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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012 03:29 am

The mysteries of space and time

Raising the costs of parking would help, not hurt, downtown

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I wouldn’t want to be quoted on it, but I think it was Michael Burlingame, in his comprehensive biography of the 16th president, who revealed that Abraham Lincoln started thinking about a new career in Washington because he could never find a parking place downtown. In this complaint Lincoln – who was in so many other respects not a typical Springfieldian – would have been merely one voice in a chorus. The difficulties of parking in the central business district are legendary. When a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team came to town in 2002 to preach the gospel of municipal improvement, parking was the first thing that most people talked to them about.

There are steps that the City of Springfield might have taken to improve the parking problem in the nearly 10 years since the R/UDAT experts packed up their charts and went home, but take them they have not. A year ago, for example, aldermen turned down the chance to double the fine for parking on an expired meter from $5 to $10, which would be doubled in turn if not paid within two weeks. Even a doubled fine would be absurdly low, low enough that many parkers will continue to regard fines as merely part of the price of using their cars. Nevertheless, council opponents, such as Ward 6 Ald. Mark Mahoney, now the city’s public works director, said that increasing it would hurt downtown businesses.

That’s an old complaint, and a popular one. One commenter reacted to the news in the SJ-R by writing, “Well here we go again. Through regulation and taxation government is killing business at every turn. I say lay off the meter police and put bags over the meters and let’s have free parking, people will be more willing to go to the downtown area and spend some $$$.” Make street spaces free, undercharge for street space or underfine for overusing it, and the result is not more parking, only more parkers – more parkers, usually, than there are spaces. Free parking does not give everyone a chance to park; it gives a few early arrivers a chance to park longer at the expense of their neighbors.

The cheap-or-free parking argument dates back to the 1970s, when many downtown merchants, who were getting hammered by White Oaks stores, mistakenly concluded that their customers had abandoned them for the mall because the mall offered free parking. Mall parking appealed, not because it was cheaper than downtown, but because it was more convenient.

And what made mall parking more convenient? It certainly was not location. The walk from the lot to the counter at White Oaks can easily match the distance from, say, the ramp at Fourth and Washington and the old downtown Myers Brothers. Ease of access is one of the aspects of convenience that has factored in downtown’s demise as a major retail center. Most shopping is done by women, and store choice is affected by women’s perceptions of danger in multistory garages, and the distaste so many women have for parallel parking.

Just as crucial is availability. Many of the parking-wants-to-be-free faction are irked by being charged to use something that’s theirs. And they are correct. The streets are theirs – but not theirs alone. Street space is a valuable publicly-owned commodity. Metered parking is the means to ration that scarcity so it is available for its best use, which is to provide short-term parking for occasional visitors and errand-runners. A well-managed parking program will fine-tune turnover by matching meter length to the nature of businesses adjacent to them.

As for how much ought to be charged for street spaces, the best hourly rate is never the cheapest, but the lowest rate that will make parking too expensive for anyone to use for more than a couple of hours. Push the long-term parkers off the street and into lots and you open up spaces for people picking up a takeout order for lunch or visiting their attorney or attending a closing at the bank or doing business with a state agency.

Of course it doesn’t matter what the meters charge if the city doesn’t punish parkers who overstay their time. The city issues a lot of tickets, but past efforts to collect those fines were laughable; scofflaws ran up something like $800,000 in uncollected fines. It does not help compliance if parking fines are treated as a revenue source, as the SJ-R urged editorially. Parking fines should never be used to raise revenue, but to deter scofflaws. Even doubled, Springfield’s fines clearly do not. Running a parking program takes more than installing meters and writing tickets.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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