parking fees

The Sacramento News & Review published this week Parking Nightmare: Major changes in Sacramento could mean higher prices, stiffer restrictions, following up on a earlier blog post  (, scroll down to July 15). SacBee also had an article on Friday, Downtown Sacramento parking rates likely to rise. Apart from the SN&R click-bait headline, the article provides more depth than anything else available at the moment, and provides me a chance to review parking fees and consequences. First, I would not for a moment counter the claim that an increase in parking charges is due at least in part to the city’s need to increase revenue to pay off arena bonds. But beyond that, it is possible to evaluate how parking should be priced.

My views on parking are all based on two concepts:

  • TheHighCostOfFreeParking_coverThere is no such thing as free parking. If parking is free, it is being subsidized by someone. The seminal thinking on this issue is The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald Shoup, as well as writings by others. The objective of managed parking pricing should be to ensure some free parking on every block so that people do not circle looking for parking, and that some of the parking fee income be returned to the neighborhood for improving the right-of-way, including sidewalks and pedestrian amenities.
  • On-street parking is not, as some people think, a bad thing. It slows traffic by generating “friction.” On street parking might be removed when there is clearly a higher use for road right-of-way, such as bike lanes or sidewalks, however, in almost all cases, removal of a travel lane is better for everyone than removal of on-street parking. I don’t support on-street parking because I want to see more space devoted to motor vehicles, but because of the traffic calming effect and because I think on-street parking creates a more livable environment than do parking garages, which I consider to be the lowest use (or mis-use) of urban land, only exceeded by off-street surface parking lots. Our streets would in fact be safer if there were more on-street parking on weekends and evenings, when most of the extremely dangerous  and egregious speeding occurs.

new parking meter
new parking meter

So, about the Sacramento proposal. There are several components:

  • Extending hours of operation from 6:00PM to 2:00AM.
  • Charging for parking on Sundays, which are currently free.
  • “Dynamic pricing” which allows people to park overtime at a higher fee. This is not the same as demand-based pricing, see below.
  • An “event pricing model” with a flat fee for parking close to the arena during events.
  • Eliminating or modifying free parking during the Christmas shopping season.

The city has installed new parking meters throughout parts of downtown/midtown which allow differential parking rates by time of day and/or demand, and I believe this capability should be implemented before or along with any other changes. These new meters are at individual spots, and are gradually replacing the kiosks which where the prior “latest thing.” Now that time-based and demand-based rates are possible, flat rates are inappropriate.

I support extending hours in the evening and to Sunday. Parking should not be offered for free at any time there is demand, and in much of downtown/midtown, there is always some demand. The point is that there should always be some open spots. However, demand during the evening is lower in much of downtown/midtown than during the work day, when almost all parking is filled by suburban commuters. When demand is lower, rates should be lower.

“Dynamic pricing,” allows parking over the posted time limit, at a higher fee, and sounds like demand-based parking, but it actually confuses the issue of demand. If there is no demand for a parking spot, why should it cost more? And if there is demand, either a time limit should be enforced or the fee should increase progressively, so that the spot is freed up. If “dynamic pricing” did not set an overall limit of less than eight hours, then it would exacerbate parking issues in downtown/midtown by allowing commuters to occupy spots all day long, which would otherwise be available for short-term retail parking. On-street parking then becomes a privilege for rich people who can afford the higher rates, and not a service provided to citizens. Lexus spots, if you will.

The proposed event pricing also confuses the issue of demand. If a person has paid the higher fee, then there is no incentive for them to free up the parking spot. A suburban commuter could park near the arena in the morning and occupy the space for the entire day and evening, all for one price. That makes no sense. If the pricing only applies after a certain time, then the impact would be less and it does have the advantage of encouraging people to stay for more than just the event and to frequent other businesses. However, since it reduces the availability of parking during high demand times, it works against efficient parking management.

I have no problem, in principle, with the idea of free holiday parking, but it should paid for by businesses and not the city. If the business owners feel that it promotes business, and they are willing to pay, then they should be allowed. I doubt that they would want to, but I find no valid reason to prevent it. The idea that the city should subsidize free parking in order that downtown/midtown business may compete with the suburbs where free parking is almost universal, I do not accept. Suburban parking is not truly free, it is being subsidized, either by the businesses or the government. To meet one subsidy with another subsidy to not an appropriate role for government.

timed parking and residential permit
timed parking and residential permit

What does not seem to be on the table is modification of residential parking permits. Currently, these permits are free to people who live in residential parking permit zones. I think that the entire downtown/midtown area that is not metered should be covered by permit parking, and that permits should not be free. All permits would have a small fee, covering administration of the program, street sweeping, and pavement maintenance. Higher fees would be set for higher demand areas. If ample spots are available on weekends, then the base fee is sufficient. If there is a lack of open spots on weekends, then a higher permit fee should be charged, until demand comes into balance with supply. Again, there is no such thing as free parking, and there is no reason for residents of the city who do not own motor vehicles, or who live in other areas, to be subsidizing residential parking in downtown/midtown.

Another issue not on the table is returning some of parking revenues to the neighborhoods from which it comes. The street is an environment, of which parking spots and associated fees are one of the elements. Parking fees should be used, at least in part, to enhance that environment. If sidewalks need to be repaired, if the street needs to be repaved, if roadway width needs to be reallocated to bike lanes or sidewalks, if ADA ramps are needed, if amenities are needed such as trees, street furniture, bike parking or parklets, all of these are valid investments in livability that could be paid for, in part, by parking fees. These programs are in place in a number of cities, and are one of the tools for gaining community support for better management of parking, but Sacramento does not have such a program. Now that all parking revenue is going to pay off arena bonds, the city of course won’t want to return any funds to the neighborhoods, but they should, and this idea should be considered along with all others in any revision of parking fees and regulations.

I will note that the comments on the SN&R blog, and the ones that will show up on the article and in many other places, will be from people who think that free parking is guaranteed in both the bible and the constitution (along with cheap gas). I’m not one of those people. Parking should never be free, and it should be managed in a way that provides the most benefit to the community. The city could accomplish those goals if it thinks creatively about parking rather than just increasing revenue or patching problems that have been created by past policies. I hope that the city will step back, consider all parking issues at the same time, and come up with a solution that works. Certainly that solution would include higher fees, at least at times and locations appropriate, more restrictions when necessary, and less restrictions when not, and a return of some revenue to the neighborhoods.

All of these thoughts are applicable to downtown/midtown. Whether they are applicable to other parts of the city and to other parts of the county and region, I’m not sure. But I intend to keep reading up on the issue and thinking about it.

One thought on “parking fees

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