The new 10-story public parking garage was finally opened for business last week, and criticism abounds about this behemoth of western downtown Columbia. Lament it as many may, more sound economics and realistic pricing could have helped prevent this unnecessary edifice, and should serve us to avoid committing to yet another garage that is in the works for a few blocks to the east.
Since the city is in the street building and maintenance (and downtown parking) business, will it at least provide multi-modal avenues, whereby citizens may travel about by whatever means we desire (car, bus, bike, on foot, by wheelchair, etc.) in a safe and timely fashion? This is a fair expectation, and it was the charge that citizens (including myself) expressed via the visioning process a few years ago.
But this new concrete tower is very representative of a schizophrenic public policy toward transportation infrastructure priorities. Bike lanes, trails and sidewalk improvements have been expanded to open up more active transportation choices. Yet, regardless of one’s take on those initiatives, we are on the other hand subsidizing the exact opposite, with a huge public investment in a car-parking facility.
What behaviors government should encourage or discourage is one thing, but just plain math is another. Therefore, I commend Mayor Bob McDavid for recently bringing up the more fundamental issue of who pays for parking downtown. He is obviously a business-minded leader, who engages in cost-benefit analysis.
Although the public parking utility is a not-for-profit venture, I would appeal to the business sensibilities of the council at large to remedy the lack of market-based rates for downtown parking overall. This is vital, because if drivers had a relative price incentive to use off-street garage parking, particularly the largely unoccupied upper-level garage spots, much of the ongoing perception of parking scarcity would be diminished – as would calls for more garages.
Many agree that we want a vibrant downtown, and realize that paying to park there is a disincentive in the minds of many. But, actually no parking anywhere is “free.” Suburban shopping centers spend a lot of money to pave their parking lots, so they pass that cost along to stores, who charge shoppers that much more in the price of goods. The wide public streets that leave room for parking are expensive, too, as it is taxpayers footing that bill. As economist Milton Friedman famously quipped, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Or “free” parking.
Because downtown is more densely developed, there is a premium on real estate of all kinds, including parking spots. Since the city spent a lot on those spots, and the ones located near prime downtown destinations are naturally in higher demand, why do they only charge like 50 cents/hour to occupy one, & only a few bucks for getting caught not paying? So why not park on the street, as opposed to in a garage any more than two steps away? Or on the lower levels of a garage, instead of the upper levels that take longer to get to? We can wish people would change their behavior, but as it’s priced now, why shouldn’t anybody just park wherever -- and there develop a perception of parking shortages everywhere?
This is because the City does not have the pricing structure right. Therefore, a basic market solution to subsidized car parking downtown should include these changes:
1.) Metered street parking should be significantly more expensive (not to penalize behavior, but to reflect its actual market value). When London was once overloaded with parking demands, they quadrupled meter rates — and surprise — spots became available. Rates need not jump near that much here to find a market equilibrium and for prime street spots to naturally open up. Business owners and others might holler that this would discourage patrons. But as it stands now, why shouldn’t the wait staff park in front of the store in which they work? A business ideally wants that spot available for paying CUSTOMERS. There are also practical ways for businesses to reimburse customers for parking costs, via technological upgrades to meters, as other cities have.
2.) Parking garages should have their ground level(s) be metered parking, at rates lower than street meters. This gives an incentive to use a garage, freeing up the prime spots on the curb. Have the 8-10 hour meters in these garages, too; street meters for shorter periods only.
3.) Parking garage permit spots should occupy other levels, and have tiered pricing, with lower costs for the upper decks which are always less occupied. The City does this to some degree already with covered/uncovered rates, and the most premium Reserved spots.
4.) Then, inside garages and on the curb, more (and more costly) enforcement. $5 for a parking ticket is hardly a deterrent to not paying at all. Fines are not consistently enforced, either, so many figure it is easier (and cheaper) to blow off feeding the meter and just roll the dice on getting caught..and some don’t even pay those... Raising the fines to $10, and higher for late payments, as the Council did recently, makes sense.
It is apparent that current parking resources are chronically underutilized and not priced correctly. But if that’s not bad enough, there is now yet another new parking garage in the works, in conjunction with the Regency Hotel reconstruction project. Yet, the Hotel developer has stated they have sufficient surface parking as is. Likewise, the in-fill apartment building at College and Walnut nearby includes its own surface lot, and they actually expect many of their tenants to be car-free, so won’t need additional parking from any nearby garage.
Even McDavid has stated that the Regency Hotel developer has already received a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) subsidy for the new building, so the Mayor is uneasy about also subsidizing a parking garage for him at taxpayer expense. However, the push for this new garage persists somehow, from somewhere. We seem addicted to taxpayer-funded parking facilities that are not really needed and effectively discourage non-automobile means of transportation in the city center, activity the city says it otherwise wants.
Which makes me wonder: if there is such perceived demand for parking, why aren’t private sector entrepreneurs falling all over themselves in a rush to put up their own parking towers, for big profits? Because the demand for parking is not there, and will not be for the foreseeable future. And if it were, drivers would be willing to pay, as they do in St. Louis, Chicago and London.
Everybody likes low prices and convenience, but at whose expense? People that choose to drive downtown should pay for the parking space they occupy, and ideally businesses could be able to reimburse customers (like the Mall does, just in a different way). More market-rate street parking would also offer an incentive to park in the (already plentiful) parking garages.
And folks driving downtown might discover it’s easier (and cheaper) to park once, then walk or bike to one or many destinations from there. A more market-rate parking fee schedule would also naturally encourage more people to bike or walk to downtown in the first place, which seems more desirable than more disliked, unneeded, expensive parking garages.
Steve Spellman hosts “The Mid-Missouri Freedom Forum” on 89.5FM KOPN radio on Tuesday nights from 5 to 6 p.m., and is board treasurer of the PedNet Coalition.