Study Urges New Tech, Dynamic Pricing for City's Parking

A consultant outlined several possible changes to the city of Spokane, Wash.'s infrastructure to help smooth it out, including raising the prices on "premium" parking spaces. It also suggested technology upgrades.

by Nicholas Deshais, The Spokesman-Review / March 7, 2019

(TNS) — Downtown Spokane, Wash.’s parking is confusing and poorly managed, according to a yearlong study evaluating the city’s parking system.

The study, done by the transportation consultant company Nelson\Nygaard, found a number of inconsistencies and bad practices in the system, which is largely owned by a number of private companies but also includes city-owned, on-street parking spaces.

The consultant, which was hired by the city to perform the study similar to ones done in 2005 and 2010, had many recommendations to improve parking in the city core. They include adjusting meter rates to encourage motorists to park for less time in popular areas, creation of a “shared parking” program in which drivers can use a common permit for private and public parking stalls, and modernizing the system with new technology.

Spokane is poised for growth in coming years, the report said, and while the city must focus on getting people to drive less, parking has to remain a key part of that goal.

“There is a recognition that while the automobile will continue to be front and center, the transportation system must prioritize a shift of some existing vehicle trips to transit, biking, walking and shared mobility services in order to achieve long-term success,” the study said. “Parking is at the nexus of these growth and mobility conversations. How Spokane manages, supplies and designs parking will have a direct impact on its ability to create a multimodal, mixed-use place and further enhance the vitality of downtown.”

Overall, the report found a disjointed system that led to a “confusing, fragmented and frustrating experience” for motorists and stifled downtown’s vibrancy.

The study area — which included the downtown core, Spokane County government campus, the Spokane Arena and the South Hill hospitals — has more than 37,000 parking spaces. About 85 percent of them are off-street and privately-owned, and their rates are more than two times the cost of the remaining 15 percent of spaces, which are on-street and owned by the city.

On average, off-street parking in the core costs $2.65 an hour and on-street $1.19 an hour. The disparity in cost, the study said, prompts people to circle the block looking for an open meter and increasing congestion. It also encourages people to pump meters and stay parked in the most convenient spaces for long hours.

Beyond identifying downtown parking’s shortfalls, the study quantified the state of Spokane parking. During the busiest times of day, most parking spots are open. On weekdays between 10 a.m. and noon, occupancy peaks at 56 percent.

Of 1,900 people who responded to a survey, 68 percent said they drove alone to downtown, 20 percent carpooled, 4 percent took transit, 3 percent walked and 2 percent bicycled.

Sixty-eight percent said proximity to their destination was an important factor for parking location, 55 percent said cost and 45 percent said ease of finding a spot was most important.

Seventy percent said they could always find a spot within two blocks of their destination.

The study found that 7 percent of parkers overstayed their time limits in front of River Park Square, the “most convenient on-street spaces” in the core.

In 2018, the city collected $3.17 million in meter revenue and $1.25 million in citation revenue. The study predicted the city would collect $5.2 million in meter revenue in 2024.

The owner of the most parking is Diamond Parking, with 16 percent, followed by the city, with 15 percent.

The study criticized the city’s pricing and payment systems, as well as the “wayfinding” directions to lots, as “confusing and uncoordinated.” This leads unhappy drivers to ignore most parking options and concentrate their parking efforts in specific, limited areas of downtown.

Six Quick Wins

The study listed 20 recommendations to improve the existing system, which included changes to policy, discouraging use of automobiles and coordinating relationships between public and private parking operators. Many of its suggestions were supported by examples from other cities such as Omaha, Neb.; Seattle and Sacramento, Calif.

But it focused on “six quick wins” the city could achieve “to build momentum in 2019.”

The suggestion that may cause the most heartburn among motorists urges the city to increase on-street hourly rates through a complicated system backed by data and high technology.

It recommends expanding the existing meter district and creating a “premium” zone between the Spokane River and the BNSF Railway viaduct with higher, variable rates and “value” zones elsewhere.

“In the high demand areas, hourly parking rates simply do not match the level of demand and on-street rates are static, even during the busiest times,” the report says.

A “performance-based parking” program would increase rates when demand is high and more people are looking for a parking spot, with the goal of having one to two spots open per block at all times. This would geographically distribute demand for parking, the study said, and encourage drivers to use the entire system.

According to the suggestion, rates should vary between 50 cents and $5 an hour, depending on demand, which would be measured through vigorous data collection and new monitoring technology.

The report pointed to Seattle, which adopted a similar system of performance-based rate setting in 2011.

“The program is supported by a comprehensive signage program, which clearly communicates the parking prices and regulations for each block,” the study said of Seattle. “In 2016, 27 percent of spaces had their hourly rate decreased, while another 26 percent had their hourly rate increased.”

The study also suggested creating a “progressive-tiered” system that allows for longer stays but also encourages regular turnover of spaces.

It pointed to a system in Sacramento that charges parkers $1.75 per hour for the first two hours but then charges higher rates for the third and fourth hours, at $3 and $3.75, respectively.

While raising rates will increase revenue, that’s not the goal of the report.

About $1.7 million of the city’s parking revenue will go toward paying off debt from the city’s 2005 settlement related to the River Park Square garage controversy. The city took out debt to settle lawsuits and makes annual payments to settle the debt. River Park Square is owned by the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

The study also advised the city to design and adopt a single, unified parking “brand” to replace the current “variety of signage,” which “dilutes the overall look and feel of downtown, while confusing the motorist about where and when it is OK to park. This often creates ticket anxiety and negative perceptions about the system.”

The study urged the city to create a shared parking system by piloting a program with willing private operators of lots. The mix of public and private parking spaces “creates a mismatch between on- and off-street pricing and regulations and results in a wide variety of signage, wayfinding and payment systems” that leads to a “confusing, fragmented and frustrating experience.”

The report pointed to Omaha as an example where such a shared program has worked. The intent of the Park Omaha program was to “boost the number of public parking spaces and help visitors easily locate them in the popular downtown area.” It did this through a “user-friendly, online process for property owners to offer their unused spaces, at a specified schedule.” Drivers can see what is available through a smartphone app, which has a mobile payment system and interactive map.

Finally, the study suggested the city invest in better parking management technology, such as license plate recognition equipment, better mobile payment options, and one, consistent meter type of on-street parking that allows for different types of payment.

The study also recommended adopting parking goals and objectives that would create a parking district to manage both on- and off-street parking that would formalize the rest of the study’s suggestions.

©2019 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.