I am pleased to see that Kent City Council has adopted the recommendations of the Parking Action Committee to implement a downtown Parking Management System. This system – which will allow parking to be priced based on market demand – will result in convenient parking being available for short-term visitors to downtown offices, restaurants and retail establishments.
Yes, we in Kent are accustomed to having “free public parking” but, in reality, it never has been. Indeed, the 500 public parking spaces in the downtown area have been heavily subsidized by the public. As Donald Shoup, one of America's leading experts on parking has put it, “Who pays for free parking in America? Everyone but the motorist.”
So why do I want those of us who drive to pay for the privilege of parking in our downtown? There are many reasons, the most important of which is that we want to take up as little of our public and private space as possible with parking.
We want our most valuable real estate to be used for productive spaces, public and private, where people meet and do business. We also want as much space as we can get set aside for trees, landscaping and streetscape amenities to make our downtown enjoyable and a desirable destination for citizens and visitors alike.
A second reason why we want the motorist to pay for parking is because we, the public, have made and will continue to make costly improvements to and maintenance of the downtown streets and parking, and this parking needs to be used as efficiently as possible.
Spaces need to turn over many times a day in order for retail and restaurant businesses to thrive, and long-term parkers need to be encouraged by market pricing to seek less costly parking or, even better, to access our downtown by transit, by foot or by bike.
By pricing parking appropriately someone who comes downtown to spend $2 on coffee will think twice about renting a parking space that someone shopping or coming for a nice meal is willing to pay more for.
A third reason why parkers should pay is that parking is a public utility that we use to different levels. Just as we pay for water based on how much we use, right-pricing of parking has been shown to result in a more efficient utilization of the parking resource.
As it is now, we all pay for parking that many of us seldom use, and this cost is hidden in the city budget in a variety of line items. While the intention is to price the parking to cover the basic management costs, over time the city should consider making the parking users pay for the entire system of parking, and indeed more of the burden for the maintenance of the downtown.
A fourth reason that we need to pay for parking – which I did not hear discussed as a basis for implementation – is that it begins to send us more market signals as to the real costs of our current transportation system.
As it is now, parking policy in urban and suburban areas alike encourages automobile use over more ecologically frugal modes of transportation. Donald Shoup estimated in 2002 that the economic cost of this subsidy was at least $129 billion per year.
Our climate crisis would suggest that increasing the cost of public parking, as well as taxing private parking, might be a concrete way of connecting our transportation choices to climate change and be a better way of paying for sustainable transportation modes than begging for crumbs from a diminishing supply of taxes on gasoline.
Perhaps the most important reason to embrace a pay-to-park regime for our city is the growing interest by the younger generation in living in thriving, convivial and hip places, where bicycling and pedestrianism are given precedence over automobiles.
Making more room for bike racks, lockers and outdoor cafes, as well as making state-of-the-art pedestrian and bicycle facilities like the University Esplanade and Portage Hike & Bike Trail, will make our town a safer and saner place for all of us.
Change can be hard, but this change shouldn’t be. In a day when the price of filling up a tank of gas can change $10 or more a day, the cost of parking is literally pocket change – or a swipe of the debit card – whichever is easier.