At the end of January 2016, downtown meter rates in Portland will go up $0.40 an hour. This increase was suggested by a citizen committee and was not initiated by city council or PBOT staff. When council voted on this increase, there was much misinformation about the motivation for this adjustment. When the rate actually goes up, there will likely be another round of stories. As a member of the subcommittee that made the recommendation, I want to give a bit of perspective and background on the reasoning behind the increase.
The City of Portland’s binding Parking Meter District Policy reads:
“the on-street parking system in commercial districts is managed to support the economic vitality of the district by encouraging parking turnover, improving circulation, encouraging use of off-street parking, maintaining air quality, and promoting the use of alternative modes by managing the supply and price of on-street commuter parking. In managing the on-street parking system priority is given to short-term parking, followed by carpools and the remaining supply is managed for long-term use. Minimizing impacts on surrounding neighborhoods to protect neighborhood livability is a key objective of the City’s on-street parking management policies.”
The committee was reminded of this purpose statement and then provided with occupancy data and background information.
Basically, in many areas of downtown, particularly between 11am-1pm and from 6pm-9pm there is little to no on-street parking available. Some areas were at 95% occupancy. This is not good for business (which also means it isn’t good for employees of businesses). It’s not good for the environment, probably about 30% of the downtown traffic at those peak times is cruising for parking. All that extra traffic, and every turn a car makes, makes the downtown less safe for vulnerable road users.
Furthermore, pricing for off street parking in SmartParks is currently more expensive (for 3 hours) than on-street metered parking. That doesn’t make sense. When the on-street goes to $2, the SmartPark will stay as it is, making it a more attractive choice which should cut down on cruising and make more spaces available.
Another consideration is the cost of transit compared to parking. If the cost of parking is cheaper than transit, or even comparable, then there is an incentive to drive rather than ride transit. Trimet fares have gone up significantly since the last meter increase.
Those considerations align closely with the city policy I quoted above.
Will It Really Work?
The only tool we have right now is a blunt district-wide price increase. This isn’t great. In some areas of the city this will be too much because they already have a good occupancy rate. In other areas the increase will not be enough to free up spaces. The price balance with the SmartParks is important, and that might be the most effective part of this increase.
Looking forward, the city is developing policy to allow for a more performance based pricing solution. There is a school of thought that if you have 85% occupancy you will have a space on every block face open. This means that someone who needs a space near a location because they are mobility challenged or have a load to carry will find one quickly. The city will lower rates in areas a little further away to encourage people who are able and have the time to park and walk a few blocks.
What About Low Income Workers?
It’s also critical to keep in mind that there are several city owned parking garages that are nearly empty after 7pm and overnight parking is only 5 dollars. One likely outcome with this increase is that the city will offer discounted monthly evening passes for low income workers. On-street metered parking is not supposed to be the place where downtown workers park, for retail in particular, it’s short sited to have your employees parking where your customers should be.
If we are really concerned for the well-being of low wage workers in Downtown, which we should be, then we should demand the additional money be put to work helping them. I haven’t run the numbers, but I wonder if two million dollars is enough money to extend Blue Line MAX service to 24 hours a day? Another effective program could be discounts for transit passes and/or cab vouchers for low wage workers.