Sunday, February 21, 2016

A rant about the fundamentals of parking space economics.

Areas colored red are without buildings, potentially available for parking. 

As noted yesterday ...

It's coming around again, folks: What about downtown parking problems and/or solutions?

I glanced around the web in search of an article that might help us understand the issues involved with parking, which in the ideal world should involve first being able to diagnose the problem, and only then to apply solutions. There are many such articles, but this one gets us started.

Don’t be Misled by Parking Space Economics, by Bill Lindeke (Streets MN; 02/26/2013).

Lindeke speaks of St. Paul, Minnesota, but the fundamentals also reference New Albany, Indiana. Specifically, the author is pulling data from Donald Shoup's seminal book, The High Cost of Free Parking, which has been spoken of at NAC on numerous occasions.

Lindeke begins with your innermost needs:

People driving around looking for parking is second only to sex when it comes to tapping into our lizard brain, our deepest core of animal urges. Parking drives people to madness, making them do crazy things, losing themselves in some sort of green Hulk rage of parallel lines and proximity.

In fact, in his book Shoup points to psychological research to show how we understand parking through almost mystical lenses, as if we are “predators” governed by “parking karma.” He writes:

Thinking about parking seems to take place in the reptilian cortex… said to govern instinctive behavior involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual display – all important factors in cruising for parking and debating about parking policies.

Reptilian or not, parking comes down to something that has intrinsic value (a place to put one's car for a limited amount of time), a value not reflected by the space being "free" -- because "free" doesn't exist. Never has, never will. The worst use of a parking space on the street in front of a business is for it to be widely regarded as free. What's more, those spaces are not the exclusive domain of the business owner.

Rather, they're part of a whole, and must be viewed this way.

The entire parking ecosystem of downtown ... is one large market, and the city as a whole is worth a certain amount per year. The value of each parking space is directly related to the value of every other, and we need to figure out ways to get the most value out of each of them.

Again: What is the value of parking spaces, and how best to leverage that value to the benefit of everyone downtown, not one or a only a few?

As long as we keep on-street parking free or absurdly cheap, almost everyone is going to be pissed off about it. That problem will never disappear, no matter how much paradise you pave. But if you get the prices right, parking problems will melt away.

Lindeke's example is of topical significance here in New Albany. Note that we have no parking meters in New Albany, but the result is the same.

Should you be lucky and get one of these “free” spots, you will stay parked there as long as possible. Shoup gives the example of employees at a restaurant that might grab a key on-street space right when meters expire (sometimes 5:00 or 6:00 PM around here). They’ll stay in that spot all evening because it’s free, while potential restaurant patrons may have difficulty finding parking.

Shoup argues that on-street parking should be more expensive than its off-street garage and ramp competition, so that those key spots turn over faster, while the less-convenient off-street or out-of-the-way spots are used by those who intend to remain parked for longer periods of time.

And another added point:

In the first case, making on-street parking practically free (compared to off-street garages) means that many drivers will “cruise” for spots, instead of paying more to use expensive ramps.

But in New Albany, our "ramps" are not expensive. In fact, the parking garage we have at the corner of State and Market, within a few minutes walk of 90% of downtown shops, offices and eateries, is ludicrously cheap or even available at no charge during peak periods.

(Yes, this represents a governmental subsidy; those spaces still are not "free")

Why isn't every employee (and owner) of downtown businesses using the parking garage, especially during the evenings? It's so obvious that even Bob Caesar understood it, and used the garage this way during his time of business ownership.

For many years, I've faulted City Hall (all of them) for declaring downtown an enforcement-free zone, and abdicating leadership on this issue. Yes, at times there needs to be a referee, and if this isn't municipal governments's job, I don't know what is.

But -- and this is a huge one -- downtown merchants, business owners and stakeholders in a collective sense have refused to (a) educate themselves about parking, and (b) use this knowledge as a unified front to make a proposal to City Hall.

In effect, Doug England threw it at the feet of downtown stakeholders: "Here you go. Upset because we're marking tires and collecting fines? Okay, now it's open season. No rules at all. Whatcha going to do to help yourselves?"

The answer has been nothing. Sorry  if it offends you. It's true. These are small, independent business operators. I've been one, and I love them all to death, and their best hope in a jigged system is to embrace information and act for the empowerment of all, not just one. Parking is precisely such an information-driven subject. However, we must absorb it and be prepared to act on it.

Speaking personally, a status quo of  nothingness works fine for me, as I'm no longer involved with a particular business, and I do what the rest of you should be doing, which is finding alternative means of transport.

In short, I walk. I've planned my life this way, so I could walk, and I do so. It would be helpful to the parking discussion (and to the community's future prospects) if New Albany's streets and sidewalks were actually safe for walking and biking, but that's a different discussion and another set of principles to be understood.

So, let's reiterate: There is no such thing as "free" parking, whether on the street or at the parking garage. Values must be determined, and strategies to reinforce value devised. Business owners need to take responsibility for this knowledge. Government needs to enforce norms. And, if a handful of customers decide that they like suburban strip malls better than what is offered downtown, that's fine. It's their choice. Others will take their place.

Confidence and knowledge, people. It's not radicalism, just calculated collective self-interest.

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