Is Your City Ready to Install Parking Meters?

By Chris Brown, Principal/Real Estate Broker

Almost every metropolitan city in the United States with a population over 100,000 has parking meters in their downtown core in order to manage their parking supply.  Usually the demand far exceeds the supply, particularly on successful main streets that are walkable and have a good supply of restaurants, cafes and chic retailing.  But when do you make the decision as a political body to cross over into the realm of parking management?  Here are a few indicators that tell you when it’s time to install meters and when it is not.

When is it Time? 

1) When you begin to see that every space on main street, and even the side streets, are filling up on a regular basis;

2) when retail customers have literally nowhere to park, or

3) when a downtown director starts getting complaints from patrons and retailers demanding you “build more parking, we can’t survive without more parking.”

Often however when cities do a parking study to examine the supply and demand, the result is the same; the numbers are not that bad.  So, what’s going on then? The retailers are screaming for parking? Often, it’s the perception that there is no parking, and the customers don’t want to spend a lot of time looking for a parking space, and, the retailers and their employees are taking up the prime spaces themselves!

But before you launch into a frenzy building new parking, determine whether the existing spaces are operating efficiently, or could be managed better thus opening up additional spaces for patrons.

When employees and business owners are taking up the majority of the prime spaces, it’s time to install meters. Don’t expect that concept to go over very well however, and plan on a lot of howling from the business owners along with threat that no one will EVER come to their establishment if customers have to pay for parking. That’s simply not true, and woe is the city that backs away from installing meters due to retail bullies.

If you still can’t get support for the meters however, you can try an interim solution; limit the time people can stay in one space. A standard limit is two hours and you’ll have to hire someone to enforce the parking limit, usually code enforcement or community police.  Time limits work, but not for long.  As the parking demand increases, the two- hour parking limitation is not sufficient because the employees and owners will still park in the customers spaces as opposed to being pushed further and further away from the front door due to new and added demand. They just move around, causing more traffic.

Now it’s really time to install meters.

Who should be using the meters? Short-time parking customers picking up a latte or a package, and people who eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for a longer time.  It has been verified over and over again that retail sales improve with parking meters, in spite of the howling from the retailers.  So make the first hour free in the beginning as a concession.  If you have a main street that people (customers) love, they will come whether there are meters or not.

Another idea is to use variable parking rates where the meter cost rises as the demand rises; the customer will always find a parking space on Main Street because variable rates really deter employees and business owners from parking in prime high- rate spots. Side streets or secondary parking spaces can cost half the rate of prime space thus encouraging employees to seek those spaces out first.

When do you not install meters? Cities with politicians who don’t believe in parking management or won’t invest in the cost of parking management might as well not install them. And for those cities who lack the courage to install meters against the retailers wishes –  be prepared to deal with a bigger problem down the road including a lackluster retail environment or unsuccessful retail at best. Those same retailers will tell you how bad business is and the city isn’t doing anything for them. If these conditions exist for very long, the main street will suffer and customers, a fickle bunch, will go to elsewhere. Spending millions of dollars on more surface parking lots and garages with free parking isn’t the answer; plus, ask how long the city budget can sustain it, not long.   You really have no choice.  Good management, including parking management will serve your city well.