Will parking meters kill your downtown?

Parking meter with a sticker that says, Hello, my name is Parking Meter. Photo by Jonathan on Flickr.

Hello, Parking Meter. Is it a good idea to install parking meters like you all through downtown to encourage people to not stay too long? Photo by Jonathan on Flickr.

Sometimes, you ask me for help with questions of importance in your town. Then I turn around and ask you to help each other. This morning, Dena needs your help with a parking meter question.

Our City Council is considering putting parking meters downtown to discourage employee/owner parking and encourage quick turnover of spaces.

I need your help! Everyone, except a few City Council members, thinks this is a terrible idea and feels that it will kill our thriving downtown. We have built our area into something very special that other towns are actually researching and trying to copy. Our city only has 1,200 residents and we rely on tourism money to survive. We are still growing, but fear that putting parking meters downtown will take business away from our merchants and ruin our small town feel (which keeps the people returning again and again). Most downtown visitors park and stay for hours shopping, eating and just strolling around. Our downtown consists of about 5 city blocks of buildings with small independent businesses, parking on both sides of the road and a one-lane road going down the middle – it’s very small.

I am on the board of our Business Association. We are having a special meeting this Thursday to help spread the word about what the Council wants to do. The Council is having a Town Hall meeting on June 3rd to hear from businesses and residents.

I am researching the issue online, but the majority of what I am finding is information that is PRO parking meters. I need the other side. I am looking for first hand accounts from other small towns showing that this ended up being a bad idea. I would love to have some statistical data, some research, some expert saying that doing it in small, tourist driven towns is a bad idea.

Can you help me? Could you write an article about this issue and ask your followers for their feedback and experiences? I really don’t know who else to ask this of – you are the first that came to mind.

Thank you!
Dena Martin

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  1. Michael Stumpf says

    Employees parking in spaces that should be reserved for customers is a problem in just about all downtowns. In places with meters, we always hear of people who will go out and feed the meter every two hours, or move their car, but still take up that prime parking space. Ultimately, there is also the question of enforcement. Will the city be paying somebody to monitor the parking to ensure that the meters are paid (or that cars stay no longer than designated times)? If not, then there is nothing possibly being gained by adding meters.

    As to the question about whether it will kill the downtown, the answer is probably “no”. If the district is a destination, then people will come to it regardless. They may not appreciate having to feed a meter, some will not have the change (unless you are installing a new system that accepts cards), and they will certainly not like it if they receive a ticket. They may consider it an inconvenience, it may make the experience of visiting a little less enjyable, and it may even dissuade some from returning.

    But it will also not solve your employee parking problem.

    Big box stores and malls have areas of their parking lots designated for employees. Store management enforces their employee parking requirements by monitoring their employees. In a sense, that is what you need to be doing. Identify those people who are parking where they should not be, and cal lthem out on it. If it is an employee, the employer should be talking with them. If it is a business owner, the other business owners need to have the discussion with that person. Enforce the time limits that exist (hopefully), or establish time limits and enforce them. If you have people who are moving their cars, go to writing down license plates to identify violations.

    • says

      Michael, thank you for a very thoughtful comment. I appreciate you separating the issues of visitors lingering versus employees and owners taking up valuable spots.

    • Barb says

      We have 2 hour parking in front of our small businesses and unrestricted around the corner on the side streets. If there. Are owners or employees parking in the prime spots they need to be shamed into changing their ways. They will just feed meters. When the police come around and chalk the tires the offenders suddenly find somewhere else to park. Also when you put meters in you end up with less number of parking spaces because the state or county regulations are larger spaces than people usually use.

  2. says

    Via email:

    The first question is: are there alternative places for employees and owners to park? If so, then the business group needs to speak very frankly to the employees and owners of these businesses about parking elsewhere.

    I would certainly not put in parking meters; what an unwelcoming move. If people come and shop, dine and browse for “hours” as you say, don’t chase them away with having to keep an eye on the clock and feeding the meters. Offering them free parking is one way to let customers know they are appreciated. You are so lucky to have this amount of traffic in a town of this size. Embrace those who come to spend money (and enhance tax revenues) in your town!

    Peggy Sanders

  3. says

    Another via email:

    Instead put up a two/one-hour parking sign during certain hours where it is important if you have police who will enforce it.

    Jane S. Reed

  4. says

    Another via email:

    Good morning Dena,

    Before I answer your question, I want to tell you a personal story. My wife and I moved here from New Jersey just over ten years ago. We didn’t know anyone in South Dakota, we were simply tired of the obtrusive and expensive government being pushed down our throats at every turn. In New Jersey all the major highways are toll roads, everything comes with a price. There are taxes on the land, on income, on the cars, the roads, on sales, on services, on gasoline and yes on a pole on the side of the street. Even to go to the “free” (paid for with our exorbitant property taxes) library, you had to feed the meter fifty cents for twenty minutes. I normally used up a buck in quarters just to check out my “free” book.

    We found our South Dakota house on Realtor.com in 2003. We had wanted to get out of the rat race for some time and South Dakota looked like a good place to start looking. We drove out here, knowing only the realtor had been emailing with, and looked around. This was a big step. To uproot the entire family, move several thousand pounds of household goods and take up residence in a strange state where we had no family or friends was daunting to say the least.

    We loved the house and the rural setting. We loved the local small towns we saw this as a viable alternative to the rat race. But it was still a big decision. The second day we were here I took my wife to Huron for a Mexican supper. Authentic Mexican food was something we did not have in NJ at the time. When I pulled up to the restaurant on Dakota Ave (the main drag through town) I looked at my wife and asked, “What don’t you see?”
    “What?” she asked.
    “Parking meters,” I replied.
    After all the research about climate, and the cost of living; that one little fact tipped the scale for me. It meant that the government didn’t have their hand in my pocket at every turn. It made a statement about the town and the state.

    The following morning we made an offer on the house. Six months later we moved in.

    The city of Huron didn’t get fifty cents for the meter that night. What they got instead was a new resident living nearby who does most of his shopping an buying in that town. Those parking meters would have made the difference. Fifty cents now or a lifetime of local patronage.

    Now, Dena, my answer.

    Parking meters tell the wrong story. It tells a tale about a town. It says this town cares less about the shopper and shop keepers than it does its own coffers. It sends a message loud and clear to passers by, “You are welcome here only if you pay, and only for a short time.”

    If I had two towns near me and one had meters and the other did not, I would always patronize the town that welcomes my visit without charge.

    You mentioned that the city wanted to keep shop owners from blocking the parking spaces. If the shop owner wants to block access to his own business, let him. It is his folly and he will suffer, financially, the consequences.

    Let’s leave the meters in the big greedy cities and allow our customers and patrons to enjoy what a small downtown can offer.

    Rick Skorupski is a writer living in South Dakota and the author of Flyover County

    • Chad Nabity, AICP says

      “You mentioned that the city wanted to keep shop owners from blocking the parking spaces. If the shop owner wants to block access to his own business, let him. It is his folly and he will suffer, financially, the consequences.” Rick mentioned this and in my experience it is rarely a shopkeeper parking in front of his or her own business but rather a shopkeeper parking across the street or down the block a short distance in front of someone else’s business. Eventually this leads to all of the close convenient parking filled by employees and shop owners leaving customers to walk or go to the mall or Walmart where there is ample parking.

      I don’t know that parking meters are really the answer and if you are not careful they may end up costing substantially more than they generate in revenue.

  5. says

    A few comments from Twitter:

    Gregg McLachlan said, “Never been fan of small town downtowns using concept that drivers must pay for pleasure of shopping at ma and pop stores :) ” He continued, “Let’s separate ourselves from big city concepts.”

    In reply to Gregg, APA STaR (American Planning Association Small Town & Rural Planning Division said, “even in a small town, there is a high cost to free parking.”

    Britt Raybould said, “There’s a reason Walmart doesn’t have them [parking meters.]”

    Miss Dazey asked my opinion. I said “I think in this case, I don’t think parking meters are the right answer to solve the problems they named.” Miss Dazey agreed, “in this case parking meters isn’t answer.”

    John C. Shepard, AICP, said, “I’m not a fan of pkg meters, but they do keep spots open for impatient customers. Time limits may be more efficient.”
    I asked John about studies or stats on parking meters, and he replied, “Don Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking is definitive authority, but mostly covers larger cities.”

    I’ll keep you posted if more comments come in.

  6. Dena Martin says

    These are great comments! I thank you all for taking the time to express your opinion. I sincerely hope that through all of our grassroot efforts, we can change their thinking and help them understand that this is not going to work for our town.

    One thing I failed to mention in my original letter to Becky, was that the overriding theme in the Council’s decision was that it would generate ALOT of income for our small city. We strongly agree that there are other ways to raise money than taxing the very people that are coming here to spend money.

    Thanks again!

    • says

      Dena, thanks again for sending a question others can help with.

      I would add that all that new income from parking meters has to be offset with the new expenses: equipment, installation, education, enforcement, and then maintenance. And don’t forget opportunity cost: what the town could be doing if it wasn’t pursuing this project.

    • Rosemary Daniel says

      I live in a small town of approximately 250 people. Sometimes I go to shop in a town of approximately 5,000 that is about 1 hour away. This town has a Walmart on the outskirts of town, but the city officials are smart and do not have meters on the parking downtown. The main drag is about 5 blocks long. They have a thriving downtown. I grew up in Spokane, WA and the downtown there is trying to revive itself after a long slow slide into not a pleasant place. They have lots of pay parking lots and street parking meters. Most of the people I know that go to Spokane for their big shopping trip to get things they can not get locally will not go downtown because of the pay parking. Why pay when you can go to one of the malls and park for free. Plus the credit card meters they have put in downtown are not user friendly – just one more thing driving people away. Your town would be very very foolish to install parking meters – you will drive away business. DON”T DO IT ! And that is my two bits…

  7. Michelle Vasicek says

    I agree with the other commenters – meters won’t solve the issue of where employees and business owners park.

    I work in downtown Fargo. Typically I park in a parking lot about three blocks away, but if I’m just there for half a day that’s pretty inconvenient so I’ll park on the street and move my car once to accommodate the hour and a half limit.

  8. says

    Britt Raybould added some additional comments on Twitter:
    “It’s all about access. You make it more difficult for me to go to a business, you’ve given me 1 more reason to look elsewhere.” I mentioned that “elsewhere” might be online. She replied, “Local is only more convenient if it’s actually convenient. Otherwise I’ll take a package delivered to my doorstep.” “It’s another example of short-term thinking with long-term consequences.”

  9. Heather reetz says

    We are seldom on Main St. In Blue Ridge, but when we are, we would hate to see it looking “citified.” However, if it is ever so difficult to find a spot to park, then I would say “yes” to the parking meters.

  10. says

    APA Small Town was kind enough to share this on their LinkedIn Group. The comments were a bit lengthy, but I’m going to include them here unedited.

    First up, a long one from Chad Nabity:

    I’m going to try to take off my planner hat to comment on this. While in college I worked at a retail store in a strip commercial center. Employees and owners were required by the lease agreement to park in the parts of the lot furthest from the stores. I did not know that when I started but after the 3rd or 4th time I parked in front of a neighboring store (taking a close spot for my whole 8 hour shift) my boss let me know that parking there was not acceptable. Since the whole parking lot was owned by the owners of the mall and the lease specified where employees were to park, and since they actually enforced those provisions of the lease this was a very effective way to keep close spots for customers.

    Switching to a typical downtown, most of the parking is along the street on publicly owned property. Any member of the public has a right to park in any of the spots unless the local government on behalf of the public grants specific rights to certain people, businesses or classes of people (Handicapped Parking Spots). In most cases, it is difficult for a local government to infringe on the rights of one group of citizens in favor of another group. In the case of employees vs. customers, it is nigh impossible since at some point those employees probably (hopefully) switch roles and become customers spending their paychecks in the area that they work. This often results in employees and business owners parking in front of their own business or more likely a neighboring business. This would not be permitted in many strip malls because of the terms of the lease, a contractual arrangement that supersedes the rights of the individuals. If you don’t like the terms of the lease you can feel free to move.

    Metering parking on public streets in downtowns, whether with actual meters or by hiring someone to mark tires and write tickets, is one way to deal with this issue. It is a fair way that treats everyone exactly the same, regardless of whether you work downtown or are just visiting. It is likely to upset the visitors when they get a ticket and inconvenience the business owners and employees.

    We had the mark tires and write tickets system in our downtown in Grand Island, Nebraska for many years. It was instituted for the purpose of keeping owners and employees from taking the close parking spots. There are numerous free parking lots without time limits scattered throughout downtown and that is where employees were supposed to park. At least one of the local attorneys was more than happy to pay $5 per day to park in front of his business. He would get 30 or 40 tickets and come pay them all at the same time. Our downtown parking was set up as a fee for parking more than 2 hours rather than a fine violating the parking rules. This created a revenue stream to pay for part of the costs of parking enforcement. In Nebraska, all fines levied go to the school district not to the entity that is enforcing the law. In most cases it was rather effective in moving downtown employees when they were working shifts into the longer term lots. We did still have some issues with people moving their cars from one spot to another one every 2 hours. We don’t have this system in place any longer. As budgets tightened during the recession it became clear that we could either have parking enforcement or a police officer. The fines for parking enforcement were not enough to cover the cost of that enforcement even with the attorney that was perfectly happy to pay to park outside his door. The City decided that it could not subsidize the parking enforcement and that owners would have to figure out a way amongst themselves to keep employees from parking in the prime spots. Employee parking was still the primary issue. It has been at least 3 years since we did away with enforcing parking in the downtown. It does not appear to have hurt the downtown businesses. We do still have business owners that would like us to keep their neighbors from taking spots in front of their businesses but they also do not want to pay the cost of enforcing the time limits. The police chief did estimate the cost of making parking enforcement self-funding but that would have raised the price of parking from $5 to $25.

    Any community that is looking at enforcing time limits will have to do a thorough analysis of the cost and benefit of their parking enforcement. I would not be surprised if most find that the costs far outweigh the benefits. Education of employees and owners is likely to produce the best most cost effective results. That education and training is not dissimilar from the kind of hospitality training that communities across the country are engaged in to help employees at all levels and with every contact understand the importance of making a good impression on customers and visitors.

  11. says

    Another one from the APA Small Town Group, this one from Marjorie Bard:

    I’ll be pithy: I’m not for parking meters in small towns along the main street. It’s not good for shoppers — who may be “disabled” and take a long time to get to a particular store or even the library. It isn’t good for mothers who have to take time to put a child in a stroller just to start out shopping. It isn’t good for tourists who will not want to return to look around and see if they like the shopping experience. It isn’t good for the business owner who sees shoppers leaving his store before s/he has had time to roam.

    I don’t like to look at a watch while shopping; I like to look around and see if there is anything I want or need to buy. If I have to leave to pay a meter, I’ll probably just go to another block, park, and go to a different business. I think meters are a bad marketing strategy.

    In the small towns where I’ve lived or visited, I park in a lot, better if free, or find free off-the-street parking. I am “put off” by being anxious about being late to pay the meter. I’m there to find merchandise, not to find a parking ticket!

  12. says

    I found this statistic in a news article and wanted to add it to the discussion:

    A parking spot — even an on-street parking spot — is a tool for economic development. Dave Feehan of Silver Spring, Md., the former president and CEO of the International Downtown Association, said he once calculated that an on-street parking space near retail shops in Fort Collins, Colo., provided about $360,000 in annual sales to nearby merchants. “If you’re allowing your employees to park there,” he said, “you’re creating a situation where people won’t come to your store.”
    Source: Billings Gazette, ‘Experts, public join to craft a downtown parking plan’