Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Parking Management That Actually Manages Parking

At about 10:30 this morning, I step out of my office at the corner of Poli and Oak and walk down Oak Street to get a cup of coffee at Palermo. Almost immediately, I notice something different.

The parking lot on Oak Street, usually two-thirds empty in the morning, is mostly full. And the on-street parking spaces along Oak and Main Street, which are mostly occupied on a typical morning at this time, are mostly vacant.

It takes me a moment before I realized why: The paid parking portion of our downtown parking management program had gone into effect at 10 a.m., and it was already showing results. People who park all day downtown have moved into the lots and the upper levels of the parking garage. Spaces on the street are now available for shoppers, diners, and others who were running short-term errands. In other words, only 30 minutes after we instituted the parking management program, it is working.

In all the discussions around town this summer about paid parking, the emphasis has always been on the "paid" part. Why is the city charging for parking downtown? Are we just being greedy? Where will the money go? Why would anyone go downtown if they have to pay to park?
These are all fair questions. (And they all have good answers -- for example, all the parking revenue money is going to benefit downtown and not being spent elsewhere in the city.) But the questions have obscured an important goal of the paid parking, which has nothing to do with revenue. The goal is to encourage employees and other long-term parkers downtown in order to free up space on the street for shoppers. And I was stunned at how quickly our "parking management" goal was achieved.

All day, we have a dozen or so police officers, public works officials, police cadets, and police volunteers downtown assisting people. When I go out again at lunchtime, the street spaces are beginning to fill up -- and everywhere I look, somebody from the city is helping a downtown shopper figure out how to use the new machines. But the point is still clear: The on-street spaces are gradually filling up with people who had come downtown to shop.

In the months leading up to the inauguration of paid parking, I kept hearing stories about how downtown employees were hogging the onstreet spaces. I heard that some merchants told their employees to park on the street -- but a block away, so as not to take up parking in front of the store. I heard that some businesses and employees erase the chalk marks that our parking enforcement folks put on their tires. I heard that some business owners give their employees a few minutes off every two hours to move their cars.

Frankly, I wasn't sure if I believed all these stories. After all, why would any merchant park in front of their own store? Why would you deal with all the hassles to park on the street -- erasing chalk, moving cars -- when there's free parking in city lots a half-block away? It seemed ridiculous to me. But the lesson from today is that it's not ridiculous. Obviously, what's been happening is that employees have been parking on the street and now they are parking in the lots.

At about 3 pm, I decide it is time for another cup of coffee at Palermo, partly just to see what was going on. By now most of the onstreet spaces are taken -- but the police volunteers and cadets are still around. A woman wanderes past Palermo and asks me if I know how to use the machines. I start to help her (she seems tickled pink that the mayor is helping her) when a fresh-faced police cadet comes up and does a better job of explaining it.

Anybody's first impulse, I think, is that paying for parking is a bad thing. But upon reflection, a lot of folks -- merchants and shoppers alike -- have come around to the idea that it can be a good thing.

Some shoppers have complained over the past few months that parking at the mall is free, so why should they pay to park downtown? The answer -- provided by Downtown Ventura Organization board chair Dave Armstrong -- is that you're paying for access to a few hundred premium spaces. And he's right. After all, all the mall parking spaces are far away from the stores -- farther than even the most remote free lot downtown. If it was possible to drive right inside the mall and park in front of your favorite store, don't you think the mall would charge for that space? And don't you think some people who think it's worth it would pay the price? Obviously, the answer to both these questions is yes.

Similarly, Main Street merchants have come to see that paid parking can help them too by opening up short-term spaces close to their store. As the owner of Jersey Mike's told me today, her customers used to have to circle the block three times looking for a space or park in a faraway parking lot. Now they can park right in front of her shop for a quarter -- or a dime -- or a nickel -- while they pick up their order. Because even though it's $1 for the first hour, you can buy less time with coins. And there's less traffic on the street because there's less "cruising" for a parking space.

6 pm: I head out to one our local establishments. Now it's very busy downtown -- the younger crowd is beginning to head out to downtown -- and the onstreet spaces are still mostly full. Prime time downtown.

Some people who grumbled about this idea pointed to the experience this summer at Ventura Harbor: Paid parking was instituted in the prime lot near the Village on weekends. But, the complainers pointed out, the Harbor ended the program early because they didn't achieve their revenue goals. True enough, but it was a gloomy summer and tourist business was off generally. And what the complainers tend to overlook is the fact that the Harbor actually did meet the parking management goals. Employees and all-day parkers going to the Channel Islands parked elsewhere, freeing up plenty of space for peope shopping at the Village. In that sense, it was a success.

9:15 pm. I take one final swing through downtown. Parking on the street is fairly light now -- especially on California between Santa Clara and Thompson (near the garage) and on other side streets such as Oak. And it's a fairly quiet Tuesday night -- most places. I peek into Anacapa Brewing to talk to owner Danny Saldana -- and, to my amazement, the place is completely full. Danny is happy with the situation and, like many other downtown business owners, says he is providing one-hour parking coupons to his regular customers for free. It's well worth it, he says, to keep them coming.

I walk back up Oak Street toward the office. The spaces on the street are mostly empty. And the parking lot across from office -- usually almost empty by now -- is completely full. Eleven hours later and it's still working.