successful.
Initially, I thought  the program actually varied the rates in real-time, but looking at what’s been done, it seems as though the rates have just been optimized to produce an average 85% occupancy rate.  However, there is no reason (well there are some reasons, primarily logistical) that rates couldn’t be changed in real time. 

Picture it – when the meters on 6th Street turn on early in the morning, rates would be cheap to encourage people to stop and run their errands, say $0.25 and hour.  As workers come in and the city awakes, spots fill up.  As blocks get full, the rates rise, $1.00, $2.00, or higher as people come in.  Mid-morning, rates dip a bit as fewer people are shopping.  Lunch time, rates ramp as people come in for food.  Rates would then drop after lunch and continue down throughout the afternoon until 5:00, when everyone is returning from work and running their afternoon errands. 

The main challenge with pricing in real time is the uncertainty.  Are you willing to drive downtown not knowing what the price of parking will be when you get there?  In New West it may not be as big a problem, at least for the downtown area as the parkade could take the load from anyone not willing to pay the street rates – perhaps this would even improve use of the parkade.  Some method of pushing current pricing information to interested people would need to be included. 

Another issue is getting business onboard with potentially higher rates.  Where other cities have seen success is by using the increase in parking meter revenue to provide other improvements to the business areas affected to encourage activity there (sidewalk benches, tree planting, etc.). 

Without minimizing the challenges to overcome, given the parking situation in New West (and Vancouver in general), I believe it would be worth trying such as system here.  It contributes to a number of the business and environmental goals the city is aiming for, and potentially increases revenue as well.  New West is small enough that even if it turned out badly, it wouldn't be a major disaster for the area.   If we are going to change how we handle on-street parking, let’s set it right. 

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