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Friday, August 21, 2015

Dennis Lieb: Easton Needs A Real Parking Plan

Blogger's Note: Dennis Lieb, a former Easton Planning Commissioner, offers his analysis of parking in Easton. 

I have copied below this  parking rate chart from a sidebar of today's  Easton Main Street Weekend Events Email  (08/07/15). I had not read the particulars of the parking rates in Easton since the regular meter rate increase from 50 cents to $1, which took place after the Cleveland-based parking consultants' concluded their series of public meetings a few years ago. This is yet another example of Easton not having a clue about parking management or even the reason  why you charge people to park. The issue at question is the rate for garage parking vis-a-vis on-street parking. The new deck is priced at twice the meter rate and the old deck at triple the rate. HUH???


The NEW South Third Street Parking Deck is now open to the public.
Rate: $2/hour 5am-5pm*
Flat $1 fee 5pm-5am (available at both parking decks)

Meter Rates and Times:
$1/hour 9am-8pm Monday-Saturday
$1/hour 12pm-6pm Sundays
Most meters accept nickels, dimes, quarters and credit cards.
Parking meter app com ing soon!
Pay from your phone!

*Please note the Pine Street Parking Deck 5am-5pm rates have increased to $3/hour. 

Curb parking in a downtown is like inventory on the shelves of a retail shop. You must have something on your shelves to sell or you don't make money. You must have spaces available to park for some portion of visitors (assuming alternatives like walking, biking and public transit are  limited) or people leave. If all your shop's shelves are bare you aren't charging enough for your product. If all your curb spaces are full you are not charging enough for metered parking.

In a well managed, public parking system, the garages should ALWAYS be the cheapest place to park. This is why public parking decks generally lose money and shouldn't be built at all unless there is a critical shortage of parking that no private entity can fi ll (and do so at a profit). The price visitors are willing to pay to park then justifies the cost to build - this happens when people want to  be in a place bad enough to pay for that privilege.  There is also an "opportunity cost" associated with the decision to build decks: they shouldn't be considered until land prices are relatively very high since the value of that land for other development has more value than the storage of cars on surface lots, hence the necessity to stack them in structures to preserve the land for higher valued uses.

The  viability of the Easton Farmer's Market currently has a stacked deck in it's favor since parking at the Governor Wolf lot is free on Saturdays (if you are aware of that option). We would see how popular the EFM really is - and I think it would hold its own very well - if that free option were removed. Otherwise, the street meters should be the most expensive option because - as busy people have shown in study after study from around the world, going back to the introduction of meters in the 1930's -  they value being as close to their destinations as possible and will pay more in the short term and stay just long enough to complete their shopping or other errands and then leave, which opens the parking inventory for the next person with a critical need for that space (and the willingness to pay for it).

This does not mean all downtown streets should be metered or that all meter prices should be the same - Easton has missed the boat on this too; the recent metering of Bushkill Street between Larry Holmes Drive and N Second being the latest example of cluelessness. If I were making these decisions the pricing would be based on a data set that studied where people park and for how long across the width and breadth of downtown and over different lengths of time.  Data would be gathered over the course of at least one month on  both weekdays and weekends, in both summer and winter.

Cutting to the chase, the most expensive spaces should be where the greatest demand is. Maybe that's Centre Square but I can't say for sure because I don't have that data...if it is there, then those spaces might be $2.00, $2.50 or even $3.00/hr.  An ideal vacancy rate is 15%, which equates to 1-2 available spaces per each block face. In this way no one has to cruise for parking, tying up traffic for no good reason, having already reached their final destination. As you filter out to less and less desirable locations the meter rates decrease to $1.50, $1.00 or even as low as 25 cents/hr. It almost doesn't make sense to charge that little in those locations since the demand could be so low that more than 20% of the spaces are always available. 

When demand is this low there is always a spot open for new drivers and therefor no reason to chase cars away by ticketing over-staying the meter. At this vacancy rate it isn't worth the cost of emptying, enforcing and maintaining them. This is the current situation on the newly metered section of Bushkill Street, where tickets are regularly left on windshields despite the fact that literally 80% of the spaces are empty all day long during business hours. I contacted the Planning Director about this before they were installed but never received a reply (something the city has become expert at is ignoring the public).

Summing up, we need a REAL plan for parking in Easton. The new garage is looked at as a panacea but it is just a physical entity (a large and hideous one at that) and not part of any coordinated strategy. I'd bet it doesn't break even and that we end up subsidizing its operation out of tax revenue. 

Here is what a REAL parking management plan would look like,  in a 13 Point format:

Point 1
Meters have their rates set based on demand in any particular location with the most in-demand spaces priced highest. 
Point 2
Rates are NOT set to raise revenue but to  clear the spaces to maintain an approximate 15% vacancy rate during most desirable hours.

Point 3
Streets with less than 85% occupancy (low demand) may not need to be metered at all.

Point 4
Rates may eventually be varied electronically by day of week and hour of day to maintain the vacancy rate based on usage volume. 

Point 5
The above-mentioned rate adjustments are achieved via data collection by volunteers, digital meter data and/or electronic street sensors. Rates are only adjusted after reasonable study periods and not more than twice yearly at most so as not to frustrate users.

Point 6
You do not limit people's time at meter parking. They should stay as long as they are willing to pay for. It simplifies enforcement and benefits the parking user.

Point 7
Parking decks are priced at the lowest rates in the city so as to attract the long-term visitor and the frugal visitor. Both are important contributors to the economy and should be accommodated. They will stay longer at lower rates when the option is available. The busier or less frugal visitor will use (and  more quickly turn over) the street spaces since their expenditure on meters is a worthwhile trade-off for saving them time and aggravation. 

Point 8
Many people do not like parking decks and avoid them out of fear of crime, dirty conditions or unfamiliarity of use. These people willingly pay more to park on-street. Decks therefor can only be built - and priced accordingly - when there is a need for a LESS EXPENSIVE alternative for a substantial number of visitors who are staying longer or don't like to spend money - you DO NOT want these people at meters all day just because those spaces are priced cheaper than decks.

Point 9
Off-street parking requirements for downtown (as per most zoning regs)   if not already totally eliminated, should be. They are a drag on the production of affordable housing,  promoting commercial activity and the  adaptive reuse of historic buildings. 

Point 10
Developers should be charged a fee in lieu of providing their own parking so that the money provides parking for all users and not just for the exclusive use of any specific developer's project or business. It is uncategorically proven that this costs developers less in the long run than providing for and maintaining their own private parking for customers.

Point 11
Over time the in-lieu fees should be combined with other resources and put toward consolidating all privately held surface lots and garages into public hands. Eminent domain can be used to secure a "public good" in the form of parking available to all, while current lot owners  gain unrestricted access to any surface lot for their employees and customers.

Point 12
In fringe areas, where residential neighborhoods suffer from overflow of parking from adjoining uses (In Easton the courthouse district is an example) there shall be Parking Benefit Districts (PBD's) established. A PBD is NOT a parking permit program...anyone can park in the neighborhood  if they are willing to pay for it.

In a PBD all residents get parking passes (limited in number) and  always park free on their block. Visitors that use the block pay a monthly fee to the PBD.

The street is a public good ** and no one person can claim it as their own although typical sentiments claim otherwise. Neighborhoods pose a political problem due to this sense of self-entitlement.  Residents can be educated to overcome this notion with the incentive of cash. All fees for visitor parking are collected by the PBD for use  only in that neighborhood in any way the residents see fit: new street trees, sidewalks, facade grants - whatever. You may not always get to park in front of your own house but you WILL get paid for the inconvenience. This is in direct contradiction to the typical policy in Easton of dumping incremental parking revenue into the general fund. This revenue should ALWAYS go to the parties most responsible for generating it - the neighborhoods themselves.

Point 13
A good parking management plan is about Information, Education and Direction: people need to know how the system works and how much it costs; they need to know what the money is being used for and why it benefits them - especially downtown; and finally they need to know where and when to find the parking services they need in an easy and direct way. 

A History and Summary...

I proposed that the above policy of PBD's be instituted in the downtown fringe neighborhoods. I presented it to city council as a way to forgo the institution of a BID, which was heavily resisted by the downtown property owners (mostly residents) when a new way to fund Main Street became critical. The BID could have become a PBD with the increment in parking revenue from increased meter rates and times of operation creating excess cash. Instead the city raised the rates without a PBD, put the money in the general fund where it is held hostage for us to beg for when we need it, and the BID died a slow death due to public resistance. Main Street, the Ambassador Program and the EFM no longer have the guaranteed funding stream they would have had from a citizen-managed PBD and the city holds the purse strings to all parking revenue.

Someday we may have a mayor not named Panto, Mitman or Goldsmith. On that day we may see some hope of this strategy being implemented. In the meantime, all we can do is stare in abject horror at the concrete megalith taking shape on S. Third Street and wonder how it is making Easton a better place to live.


**DEFINITION of ' Public Good ' A product that one individual can consume without reducing its availability to another individual and from which no one is excluded. Economists refer to  public goods  as "non-rivalrous" and "non-excludable" 

(Changing the public's decades-old misconceptions about  "ownership" of on-street parking and the civic use of public goods is a tough task. Not every aspect of the parking conundrum could be addressed here. Any and all comments and questions are welcome.) 

Post Script...I spoke yesterday (08/19/15) with a large family that I met on the street that was visiting Crayola for the day and had parked on N 4th Street next to Lafayette Bank. I wanted to know the details surrounding why they made that choice over the garage. They said they arrived at 10:45 am and tried the Pine Street garage first but it was already full. Not having been here in eight years and having no reason to assume we had added another garage they just took the first available meter they found. (They had out-of-state plates and probably entered downtown from a direction that obscured the existence of the new deck.) 

They had been here for 4-1/2 hours. Our supposed parking management program that controls both public garages failed to make them aware by any obvious means that another garage option existed only a half block away. Nor had they any idea that the decks charged anywhere from 2-3 times as much to park as the metered spaces did.  They seemed genuinely puzzled as to why two, publicly-owned parking facilities a half block apart and providing the exact same service would charge different rates. 

And so a valuable resource that could have served people conducting downtown business was lost for the good part of the day while many available spaces in the new deck sat empty. One may ask; what difference does it make as long as the meter was occupied and producing revenue?

Remember; the point is to maintain an inventory of spaces available to new users - NOT to generate revenue. The revenue generation is a happy by-product of the provision of public goods in a manner that is equitable and fulfills the social contract of government. How that revenue is spent can be an added bonus that enriches a neighborhood or a bone of contention that generates ill will. As an administration, this one still clings to fomenting the latter.


Anonymous said...

Actually people prefer to park on the street than in parking decks. That is a reality most city planners cannot handle.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it time to pay for (another) study on how to navigate the circle?

Anonymous said...

Please don't confuse us with the facts, Dennis.

Anonymous said...

Dennis just reiterated everything found in any parking study including the most recent study completed by the city's consultant when the new parking plan was put into affect. They said the same thing but downtown merchants and residents balked and City Council listened to their constituents and rightly so. At the public hearings the decision was made that in light of the state pulling its money from the Main Street program and the lack of support of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone like other cities have, council raised meters to $1.00 and the additional money, I believe was around $400,000 was used to provide a grant for the three programs in the downtown -- Main Street, Ambassadors and the Farmers Market. And although the parking plan in Easton isn't perfect form a consultant's point of view the plan seems to be working better and I love the garage rate of a flat $1.00 after 5PM. Lastly, I would venture to say, but have not made an evaluation, that the Gov Wolf lot while it may be free, it is used mostly by the vendors. Lastly, parking garage are really expensive to build so the users should pay for their convenience and not the general taxpayers who own property in Easton.

Anonymous said...

You last comment about the family that parked on Fourth Street. I am a monthly parker in the garage and I know for a fact that when the garage is full the attendant stands at the entrance and gives detailed map with directions to the new garage. Maybe they grabbed the first spot they found and with the new parking app for the downtown they can add the time to the meter. I love it. It works great and I don't get anymore tickets if I park on the street. As for the rest of your column I am a resident and I am glad the city is making money on parking because that has kept my taxes level. Parking meters are a user fee and should not be subsidized by the public. For far too long the residents subsidized the garage when it wasn't used for its fist 30 years of life.

Anonymous said...

As far as Allentown goes?
I never go there any longer unless I have absolutely no choice.

Dennis R. Lieb said...

Responding to the comments so far:

Anon @ 1:25 am...True - and thats my point. Also, Planners had nothing to do with the decision to spend $30 million plus on a garage and new city hall. Thank the mayor for that. If you want an eye-opening education go request the budget presentation on the garage project. Not pretty.

Anon @ 7:50 am...Ah, the circle. A whole book could be written. We are overdue for a reformation of traffic flow in the 4 sq block area around Centre Square. My fear is who will be charged with that task. What should be a purely pedestrian oriented venue (with disciplined auto access) has been sacrificed to the movement of cars and the city suffers for it.

Anon @ 8:17 am...funny!

Anon @ 10:32 am...You say that the "City Council listened to their constituents and rightly so"

If the option to keep the money in a PBD to fund downtown had been made how would that have effected their opinions? This is not theory I am talking about but proven fact. It was done in Aspen Colorado (where curb parking was already free) against the will of the merchants and was wildly successful - those same merchants now laud the program as a godsend.

Anon @ 12:44 pm...If you don't want to subsidize parking their should have been a groundswell against building this new garage - and another one already being proposed by this mayor for N 4th Street. They will be subsidized by the taxpayer because they are being built with free money (grants) and no provision of information on future operating costs vs projected revenue, which will all fall on us.

Anon @ 3:41 pm...You lost me, but have a nice day!

Personal Comment...Sure are a lot of people named Anonymous in this LV. Is the parking situation really so controversial that names can't be used? Hmmm.