Leo Roy Garage, Image: Google maps

Downtown Overnight Parking Ban: A Bit of History, a Few Thoughts

Information packets uploaded by the Friday before Lowell City Council meetings include reports the city council requests, petitions for permits only the council can grant, and the minutes of the previous meeting can be found by visiting http://agenda-suite.com:8080/agenda/cityoflowell/Meeting.html and clicking on the book icon to the right of the appropriate meeting. The public has an opportunity before the meeting to request to speak in favor or against any motion a City Councilor makes, and City Councilors welcome emails about upcoming agenda items. This is one of a semi-regular series of posts about the information in those packets and upcoming City Council motions.

The City Council meeting next week looks as if it will be very interesting. There’s a motion to have the Education Partnerships Subcommittee and the Lowell School Committee discuss the process for a high school building project, which we plan to discuss soon. There’s a vote to accept Decatur Alley, which we discussed in our recent post about the Acre. Additionally, there’s a vote to formalize an agreement in which the City provides parking spots for WCAP and receives advertising in return and a report about the City’s investments relating to fossil fuels.

However, the most controversial item may be a motion by Councilor Belanger:

Request City Manager enforce current parking regulations according to ordinance and investigate the possibility of an overnight parking ban.

A Bit of Recent History

The issue of downtown parking was elevated around March 2014, when the Parking Department posted for two new positions that would end at 6:00 pm. It’s somewhat common knowledge that meters are almost never enforced after 4:00 pm or on Saturday, despite §266-93 of the City Code establishing enforcement hours as 8:00 am to 6:00 pm all days except Sunday. After the new positions were posted, Councilor Belanger added a parking discussion to the March 28 economic Developmenpment subcomittee, saying that he had been “inundated with businesses and residents in fear” that the meters would be enforced until 6:00.

James Troup, Lowell’s Director of Parking, stated that the new officers were only to enforce resident-only parking in neighborhoods, not downtown meters. However, Mr. Troup and Michael Geary, the Acting City Manager, took the opportunity to recommend “rebranding” the Parking Department and hiring a consultant to study downtown parking with money from the Parking Enterprise Fund (the revenues from garages and meters).[1] The study’s goal would be adjusting parking rates to encourage turnover of on-street parking near restaurants and encourage longer-term parkers such as residents and employees to use garages.

Although Councilors Belanger and Kennedy voiced concern that business would be harmed if parking meters were enforced until 6:00[2] and the owner of a downtown fitness center gathered signatures from over 50 businesses and 300 residents against increased enforcement[3], the Subcommittee unanimously supported using parking funds to complete a comprehensive parking study, possibly by adding to the existing consultant contract involving the two-way conversion.

However, the study was never completed. In a subcommittee meeting on April 29, Mr. Troup discussed scope and costs. He explained the consultant, Nelson/Nygaard, quoted a $36,000 price for a scope including a city-wide analysis of the ordinances, space information, rates, and stakeholder interviews. If the scope were limited to downtown, the city surveyed parking spots after-hours for 2-3 days in-house, and Nelson/Nygaard only reviewed the ordinance, analyzed the data, and made recommendations, the study would cost only $12,000.[4] The study could suggest whether to enforce extra hours, evaluate a tiered pricing scheme, estimate revenue and cost, or answer other questions. Mr. Troup asked the subcommittee to define the geographic boundaries of the study and frame the study questions.

Councilor Kennedy asked what the consultant could tell them that was worth $12,000, and the subcommittee seemed to share the opinion that the Parking Department could handle the issue in-house.[5] Councilor Belanger also continued to stress his opposition to enforcing after 4:00 pm. Additionally, many members of the public spoke, with suggestions to sell passcards to businesses to encourage employees to park in garages and to offer the first hour or half-hour free in garages. Others wrote councilors with suggestions.[6]

Mr. Troup suggested the analysis would be valuable because it would be independent, not taking the side of the Parking Department, businesses, or residents. He stated his belief that it would allow an expert in field to draw comparisons to comparable cities and provide actual usage statistics, dispelling arguments against metered parking. Despite this, the Subcommittee suggested they didn’t have the authority to authorize a consultant study and would continue the discussion in May.

However, the next time I saw the issue discussed was late September, when the City Manager outlined the issue as a priority during the Downtown Business Summit. Additionally, an article in the Globe prompted a vibrant discussion on Facebook about parking policy and garages with no vacancy during the day. Most notably, Jeff Speck, the Urban Planner who led Lowell’s Downtown Evolution plan, made parking a major topic in an address to the Lowell Plan Breakfast. Speck advocated for a market-based solution, making prime parking spots expensive to reduce demand and using the funds to improve the streetscape.

After this, on November 4, Councilor Belanger brought the issue to the Economic Development subcommittee again, saying his motion stemmed from Mr. Speck’s presentation and a lengthy meeting he had with Mr. Troup and Deputy Director of Planning Kevin Coughlin. He had begun to believe extending hours into the evening and on Saturdays would encourage turnover. Mr. Troup had spent the time studying other towns,[7] and found most cities enforced Monday through Saturday, many later in the evening than Lowell. Salem had a tiered structure, although most towns seem to undercharge for on-street parking and overcharge for garage parking. He suggested doing outreach to key stakeholders in all neighborhoods to customize solutions for each neighborhood, similar to how the City discussed the Father Morissette spaces with UMass Lowell. He also discussed a study the Parking staff undertook, noting a lower turnover rate during unenforced hours, with many cars parked in one spot for the entire weekend.

This is when Councilor Kennedy suggested banning overnight parking rather than enforcing on Saturday, citing Brookline and Nashua as having similar ordinances. His reasoning was that if long-term resident parking was the problem, this was the most targeted solution. Councilor Rourke mentioned that an overnight ban would make it easier to sweep streets and plow snow. Mr. Troup agreed that this was worth considering as “one piece of the puzzle.”

Other ideas briefly discussed included allowing advertising on garages and kiosks; putting premium pricing on Market, Middle, and Central street parking spaces; improving lighting in garages; and lower weekend garage rates. Mr. Troup discussed having enforcement officers act as customer service ambassadors, directing people to garages for a short period. However, the only idea besides the ban or increasing enforcement to receive a great deal of attention was suggested by two members of the public: enforcing a two-hour limit but not charging during weekends. The subcommittee seemed to agree that this should be considered.

Councilor Belanger stated that he would look into convening a hearing to discuss parking with business owners and residents with a goal of changing policy starting January 2015, as the subcommittee agreed that a sudden, unannounced change would be harmful to business and more time was necessary to evaluate the data.[8] However, I am unaware of outreach that occurred after that meeting, which brings us to the motion next Tuesday.

So, Should we Ban Overnight Parking?

I’m not a parking expert, although there are such people who work in the field. Although there are trends and best practices, every city is different, and prices need to be tweaked to meet city’s individual goals. This is why I supported the idea of a consultant assisting the Parking Department: they can analyze the numbers to come up with ideal prices and give direction on how to tweak the meter and garage costs up and down until about 15% of parking spaces on each block are available, the rule-of-thumb goal that lets people find quick, convenient spaces.

I also don’t want to repeat what many others have said. Corey Sciuto wrote a well-written letter detailing goals and suggestions in March, and I certainly can’t be more compelling that Jeff Speck. With those caveats, I thought I’d share some thoughts. Many of the examples I use are from the 2009 Planning Advisory Service report “Parking Solutions”.

First off, the amount of revenue collected during non-enforced hours admittedly surprised me. According to the Parking Department, not counting fines for tickets, the meters make about $450 a day during unenforced hours out of a citywide daily total of $2,250. 5% of the revenue is made after 8:00 pm, even though all the kiosks clearly state enforcement ends at 6:00.[9] However, Mr. Troup estimated from their May study that unpaid fares during unenforced hours still could add up to $250,000 annually.

Enforced hours, $659,000, 80% ; Unenforced hours until 8 pm, $122,850, 15% ; After 8 pm, $41,150, 5%

Councilor Kennedy stated the high amount already collected during unenforced hours was a primary reason he thought additional enforcement might not be necessary: besides the residents who park in one spot all day, it appears others are still feeding the meters at nearly the rate of enforced hours. If it’s only the residents who are the problem, overnight parking could be banned. If residents were forced to move their car at 2 or 4 am, they probably wouldn’t park on the street at all.

Although this would make it difficult for residents’ guests to park anywhere but garages, it is likely not a problem. Other cities, such as Brookline, sell guest passes to residents that allow their guests to stay in otherwise banned areas for one night. Nashua’s residents may request a one-night waiver from their overnight ban.

However, Donald Shoup, considered by planners to be the preeminent expert in parking policy, argues that effective pricing is a better control than time limits. A low price could be placed on overnight parkers, making a garage a better option for most, but still providing revenue that could go toward paying enforcement officers, improving the streetscape, or improving transit. This wouldn’t make plowing easier, but it would utilize spaces that would otherwise be wasted all night. It would also ensure there’s less incentive to drive home intoxicated, although it is unclear if parking policy makes much impact on that problem.

Are those advantages worth moving away from the simplicity of an overnight ban? Have bans been successful in other communities, and why are they only occasionally used? That’s something I would want to study more before making any quick decisions. Although a trial period may be a good middle-ground solution, what would be the cost of possibly-temporary signage?

Other Issues in Parking

Many suggested that uncharged two-hour enforcement would keep up turnover but portray a “customer friendly” atmosphere. Again, Shoup would probably argue for pricing instead. Having only a two-hour restriction is problematic because employees often simply move their car every two hours, which does not solve the problem of moving employees off the streets and into garages entirely. It also can’t be fine-tuned to maintain the 15% vacancy block-by-block. That 15% could mean the difference between someone stopping in to get a quick coffee at Brew’d vs. deciding to just drive to Dunkin’ Donuts.

By contrast, Old Pasadena, California, tried to tackle the problem by charging more for street parking, and although the plan was initially opposed by businesses, opposition eased when the city dedicated all revenues to improving the downtown streetscape. Aspen made a similar move, but allowed one “free” parking violation to all motorists in a city with many visitors who may not be familiar with downtown parking.

Notably, it’s problematic that we’re talking about parking in a vacuum. Donald Shoup estimates that demand can be reduced 10-30% by providing shuttles to remote parking, 10-30% by increasing pricing, 5-15% with information and marketing, and 5-15% by providing improved bicycle and pedestrian facilities, among other methods. Although comprehensive “perfect” should not be the enemy of improvement, I haven’t heard much concurrent discussion about other factors influencing parking.

However, it may be difficult to have these discussions due to a dearth of data. Mr. Troup’s efforts are commendable and helpful, but a public report of on and off-street use at different periods of the day could be very valuable in moving the public conversation forward. Although he’s given an excellent picture of revenues, I still am unclear on whether any particular block is 100% utilized during a Saturday, 95% on a weeknight, or so forth.

I’ve heard some complain that downtown parking garages fill during the day, and this problem does not seem to be discussed much. Once again, data could be used to determine if this is true and who is filling the garage. Promising solutions include providing discounts for vehicles for more than one occupant during the day to encourage carpooling, encouraging businesses that buy spots in the garages to offer incentives for employees to take transit or walk, and working with private residential lot owners to possibly share lots during the day.

The argument has at least thankfully shifted away from making all parking free. It’s a common argument that to compete against suburban malls with free parking, downtowns must also be free. From around the Lowell internet:

One major thing is missing in downtown Lowell that is crucial to businesses surviving….parking……and free parking. And many on street spaces were eliminated when the 2 way traffic began.

A scam in the worst way. I live downtown. I have to pay the meters every morning if my car is to remain there. I also have to move it every two hours to another meter.

The streets are public ways. I actually think that if parking is allowed at all it should be free.

Counter-arguments often appear:

“Free” parking? Not this zombie idea again… Lowell is a city, not a suburban shopping mall.

Most people who say they won’t pay $.50 or a dollar to park for an hour or so are either lying or too price sensitive to pay the premium of parking in a downtown anyhow.

I would be happy to see trolley service expanded or some kind of street car service that would make getting around the city easier for folks like us, who sometimes have leg problems that interferes with mobility, Parking nearby is important to us. If we knew there was a way to park one place but have availability of transport if needed to zip around we would go more often.

I tend to agree. If a downtown tries to compete on a suburban mall’s terms, it will lose. They have cheap, plentiful space for parking and many lanes of traffic. The downtown must play to its advantages: authenticity, a mix of uses tightly woven together, enough density to support transit, and public space that can be activated in creative ways. Adding enough space to offer free parking without quickly running out destroys many of those advantages but still will not make the downtown as convenient as a shopping mall. Those with mobility impairments need options as well.

That said, I think care must always be taken. Psychology plays an important role and people don’t like change. I think anyone arguing for pricing parking must take that into consideration as well. I believe this post only scratches the surface of parking in Lowell, and I hope to talk to a few folks and do a follow-up soon. Until then, please feel free to discuss your own experiences parking in Lowell!

Notes

[1] Mr. Geary mentioned the previous Director of Planning and Development, Adam Baacke, left a memo recommending using a consultant to complete a parking study and laying out the steps to complete it.

[2] Councilor Belanger suggested a belief that enforcement was targeted to generate revenue and Councilor Kennedy suggesting providing the first two hours of on-street parking free to support local businesses. Councilor Kennedy also suggested giving meter officers leeway in deciding whether to issue a ticket. Mr. Troup reported that the staff of three meter officers respond to police requests, but most often go along routes established long ago on a six-week cycle concentrating on downtown. However, he stated, “if I gave them that leeway, I think that there would be complete chaos on the streets,” but mentions that people may appeal tickets when there are mitigating circumstances.

[3] Karen Bell, owner of the Club Fitness Center, said business owners told her they were “fine with daytime enforcement. They’ve lost their lunch crowd anyway. But you hit them at 4:30, that’s when they start getting their reservations.” She argued that businesses aren’t fighting for parking because Lowell is not yet a destination city, but rather, they’re fighting their potential customers’ worries that they will be ticketed. However, she supported enforcement until 4:00 pm, citing Chantilly Place leaving downtown because a lack of parking and other businesses competing with courthouse users who stay in a parking spot all day. Dick Howe has a good rundown of that meeting, with the councilors’ arguments and rebuttals from commenters.

[4] Plus a small amount of Parking Department staff overtime.

[5] Councilors Mercier and Milinazzo attended the meeting, although not part of the economic development subcommittee. Councilors Belanger and Mercier suggested that talking to business owners and residents should be the priority, and all reiterated the goal was to encourage turnover rather than growing revenue. Councilor Mercier stated, “I appreciate you’re going to have a professional look at it, but a professional isn’t the downtown businesses.” Councilor Milinazzo asked whether the minimum transaction for credit cards could be lower than 2.00, but Mr. Troup said that it was necessary to cover the transaction fee.

[6] Other public comment included a question about parking meters outside the immediate downtown and about Lowell Transitional Living Center volunteers receiving parking tickets.

[7] Mr. Troup utilized the New England Parking Council to talk to other parking directors and study initiatives from other towns.

[8] The minutes to that meeting are here.

[9] This is derived from Mr. Troup’s projected annual meter revenue of $164,000 during unenforced hours and $827,000 total divided by 365.

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