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Parking Schizophrenia

By Frank Gruber

I have ideas about preferential parking, but they're contradictory.


My anti-car urbanista persona (that is, me before I had my own parking space downtown) likes preferential parking because any limitation on parking is a disincentive for people to drive, and as demonstrated by me, nothing encourages driving like the availability of parking.

For instance, if because of resident-only street parking, employees must find parking farther away, or even, heaven forbid, have to pay for it, then some of them may find another way to get to work.

At the same time, however, my fairness persona thinks it's outrageous that residents can take over the streets for their own purposes -- and for a measly fifteen bucks a year! Especially residents who already have garages and driveways.

I say no permits for anyone who has a garage full of junk!

Preferential parking also upsets my amateur economist persona, who is appalled by how many spaces go to waste on blocks with preferential parking. When my office was at 12th and Colorado, the streets nearby were residents-only, and half the spaces were empty during the day, when local employees, clients and customers couldn't find parking.

Then there is the shopper in me who gets angry when he can't find a place to park because the streets are limited to residents.. (But then my urbanista personality gets indignant and tells the shopper he should have taken the bus.)

All these personas listened closely when the City Council, on June 24, debated a new plan for dealing with parking on the blocks on either side of the Montana shopping district.

Five blocks in this area, all single-family blocks north of Montana, have already achieved preferential parking status. The blocks are off-limits to non-residents from nine to nine, except that on some blocks nonresidents may park for one hour.

Predictably, the preferential parking on those blocks pushed traffic to other blocks, and residents on four of them, two north of Montana and two south, have petitioned for preferential status.

City staff came to the conclusion that this piecemeal process was not solving the problem, merely pushing it around. They examined the parking situation in detail and found that as a whole there is enough parking in the area for residents, employees, and shoppers although parking tends to bunch up in various "hot spots."

Staff proposed to make a preemptive strike against parking Balkanization and create uniform rules for the whole eighteen-block area. While residents on individual blocks would still need to petition to establish preferential parking on their blocks, the rules would be the same for everyone in the district, and the standards would be such that individual districts would not merely shift parking around.

At the core of staff's idea was that throughout the district residents in preferential districts would have priority only on one one side of each street, leaving the other side open to everyone -- residents, visitors and employees.

The concept makes sense because the demand for parking is fluid. Residents leave during the day for their jobs, employees arrive, customers come and go, then most of the employees leave by the time residents return. At all times residents would have priority for half the spaces, which seems fair enough.

I am happy to acknowledge that the council member who "got" the concept better than any other was Kevin McKeown, normally the member most reactive to the most simplistic demands of residents. While the churlish cur inside me wants to say that even a broken clock is right twice a day, McKeown did his homework and deserves to be commended.

McKeown had toured the area and concluded that staff's analysis of parking demand was accurate. He spoke eloquently about how preferential parking merely pushed parking demand to the perimeter, creating more demand for preferential parking.

Unfortunately, if he had been a little more persuasive, McKeown might have got Herb Katz, Pam O'Connor and Michael Feinstein to vote for trying out staff's plan. Katz and O'Connor usually vote against all preferential parking, but this time O'Connor was open to the one side of the street proposal, and Katz might have voted the same way if it would have made a difference.

Mike Feinstein had good instincts, but instead of voting to give staff's proposal a try, he pushed a proposal for allowing employees to buy parking permits if there was available parking. There is nothing necessarily inconsistent between the one side of the street plan and employee permits.

Feinstein and McKeown ended up voting with Ken Genser, Richard Bloom and Robert Holbrook on a compromise plan that mostly benefits residents. They rejected the one side of the street proposal, but allowed more liberal two-hour parking throughout the district.

The winners are residents, the survivors are shoppers (including movie-goers at the Aero, who presumably will be able to park at 7:01 pm. and not get a ticket), and the losers are employees, who will need to park north of Alta.

Again to highlight my own conflicting views, I have to admit there were arguments in favor of this plan, too. One can imagine how, because of employee parking, the one side of the street proposal might not work, if employees arriving in the morning occupy all available spaces on the non-preferential side and keep them all day.

The urbanista in me says that there is nothing wrong with employees having to walk a block to work, but I wonder if the residents north of Alta won't soon be petitioning for their own preferential district.

The root problem is that parking is a finite resource, not cheap to create, that people want for free. So long as residents can park on the street for free, or for fifteen dollars a year, they are not going to clear out their garages. So long as employees and customers can park for free, they're not going to park in the pay-lots or structures.

London recently began to charge motorists five pounds a day for the privilege of driving into the city. This was controversial, but so far it's dramatically reduced congestion.

Michael Feinstein has the right instincts when he wants to develop an employee parking permit program: what we need to do is start charging a price for parking that reflects its value.

If residents want to control all the parking on their streets, then they should pay for the privilege. Parking permits should be roughly equivalent to the value -- say $40 per month.

The same should go for employees, and, for that matter, customers, who want to park within a block of busy streets like Montana. You don't need cumbersome meters these days to do this. In Europe there are various systems in operation where motorists can buy parking in advance, and then use it as needed, such as by displaying a card on the dashboard.

There was no rush to solve this problem -- most blocks in the area have not yet petitioned for preferential parking. Given the complexity of the issue, and the high emotions, the best thing the council could do would be ask staff to research more options, including pricing options.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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