[Neon Eden]

Why an urban Downtown and lots of free parking spots are mutually exclusive

Pay for play: Real change Downtown might require more of these.
Photo: Sam Morris

If the average Las Vegan could rewrite the Bill of Rights, the new First Amendment would blend guns and 24-hour access to booze and video poker. And the new Second Amendment? Ample free parking.

We’re a real Sun Belt city that way, in love with the freedom we derive from our cars. And that means free parking right near our destination. Otherwise, what’s the point?

So, we force developers to build parking lots that are like Minnesota lakes, except that they’re covered with blistering blacktop. These parking lots are part of the reason walking around here is so miserable.

Now we’ve discovered that maybe we want to engineer at least part of our city—Downtown—around humans instead of vehicles. And strategic parking policies will be an important part of the Downtown renaissance.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

First, some premises, all of which are related.

Surface parking lots are the absolute enemy of urbanism. They take up important space where there should be shops and residences, and they harsh the buzz of walkers, because nothing interesting has ever happened in a surface parking lot, save the occasional drug deal or illicit sex act.

Donald Shoup, UCLA economist and genius of all things parking, notes that there’s no such thing as “free parking.” Parking takes up valuable real estate, and mandating parking increases the cost of development, just as mandating a hot tub in every condo would push up the cost of housing. The city sharply curtailed with parking requirements for new buildings Downtown. Let’s keep it that way.

City parking meters are not priced according to any rational scheme. In a free market, price is the interplay of supply and demand. The price of the parking meters, by contrast, is arbitrary, like the price of bread in the old Soviet Union. Ideally, higher demand spots would fetch higher prices, and vice versa, and with rational pricing all the spots on a block would be taken except for one or at most two, which allows for the circulation that business owners desire.

Because the meters aren’t rationally priced, people cruise around looking for underpriced meter spots, which creates traffic. In a Shoup study of Westwood Village in LA, drivers put on an extra 950,000 aggregate miles cruising for cheap street parking in one year.

I’m happy to report that the wonderfully named Brandy Stanley, the city’s parking services manager for a bit more than a year, really geeks it out on parking policy and seems to have a great handle on these issues.

The first thing she did was collect data. She and her staff determined we have 50,000 parking spaces in the Downtown area, which is a 38 percent surplus over demand, according to parking industry standards.

But what about First Friday?! Yes, there is a shortage of parking on First Friday. To some degree, the problem is insoluble—there’s not enough parking for 20,000 people. Drivers wind up cruising Charleston in search of parking, which adds to the traffic. Stanley said the solution is a robust shuttle system to bring people in from far-flung lots.

The other solution is information, though this applies to all Downtown parking and not just First Friday. The city will soon be using signs—and eventually a website and mobile app—instructing people where to find available Downtown parking.

Stanley and her team will also soon take bids to install modern, easy-to-use parking meters that accept credit cards. After that, they’ll begin adjusting time limits. Why are some metered spots one hour, while others are four? As of now, who knows?

After that, they’ll address pricing. Although the system must pay for itself, Stanley said the goal is not revenue, but, rather, economic development. In her last job in Manchester, New Hampshire, Stanley instituted performance pricing—prices based on demand—so maybe that’s coming. A guy can hope.

Finally, let me deliver some bad news. You can have ample free parking, or you can have a real urban Downtown, but you probably can’t have both. Move Downtown, or take transit or a cab or carpool or park a mile away and walk. Or go to Disneyland. They have plenty of parking.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at [email protected] His Neon Eden radio show airs Wednesdays at 8 a.m. on 91.5 FM.
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