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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 8, 2012 5 years ago

Our View: Options to fix the meter mess


“Just because the driver doesn’t pay for parking, doesn’t mean the cost goes away. The cost is still there. It’s not paid for by the driver, but you pay for parking in every other role you have in life, as a taxpayer, as a resident, either a tenant or homeowner, when you go shopping, when you go to the movies. A little bit of every transaction has a small part shaved off to pay for your parking.”
— Donald Shoup,
Professor, Urban Planning, UCLA
parking expert

Don’t do it. Don’t tear out the downtown parking meters. Just bag them for now.

It would be easy to hurl mud pies at the city, the city administration, City Commission — past and present, as well as at some of the downtown merchants over this embarrassing fiasco. But it wouldn’t serve much of a purpose to denigrate anyone.

The thing to do now is to try to reset. Stay calm and think about the best course of action to make this situation right once and for all. It can be done.

From the outset, we hope everyone would agree: Going back to free, two-hour parking on Main Street, with meter maids dusting tires with chalk and dispensing $25 parking tickets is not the ultimate answer. That setup triggered this whole mess.

Here is something else everyone needs to keep in mind: Parking is never free. Never. Go back to the top of this column and read the quotes from UCLA Professor Donald Shoup. If you think you’re getting free parking at the mall, you’re delusional. You’re paying for that parking and the convenience of it in the cost of the merchandise you buy at Saks, Dillard’s or wherever.

Likewise downtown. If you think you’re getting “free” parking on Main Street, think again. The cost of maintaining that street space is priced into your property-tax bill. In effect, all Sarasota city taxpayers are subsidizing the cost of downtown curb parking on public streets.

So, to some extent, you could say the downtown merchants are benefitting as partial “free riders.” At the mall, the mall owner charges retailers rents that cover the mall’s property taxes (which of course include the assessments on the parking spaces). That cost is not really borne by the retailers. It is in the cost of their goods.

For downtown merchants, they, too, help pay for that Main Street parking, and they, too, price that cost in their goods. But because property taxes are spread throughout the city’s entire taxpaying population, residents in Newtown, Harbor Acres and even the mall owner are subsidizing the cost of maintaining Main Street and its sidewalks.

To be sure, an economically healthy downtown is crucial to the city of Sarasota’s future. Without a healthy downtown commercial tax base, residential property taxes would go higher. So one of the challenges is how to make it attractive for shoppers to come downtown. Parking must be convenient, plentiful and reasonably priced.

Clearly, this means there is likely to be a mix of parking garages and curb street parking. And there should be a price for both. But what is the right price and the right pricing system? We have some options to consider:

Option 1: Stick it to the parking violators. Fine them so it hurts. Charging $25 for violating the two-hour parking limit doesn’t cause enough pain.

This would be a variation on the old system. You would still have downtown merchants’ employees parking in prime places and rushing out the doors every two hours to find the next free, open street spot. You would still have the meter maids putzing around in their three-wheeler cabs slapping chalk dust on cars. That method of policing is stupid.

It’s stupid because the money that is generated is generated primarily to pay for the police and perpetuate a government parking bureaucracy. There is little that is productive in this model.

In fact, it’s also extraordinarily wasteful. To wit: As long as “free” parking is available on the street and less expensive than off-street parking, this would encourage downtown shoppers to drive around downtown blocks until they find the next available spot. If the environmentalists paid attention to how wasteful this is, they would be organizing protests against free downtown street parking and throwing tomatoes at the downtown “cruisers” looking for the next free spot. For instance:

Shoup, a renowned expert on parking, studied the effects of “cruising” in 15-block Westwood Village in Los Angeles. The average drive time to find a free spot was about three minutes.

“If everybody does this over the course of a year,” Shoup concluded, “all of this cruising for underpriced parking in Westwood adds about 1 million vehicle miles per year. That’s four trips to the moon or 36 trips around the Earth … If curb parking is cheaper than off-street parking, we all have the incentive to hunt for a curb space. The city sets the price so it is inducing the behavior.”

Option 2: Privatize downtown parking. Look at it as a business.

First, it’s painfully evident city government is a lousy parking manager. It should not be in the parking business. It should let private-sector entrepreneurs and business people figure out how to make it work. Here are some thoughts:

Create parking districts throughout downtown. Auction off the rights to manage the parking to entrepreneurs and businesses, much like leasing Marina Jack.

Each district might be governed by a board of district property owners, giving the board the authority to hire and fire the parking manager. To help keep their interests aligned, say a portion of the parking manager’s revenues would go toward the physical maintenance and upkeep of the district’s streetscape. This arrangement would give property owners some leverage over the parking manager and help keep him from doing a lousy job and hurting merchants’ businesses and property.

Meantime, the parking manager wants to make money. He wants to sell parking space. He will figure out how to price that space and offer services in a way that attracts customers and makes it profitable for him. If he is competing with another parking manager operating an adjacent parking district, shoppers will have two parking operators competing to offer the best price and the best services. Everybody wins.
There is no reason in the world downtown street-curb parking cannot be a free-enterprise operation.

Option 3: The Old Pasadena, Calif., option.
Professor Shoup in the video referenced in the accompanying box tells the story of Old Pasadena. About 30 years ago, it was a skid row with mostly vacant storefronts. The city fathers wanted to install parking meters because employees of the few businesses that remained occupied all of the curb spaces.

The merchants said, “No way, that would chase away what few customers we have.” This went on for years. (Sound familiar?)

Then someone at City Hall had an epiphany. The city went to the merchants and said: What if we install the meters and return all of the meter money to the Old Pasadena district in the form of new and additional services?

In the video, Shoup snaps his fingers and says: “And, like that, the merchants said, ‘That’s different.’”

Today, Old Pasadena attracts 30,000 visitors every weekend, walking and shopping in a 15-block area. It’s one of the most popular places in Southern California. The parking meter money is now generating more than $1 million a year.

And since this system went into place, the meter money has paid for new sidewalks; the cleanup of the skid-row alleys; installing underground utility wires; the steam-cleaning of the district twice a month; and the nightly sweeping of sidewalks.

“Old Pasadena pulled itself up by its parking meters,” Shoup says in the video. “Once the city began providing all these enhanced public services, all of the property owners began restoring their buildings.”

UCLA Professor Donald Shoup offers great lessons on downtown curb-street parking in a video at the following site:

One of his examples of sensible parking policy is Old Pasadena, Calif., once a downtown dead zone that now attracts 30,000 people a weekend. To see how Old Pasadena manages parking with different pricing schemes, go to:

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