ONCE UPON a time there was a town with a parking problem. In its central business district, there simply wasn’t enough of it, people said.
Despite half a century spent razing buildings to make way for parking lots and garages and maximizing the number of on-street parking spots, parking was still insufficient, the townspeople complained. And when they did find a place to park, they became beholden to the meter.
But then things changed. Time limits were eliminated, pricing was standardized. People reporting finding available spaces on blocks where it had been historically difficult to park on the street.
What’s more, they were able to pay for extra time via a smartphone app. This resulted in a 17 percent drop in the number of tickets written for overtime parking.
As you might imagine, the townspeople were absolutely furious. That’s because the town I’m writing about is Savannah.
It’s true that all the desirable outcomes described above come at a price. Meter rates have increased and enforcement hours have been extended.
Some folks are rightly concerned about the financial burden this places on hospitality industry workers. Others worry about the safety of waiters and bartenders, with pockets full of tips, walking late at night to cars they left farther away from their workplaces to avoid paying to park.
Acknowledging these concerns, the city plans to expand its downtown circulator shuttle, station more police in parking garages, and promote an existing program that offers discounted monthly parking garage passes for people who work nights.
Will this be enough to lessen the impact on downtown employees? Probably not.
Will continued complaints result in the adjustment of parking rates and enforcement hours? Perhaps so.
Ongoing evaluation and fine tuning will be necessary, but not just because of public opinion. Disruptive forces in the form of Uber and Lyft are here and autonomous vehicles are coming.
Changing demographics will also impact demand for parking, as revealed by the results of a National Association of Realtors study released last month: 62 percent of millennials and 55 percent of the ‘silent generation’ (those born before 1944) prefer communities in which they can walk to the places they want to go.
Good news is the replacement of coin operated meters with digital equipment will provide better data on parking trends and make adjustments easier.
How will we know if adjustments are needed and in which direction? Is there a magic number of empty spaces that signals rates are optimal? Indeed, there is!
If any human deserves to be called the nation’s leading expert on parking, it’s Donald Shoup. An economist, he’s a Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA and the author of the epic tome, “The High Cost of Free Parking.” In it, he identifies an 85 percent occupancy rate as the ideal.
“The price is too high if many spaces are vacant and too low if no spaces are vacant,” Shoup writes. “But if two or more spaces are vacant on a block and drivers can reliably find open curb spaces at their destination, the price is just right. We call this the Goldilocks principle of parking prices.”
Getting the price “just right,” could require adding some complexity back into Savannah’s parking regulations. Some cities are even using dynamic pricing, made possible by advances in meter technology, to respond to changes in demand.
Revenue from meeting that demand, Shoup recommends, should be used to “finance public services in the metered neighborhoods.”
That’s one part of Savannah’s “Parking Matters” plan that is often overlooked. While we discuss the harm to workers caused by increased rates, we must remember there is a significant segment of the workforce that stands to gain.
As I have written before, many downtown workers don’t own cars. They’ll benefit from better walking and biking infrastructure, and better transit options, funded by increased rates.
They’ll have more dignified commutes and a much better chance of arriving at work safely.