Hell Hath No Fury Like a Parker Scorned

The Grand Lake Theater here in Oakland is well known for its political advocacy, from messages on the marquee calling for the prosecution of people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to anti-war events featuring Barbara Lee and Sean Penn. Normally the issues the theater focuses on are national, at a safe remove from the day to day lives of local residents—heaven forbid you should make your liberal bay area customers feel uncomfortable about their own lifestyles, when it’s so much easier to reassure them that they are right-thinking and right-acting, unlike those nefarious folks in Washington.

The management of the Grand Lake have recently found a local issue that is worthy of their attention: increases in parking meter hours and fees. To the barricades, drivers!

Cause Celebre

Judging from media reports and the reactions of some residents of my neighborhood, the theater’s stance is squarely in the mainstream of local opinion. The San Francisco Chronicle published an article about how the increased meter hours, increased fees and increased enforcement are “inspiring a revolt.” CBS5 had a story a few days ago featuring indignant drivers and business owners on Grand Avenue, which concluded by saying that people plan to “storm the city council meeting next week.”

Even though I don’t own an automobile and think that most of our cities are far too car-centric, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the plight of these drivers or merchants. Obviously I don’t want commerce to move away from local stores and neighborhoods and toward malls in the suburbs, and I can also understand how infuriating it is when a mismanaged government or institution (BART comes to mind) punishes the poor and middle class with increased fees in order to make up for shortfalls in its budget. (Increased fees of various kinds, whether they be parking meter fees in Oakland or tuition fees at state universities, are a predictable consequence of a dysfunctional government and a population which has been persuaded by pandering politicians that governments can somehow keep spending more and more money without raising taxes.)

As sympathetic as I might be, however, there are benefits to extended meter hours and increased fees that deserve to be spelled out. Anyone who has driven to (for example) Grand Lake or Chinatown for dinner after 6:00 when the parking used to be free has probably spent some time circling the block looking for a parking space. When people drive in circles looking for scarce open spots, the costs of parking have not disappeared, they have just been transferred elsewhere: instead of paying for a meter, one is paying in wasted time, and paying in agitation, and paying in extra gasoline use, and paying in toxic emissions, and paying in increased traffic volume as other cars circle looking for parking as well.

Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor who has become an unlikely guru among many urbanists, has spent years trying to persuade people that parking should cost more money, and that failure to apply market pricing to public parking has been terribly detrimental to our cities (his best-known work is titled The High Cost of Free Parking). His basic rule of thumb for curbside parking is that meters should cost the lowest possible price which will render about 15 percent of spaces vacant at any given time, and that the money earned from meters should be used in that same neighborhood for local improvements (streetscaping, sidewalk cleaning, security, whatever), so that local residents and business owners feel invested in the meters instead of oppressed by them.

Setting meter prices high enough so that there are always some vacancies eliminates the Yogi Berra problem (“nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded”) and encourages more turnover, so that you have more shoppers making more visits to a particular street, instead of a smaller number of visitors occupying spaces for longer periods of time. And if higher meter costs encourage some people to walk, bike, or use mass transit instead of driving—well, so much the better. An alternative “solution” to parking shortages has always been to build more and more parking, but that has some unfortunate repercussions: it ruins public spaces with unsightly parking lots, and it just gives people an incentive to drive even more, which in turn increases the demand for parking even more, leading to the construction of yet more parking lots. Some people might think that more car traffic and more parking lots would be good for Oakland’s most walkable shopping districts in the long run, but I’m not one of them.

Shoup argues, based on real-world examples such as Old Town Pasadena, that while merchants and residents typically resist increased parking fees at first, they often become supporters after they get used to the change, because they see the benefits that can accrue from increased revenue and increased consumer turnover, especially when money is used directly for neighborhood improvements that make the area more welcoming to shoppers, such as nicer sidewalks, less grime, less crime, etc. San Francisco is experimenting with a demand-based pricing system in certain neighborhoods which causes prices to fluctuate dramatically from less than a buck an hour to over ten dollars an hour for the same parking spot, depending on when it is being used. (The gist of Shoup’s arguments are outlined well in this Streetfilms video and this Toronto Star article, and in many other articles and interviews linked to from his UCLA website.)

I’ve gone on at some length in the past about some of the unexpected benefits of getting out of one’s car (or losing it altogether) and biking and walking places instead. Yes, it often takes a bit longer, but there are quality of life benefits that far outweigh the drawbacks, as far as I’m concerned. (For an example of the stress and anxiety that can come from driving a car everywhere, see the gentleman featured in the CBS5 report I mentioned above—some people complain about how shrill and entitled we bicyclists are, and I won’t argue with that, but I’d say we can’t hold a candle to the average American driver when it comes to entitlement and righteous indignation. Even the CBS5 reporter, who seems generally sympathetic to their point of view, describes people as “ranting and raving.”) As I mentioned in my post about how much nicer it is to get around by bike instead of by car, it wasn’t until I was forced by circumstance (a totaled car and not enough money for a new one) to start riding a bike everywhere that I realized that I actually preferred it for most local trips. I think human beings are often remarkably bad at knowing what will actually bring them satisfaction.

Given how hard it is for people (all of us, not just automobile drivers) to imagine that a change in lifestyle might actually improve our lives, I can’t help but wonder how many of the people who are outraged about having to pay more for parking in Oakland live within walking distance of the destinations that they currently drive to, and whether they might discover that spending 20 minutes strolling to the Grand Lake Theatre for a movie, or to Arizmendi for coffee and pastry, or to Walden Pond Books for a used paperback is actually a much more pleasurable experience than driving there and looking for parking (even free parking). I agree that it would be a shame if people start driving to malls in the suburbs instead of driving to Oakland neighborhoods for dinner or a movie, but if some significant number of people start walking and biking to those Oakland neighborhoods instead of driving because they don’t want to pay $2/hour for a meter, or because they fear getting a parking ticket from an overzealous parking enforcement officer, then I would consider that a feature, not a bug.

13 Responses to “Hell Hath No Fury Like a Parker Scorned”

  1. David says:

    Riding bikes is fun and all, but people who actually buy stuff at local shops that’s larger than what you can stick on your bike rack can use parking.

    Never mind families….oh wait, SF, Berkeley and now it seems downtown Oakland don’t want those naughty breeders around. Except when we buy houses and pay property taxes etc. tough. bye Oakland.

  2. Mike d'Ocla says:

    It IS interesting how outraged business owners and drivers in the US get when there is a perceived threat to the personal freedom represented by the automobile. Any change in fees or policies becomes a death threat. The reality of the dimensions of the actual imprisonment of automobile dependency remains hidden from view. Few of us want to admit that our cars are as much our cages (what motorcyclists call them) as they are means to movement.

    In fact, as David Shoup’s studies show, well-designed fees and policies can make shopping districts much more vibrant and pleasant. Not mentioned in the article is the related parking policy of providing off-street parking, in a garage, at a lower rate than on-street parking, along with effective signage showing drivers how to get to the garage the quickest way. This significantly reduces traffic in the neighborhood (called “search” traffic–people are driving around and around looking for on-street parking), associated noise and other pollution, danger to pedestrians and bicyclists. Setting up such a system in a neighborhood requires clear-headed thinking, planning and investment. Garages aren’t cheap. But auto-dominated shopping districts aren’t cheap either and they are self-limiting in economic potential.

  3. Chris Kidd says:

    Well writen, well argued; Well done. Conventional wisdom only goes so far: People thought the telegraph was going to destroy the social fabric of society. People will adjust, life will improve slowly, and a people won’t even realize why or how it happened.

  4. ng says:

    David: Encouraging people to walk and bike doesn’t mean driving is prohibited. If people drove only when they needed to lug big stuff, they’d find parking easy, and everyone would feel healthier. (And kids can be good walkers and bikers too, so families are certainly included.)

  5. ralph says:

    every so often, people need to be hit on the head with an anvil. thanks for being that person with the anvil.

    i know not why the eco-friendly peeps of Oakland think that it makes more sense to drive to the burbs rather than pay the additional time but what do i know i walk to grand lake because i don’t think it makes sense to drive around looking for non-existent parking.

    i’ve no idea why people don’t understand the benefit of turnover. if the stores are open until 8 or 9 and parking stops at 6, the problem should be self evident.

    aren’t parking fees already used to pay for improvements in the neighborhood collected.

    and if the city never collected a penny from the fines because people actually followed the law versus lack of enforcement, i won’t complain as people are actually doing what i want them to do.

  6. Max Allstadt says:

    The meter fees aren’t the problem. The fines are the problem. Ant the way they’re bing handed out is the problem. The parking enforcement folks went on an aggressive blitz through West Oakland recently, targeting tiny infractions that nobody ever had been ticketed for previously.

    The City of Oakland was broke and hungry, so it decided to eat the poor. CHP has been doing the same thing, towing people for offenses that ordinarily wouldn’t get more than a warning or a fix it ticket.

    The fines are nothing more than a regressive, somewhat random car tax. I would be fine with a regressive once a year car tax! I’d gladly pay $400 a year for registration if I didn’t have to deal with as many random tickets.

  7. Robert says:

    Max, It’s not just the poor in West Oakland. The first place the parking police went after was solidly middle class in the Lakeshore area of the lower hills.

    Ralph, You can start driving to Grand Lake again, there is always plently of paring now that they raised the rate. Don’t know what the actual impact on business is yet, but it’s not looking good.

    I would guess that the parking in Lakeshore/Grand Lake is 25 to 50% empty these days. The city has overshot on the meter rates, and I suspect that they may actually be taking in less money than they did before the increase.

  8. dc says:

    Thanks to all for the comments — interesting range of thoughts on the issue. In case anyone didn’t see it, Allen Michaan, the owner of the Grand Lake Theater, has spelled out his argument more fully in a Berkeley Daily Planet op-ed. He repeats the “municipal mugging” line that he used in the CBS5 report that I linked to in the post, and he also implies that opponents of the new meter hours/fees might try to recall the entire city council.

  9. Erin says:

    Max- I totally disagree with your point. Why should everyone have to pay a higher car registration vs. only ticketing law breakers? I live in West Oakland and was pretty happy to see a lot of those tickets-on the windshields of double-parkers that make my street impossible to navigate through, etc. I can understand the shock when the police have not enforced rules in the past, but I am happy to see them enforced now.

    As for the increase in parking, if it means finding a spot easier when running errands, etc, I don’t mind. And after living without a car in SF for 6 years I do still tend to think like a pedestrian/public transit-rider and say “screw the drivers” but after attempting to take AC Transit a few times, especially with kid in tow, I know how impossible it can be. In fact, my kid’s school, my husband’s work and our house all are within a couple blocks of the #19 and I have often thought how convenient it should be to take the bus… However, it never follows a schedule, its way more expensive than driving, my bus stop isn’t safe and the bus is often filled with sleeping folk whom I wouldn’t want to share a bus with. These are the things that need to be addressed before I get out of my car, not parking prices.

  10. eric says:

    Oh my God. Who cares!?

  11. dc says:

    Apparently a lot of people, judging by how much the Great Parking War of 2009 has dominated media/government/business discourse in Oakland for the past few weeks! Or at least an extremely vocal minority cares a great deal, and has no plans to quiet down anytime soon.

  12. eric says:

    Yeah, obviously a lot of people care. I just wanted to speak up for those of us who don’t care that much, or who wish that parking weren’t the number one issue in our cities. My city councilor told me that he gets more constituent complaints, advice, etc. about parking than about anything else.

    Insofar as I care, I agree with you. Free parking has not helped our country. One pernicious knock-on effect is that as people get so USED to free parking, any slight increase in meter fees or increase in hassle seems to them to be a major infringement of their civil rights. My civil rights, on the other hand, feel infringed when I’m in the suburbs and can’t walk anywhere…

  13. ruth gutmann says:

    Eric, I agree. If I think of what is currently going on in the media and at the so-called town hall meetings to explain the health care reform, I am trying to understand what these worries about car parking problems mean. Perhaps it is a way of not worrying about what truly matters?

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