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Parking Meters in Commercial Districts

The City of Atlanta has proposed installing parking meters along the bustling commercial district along Highland and Lake Avenue in Inman Park. Not unexpectedly, some business owners are concerned that charging for parking will deter people from coming (by car) to the district and their businesses will suffer from lost revenue. But, if done properly and with the right intentions, the opposite should occur. Business should increase rather than decrease. Let me explain.

It’s not surprising that business owners, especially in auto-centric, auto-dependent cities like Atlanta, often equate cars with customers. If you want customers, you have to accommodate their cars by providing parking. Preferably free. Anything that discourages people driving to an area, like charging for parking, especially if there are other competing areas with free parking, will discourage people from coming and revenue will be lost. They look at all the parking spaces being utilized and see income. And it’s a perfectly rational way to think. But there’s another way to think about it. The way urbanists, inspired by Donald Shoup’s groundbreaking book The High Cost of Free Parking, see those full parking spaces. As lost revenue for businesses. Once your parking is full, functionally, you now have zero parking.

Map of parking

No parking means no new customers arriving (by car). A commercial district with chronic parking shortages discourages people that would otherwise go there from making the trip (by car). The business owners are right. No parking means lost revenue. But that’s already the situation we have. By giving away the parking for free, we are effectively continuously “sold out” of parking, with none for new customers. Parking may be free, but if there’s none available, what good is it?

I said earlier that if done properly and with the right intentions that installing parking meters should increase business, and by the right intentions I mean the goal of the parking meters should be to ensure that some on street parking is always available for those who want to patronize the businesses in the district (by car) and long term parking for those that want to visit friends and have drinks on their porch, stroll the BeltLine, etc. should be available in parking decks.

So how do we do this right?

      1. Appropriate pricing
        The price of street parking should be such that use should hover around 85% of capacity during most times. This should equate to an empty space every block or other block, ensuring that drivers are able to easily find an available space. Ideally, the price should have some relation to the pricing of nearby parking decks, so that long term parking is cheaper in the decks, but short term parking is cheaper on the street, discouraging squatting on the streets in front of businesses.

        Pricing should be variable. Friday nights at 7PM will have wildly different numbers of people parking on the street than Sunday at 6AM. Ideally, sensors would be aware of how many spaces are available and the meters could respond in real time to demand and raise or lower prices as appropriate. But that is unlikely to happen, so collecting data on usage and periodically updating the pricing to target the appropriate capacity is a next best thing.

      2. Appropriate timing
        What’s the right amount of time to have someone park? The answer is different for different businesses. Someone running into Inman Perk for a cup of coffee on their way to work is different than someone shopping at Nandina Home and Design. Someone running into Savi for a six pack of beer is different than someone having dinner at one of the restaurants, but the restaurant may appreciate turning tables as customers realize their parking is expiring.If parking costs money for the quickest trip, the businesses that cater to quick turnaround, an essential component of active street life, will lose customers. If parking is too long (and too cheap), there will be no turnaround.Something along the lines of the first 15 minutes free and a cap of two hours should be appropriate.This is something the community and businesses should discuss, and should be amendable in the future. Treat this as an experiment that we can learn from and adapt, remembering that “long term” parking should be available in a nearby deck.
      3. Appropriate information
        Current pricing should be available via the internet/phone apps, as should the location of available spaces. It does little good for people to “know” that parking will be available, if they arrive to find out that parking is priced higher than they are willing to pay. Inform people that are thinking about driving to the district before they make the decision to go.

        On this note, some will point out, “AHA! See, charging for parking WILL discourage people from coming and WILL hurt business!” But it’s important to note that the price would be high only because people are already there. It’s the old Yogi Berra line, “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” If the price is high enough to discourage some from traveling there, it only means there are already people there.

      4. Appropriate investment
        This is perhaps the most critical component. A portion of the net revenue from the parking meters – along the line of  50% – should be directly reinvested into the neighborhood to improve streetscapes, repair sidewalks and better the pedestrian experience, enhance bicycling infrastructure, and other public improvements IN THAT NEIGHBORHOOD (or within about a half mile radius of the meters).  A separate portion of the proceeds should go to expanding and improving transit in the city.
Highland Avenue
Cars parked for free on Highland Avenue

In addition to metered parking ensuring spaces are available, there are other benefits. Yes, charging for parking discourages those who have alternate means of travel to not drive a personal car. Someone that could walk, but has previously chosen not to, may start walking. Someone that could take the train to the Inman Park station and walk a few blocks may decide to. As transit options increase, priced parking will encourage alternate transportation beyond cars. For those that do drive, by ensuring there are open spaces, traffic is reduced. Cars that were previously circling the area searching for spaces can now find them.

All of the above are best practices, and the benefits from them to businesses and residents should be apparent. But this is Atlanta, where best practices go to die. Where pricing is stable, and seen as merely a revenue generator for the city’s general funds. Where discouraging driving will be pitched as a solution, but the price will be low enough to ensure that all the spaces remain filled, discouraging nothing. Will this have a negative impact on the businesses? Probably not. Enough people will still want to come to the district that the status quo will be maintained. But it would be a lost opportunity to make the district even more successful and create a healthier city. The question is not should we oppose the meters if they are poorly implemented, but that we should insist that they be done for the right reasons and done well.

Postscript – I know that many people will be surprised that I am advocating for the availability of parking. They should not be. Yes, we need to walk, bike, and take transit. We need to build walkable neighborhoods, and bicycle and transit infrastructure. But cars, now and even in the future of autonomous vehicles, are part of our lives and our city. We cannot be anti-car and anti-parking, but instead work towards solutions that properly manage cars, manage parking, and make a better city for all of us.

Further Reading:

Turning Small Change Into Big Changes
Pay Parking Experiment in Roanoke
Cruising for Parking Access

Top image: Paul Sableman