Mill Valley tries free parking downtown

Free parking spaces in Mill Valley. Image from the city of Mill Valley.

Free parking spaces in Mill Valley. Image from the city of Mill Valley.

Free parking has, over the last decade, been identified as a major cause of sprawl, tax wastage, and traffic. San Francisco’s pioneering SFPark program, which attempts to price parking according to demand, has found that a well-managed parking supply can decrease traffic, increase retail sales, and even increase the availability of spaces.

Downtown Mill Valley is running an opposite experiment of sorts with 30 of its downtown parking spaces. PG&E will be replacing a significant amount of pipe downtown for weeks, taking 8 spaces out of commission and causing major disruptions to the usually bucolic town center. To counteract that, Mill Valley has made 30 spaces – a hefty fraction of its on-street parking – free from April 14 to May 2.

The research

I’m sure you’ve had the misfortune of circling endlessly for a parking space, only to have the one you spotted snatched up by someone in front of you. Research from UCLA’s Donald Shoup has found that such circling accounts for up to 30 percent of traffic (PDF) in dense areas.

This is a problem. The more time people spend hunting for a parking space (average is around 3 minutes), the less time they’ll want to spend at local shops. And, the more painful the search for a space, the less likely people will want to come back.

The culprit is underpriced parking.

When SFPark started operating, the aim was to leave at least one space available on every block by adjusting the price of parking. SFPark measured occupancy by each block and raised or lowered prices incrementally one space was free per block.

After three years, SFPark has decreased traffic, increased turnover, and – for the most part – accomplished its aims. The number of parking tickets has dropped and even the average price to park fell. This validates Shoup’s theories in a major real-world setting.

The plan

The 30 spaces Mill Valley has made free are funded by PG&E and the local Chamber of Commerce, as the city relies on the income from parking meters for its general operations.

Though there was apparently some talk about reducing bus fare to downtown, Chamber officials told The Greater Marin that PG&E didn’t give them enough of a heads-up to coordinate with another agency, and they’d rather do half of something – give free parking – rather than do nothing at all.

Unfortunately, Mill Valley isn’t using this as an opportunity for research. Because only a few of the parking spaces will be free, those will be at a premium. Will it cause more circling in the free area? Will it decrease turnover?

While the Christmas seasons’ free parking offers a great experiment for the whole downtown, it would be incredibly useful to understand how setting the price of parking at $0 for only a few spaces would affect downtown demand. It would also show whether this sort of program is a useful incentive to shop downtown or if it’s just going to muck things up more.

Given the research on parking policy, it seems unlikely the two-week program will lead to anything like the efficiency downtown Mill Valley will need with PG&E’s construction. I suspect there will be people circling around for the free parking spaces and lower turnover than normal, though without data we’ll have no idea whether that’s true or not.

It seems rather more likely that the program’s advertising aims – to let potential customers know that yes, indeed, Mill Valley is still open for business – will be the big win. The Chamber of Commerce will gather anecdotal evidence from its member merchants about what worked and what didn’t, and we’ll have to see what can be gleaned from that when the program ends.

In the meantime, be sure to take Route 17 downtown. They could use the business, and I suspect they’ll also need the parking spaces.

Steps toward, and away, from performance parking in San Rafael

Similar parking meters will be installed in January in San Rafael. Image from IPS Group.

Similar parking meters will be installed in January in San Rafael. Image from IPS Group.

Parking is always a sticky problem: there never seems to be enough. The solution, as discovered by San Francisco and described by parking academic Donald Shoup, is demand-responsive pricing, also known as performance parking: charge more for the most in-demand spots and less for ones that are out of the way. With a vote last week, San Rafael will put in place the technology to determine where to do just that in downtown.

But with the same vote, the city moves away from a range of prices based on location – the core of performance parking – to a flat rate across downtown. It’s one step forward, one step back.

Performance parking theory and practice

Like any scarce resource, the easiest way to manage it is through pricing. The more valuable a parking space – like one at Courthouse Square – the more the city should charge for it. The less valuable a space, the less the city should charge. People would self-select: if they really want to park on the street at Courthouse Square, they may. If not, they might choose to park in the cheaper spaces or the nearby garage.

Most cities today, however, don’t use this approach to parking. They charge a flat rate for all parking spaces, so there’s no self-selection. The result? Insufferable circling for a space, going ‘round and ‘round the block to see if something opens up.

It’s like Saturday at the mall: there are plenty of spaces around the lot, but people still circle around, trying to find somewhere closer to the door, often taking longer to park than they would take to just walk from a slightly further-away spot.

In addition to being annoying to drivers, all this circling causes traffic congestion. In particularly high-traffic areas, a sizable percentage of congestion is attributable to people circling for a spot.

San Francisco took this research to heart and created SFPark, which tries to keep 20 percent of parking spaces free on each block within a number of pilot areas. The city embedded sensors to detect whether a space is occupied. Staff take that data to adjust the price of parking incrementally up or down each month. The result has been a decline in traffic congestion, parking tickets, and even the average price to park, as price reductions have been more common than price hikes.

San Rafael gets sensors and a flat rate

In San Rafael, the city’s parking program is facing a budgetary shortfall. The program runs on the parking charges, but those weren’t enough to cover the various renovations needed as well as operations. The city, in response, decided to pass a moderate reform of how it does parking in downtown.

On the technology side, the city will purchase about 1,000 new parking meters with credit-card readers and parking space sensors. The sensors will tell the meters when the space is vacated so it can reset, tell parking staff when someone has run out of time, and tell drivers where parking is available via a phone app.

The sensors could also be used by parking staff to do a running survey of how people use the city’s spaces, but, at this point, there’s no sign they will.

And, rather than implement a performance parking program, the city has raised the rate on all on-street parking spaces to $1.50 per hour, up from $1.00 on Fourth Street and $0.75 on side streets.

It was on this hike Kate Colin raised concerns, and why she was the lone dissenting vote. The former planning commissioner wondered why side street parking should double in price. Those areas aren’t in demand now, and raising their price relative to Fourth could put more pressure on Fourth Street’s spaces.

One reason for such a dramatic hike, however, was to encourage people to use the garages and parking lots, whose prices won’t be changed. Lots will remain at $0.75 per hour, and garages at $1.00 per hour. While a good idea, it does make one wonder how much spare capacity the garages and parking lots have that they can absorb much of the on-street demand.

Going forward

Despite the rate hike, the technology is the real win. It’s a $750,000 investment – about $750 per meter – that will last for a very long time. It would have been difficult to get the sensors and meters under a performance parking program. The parking charge, while misguided, is on paper. If the city wants to start a performance parking program now, it would be extremely cheap, without any extra capital investment. It would simply be a matter of legislation and organization, not money.

This would be a good project for the Downtown BID and Kate Colin to spearhead, perhaps with TAM PDA funding.

A concern for those interested in performance parking is that revenue seems to be an overriding concern for the Parking Services. It has outstanding capital costs now, along with two parking structures that are apparently at the end of their lifespan. Performance parking can actually mean less revenue for the city than the traditional flat-rate charge, which runs counter to revenue needs. If some of these capital projects are found to be unnecessary, or if another revenue stream can be found, then that would take some pressure off.

For the city planning department, the sensors could mean a real-time survey of parking conditions around the city, a fabulous tool. It would let planners know how new office tenants or apartments change parking demand. It would let them know whether there was spare capacity in the parking system to shape changes to parking policy, such as eliminating parking minimums or residential use of downtown the garages. Someone has to make the data available to other city departments, however, for this to happen.

The changes to parking in San Rafael are promising, and it’s encouraging to see Councilmember Colin taking a stand for the essence of performance parking: varying the price based on location.

Mid-week links: Marin Transit

Marin County

by jay d, on Flickr

The latest Marin Transit board meeting was one full of change and surprise. Amid increasing ridership (though it fell in June), MT posted a $1.5 million surplus, which will go into a rainy day fund. To keep ridership on the up and up, the agency hired a new communications and advertising consultant, who will manage MT’s branding, website, social media, and communications strategy. IJ reporter Nels Johnson, however, seemed to think the $300,000 consultant was taking the agency “for a spin.” And, in the name of efficiency, the MT board cut Route 222, which got less than 3 riders per hour in June. Elsewhere:

  • There was so much public comment about Marin’s new housing element that the Board of Supervisors had to postpone its debate until next week. (Patch) On a side note, whoever’s idea it was to bring in a saxophonist to lead the potentially rancorous crowd in singing, “There’s still a lot of love in Marin!” is brilliant. (IJ)
  • The Civic Center Drive upgrades look fabulous, but now that they aren’t in a PDA TAM may need to rescind its funding. (Patch)
  • A driver hit a bicyclist in Fairfax yesterday by turning left through a bike lane, sending the bicyclist to the hospital with a broken collar bone. Though the circumstances seem like they warranted an investigation or a failure-to-yield citation, the driver was not cited by police. (IJ)
  • The costs of demand-responsive bus service, promoted by Bob Silvestri as the ideal transit, make it an ineffective replacement for traditional bus service. (Listen Marin)
  • The lack of BART in Marin is apparently because we’re classist and racist and always have been. (The Grid) Except, y’know, that’s not at all why we don’t have BART.
  • TAM should take on all the causes of congestion on Highway 101, not just cars, according to Corte Madera Mayor Diane Furst. She sat on a working group to draft an alternative plan to flyovers on the freeway. (Marin Voice)
  • The Golden Gate Bridge will close for a full weekend next year for the installation of a new movable barrier. This will be the first time in the bridge’s history it will be closed for more than a few hours. (IJ)
  • Parking minimums can severely constrain construction, either driving up rents in the building or preventing new construction altogether and contributing to a housing shortage. Affordable housing advocates take note. (Sightline)

Politics

  • San Rafael council candidate Randy Warren hits rival Maribeth Bushey-Lang hard, saying her need to recuse herself over issues like SMART make her unfit for service. (IJ)
  • The move to recall Supervisor Susan Adams failed to attract enough signatures, and Save Marinwood is not happy. Interestingly, no signatures were submitted to the county, so we’ll never know how far short the recall came. (IJ, Save Marinwood)
  • Paul Mamalakis examines the race for Novato City Council. (Advance)

Parking is anything but free, even if O’Toole says so

In 2010, Streetsblog posted this response from Donald Shoup, a professor of urban policy at UCLA to a blog post by Randal O’Toole, a Cato scholar. Here, Shoup addresses that post’s arguments regarding the high-cost of free parking. Given that the Cato scholar will be speaking at a debate in Marin at the end of this month, it will be worth our time to explore some of the ways he has things wrong whether through error, incuriosity, or obfuscation.

O’Toole has written extensively on subjects beyond parking, including mass transit and urban patterns. We’ll explore those in time.

A fair warning: Shoup’s response is very long, so there is a jump. The rest, from here, is Streetsblog, Shoup, and O’Toole.

Shoup (left) and O'Toole (right). One of these gentlemen has written the definitive volume on parking policy. The other says he has yet to read it.

Shoup (left) and O’Toole (right). One of these gentlemen has written the definitive volume on parking policy. The other says he has yet to read it.

Dear Randal,

I would like to comment on your August 16 post on the Cato@Liberty blog about “Free Markets for Free Parking.”

You were responding to Tyler Cowen’s article in the New York Times, “Free Parking Comes at a Price,” in which Tyler explained some of the ideas in my book, The High Cost of Free Parking.In commenting on Tyler’s article, you made several mistakes in describing my ideas and proposals. I will explain these mistakes, and if you agree with the explanations I hope you will post corrections on Cato@Liberty.

Before I examine your misunderstanding of what I have written, I will first summarize the three basic parking reforms I recommend in The High Cost of Free Parking: (1) remove off-street parking requirements, (2) charge market prices for on-street parking to achieve about an 85-percent occupancy rate for curb spaces, and (3) return the resulting revenue to pay for public improvements in the metered neighborhoods.

I will quote ten extracts from your post, and comment on each of them. Read more of this post

The Larkspur ferry crunch, part 1: There’s already enough parking

All the parking lots in Larkspur Landing. Image from Google Maps.

All the parking lots in Larkspur Landing. Image from Google Maps.

There’s no question that Larkspur Ferry has an access problem. If you drive, there’s a vanishingly small chance you’ll get a parking space after 8:30am. If you don’t drive, your options are to live in the neighborhood, walk for almost a mile along the freeway, bike for 15 minutes from the Transit Center, or take the miserably slow GGT Route 29 bus.

In response to this perceived lack of access, GGT is again investigating some exceedingly expensive parking garages paid for by a new parking fee. (They had last discussed a parking solution in 2007, when ridership was about what it is today.) While this would expand access, this solution fails to take into account the breadth of options available, including 520 unused parking spaces in Larkspur Landing that already exist.

Organization before electronics before concrete

An old adage marks best practice for facilities design: organization before electronics before concrete. The first, organization, rearranges existing resources to maximize their utilization. The second, electronics, upgrades the systems you already have so you can make even better use of your resources. The third, concrete, adds resources to your now-optimized pool. By prioritizing cheaper solutions before expensive ones, organizations can save a lot of money.

In the case of Larkspur Terminal, GGT’s supply of access to the ferry (the parking spaces, bus seats, bicycle racks, housing units, and office space in the vicinity) is the resource. As currently designed, there is a shortage of access, but GGT doesn’t need to add more garages just yet.

The Larkspur Station Area Plan revealed that, during the day, 520 parking spaces in the neighborhood went unoccupied. Though GGT does have a parking problem on its own property, the area’s parking supply is more than ample to meet the demand.

Graphic and data from City of Larkspur.

Graphic and data from City of Larkspur. There’s a lot of demand for parking, but a lot of unused space, too. PDF here.

These spaces aren’t being used because the parking supply isn’t well-organized. People driving to the ferry have the option of parking for free on the street, for free in the ferry parking lot, or for $4 per day at the Marin Airporter. The other lots aren’t an option to them, as they’re reserved for more office workers than exist and patrons of Marin Country Mart who mostly come on the weekend.

Through a reorganization of the neighborhood’s parking supply, GGT could expand ferry parking by 520 spaces essentially for free.

GGT, Larkspur, and the businesses in Larkspur Landing would need to work together to figure out the precise rules, but the core of any plan would be pricing: a $2 charge per day for anyone parking in the area who doesn’t get parking validated by a retail store or who doesn’t have an employee parking pass. The owner of each lot would get income from their charge. Larkspur would earmark on-street parking charges to neighborhood improvements.

Coincidentally, 520 spaces is nearly the same number of spaces GGT wants to add in a large, 969-space garage. Since it would be built on 400 existing parking spaces, the garage would net 569 parking spaces. Unlike the essentially free 520, however, the 569 spaces would cost an astounding $44,000 apiece.

No need for concrete

Organization before electronics before concrete means other options should be explored before investing in costly new infrastructure. An examination of the neighborhood finds that parking already exists to meet demand, if GGT can harness it.

Of course, if the politics prove impossible and those open spaces can’t be used for ferry riders, GGT will need to turn to the parking equivalent of electronics: a shuttle from the Transit Center. We’ll tackle that question next.

Mid-Week Links: Reclamation

Fairfax Festival  MichaelOlsen/ZorkMagazine

People enjoying closed streets at the Fairfax Festival. Photo by MichaelOlsen/ZorkMagazine

Marin County

  • Fairfax is hashing out how to implement Streets for People, its own version of San Francisco’s incredibly successful Sunday Streets program. The town would close Bolinas for part of the day, opening it up to anyone on foot, bike, or other human-powered conveyance. (Patch)
  • New blood on the Ross Valley Sanitary District board promises a management and policy shift. New member Mary Sylla is opposed to new bonds and rate hikes intended to speed the district’s century-long pipe replacement cycle. Marcia Johnson, who lost her re-election bid, was a supporter. (IJ)
  • Tonight, chat with Blithedale Terrace developer Phil Richardson about his proposed 20-unit condo development in lower Mill Valley7pm, The Forest Room of the Mill Valley Community Center. (Patch)
  • A new sidewalk is under construction in Homestead Valley’s Evergreen Avenue under the county’s Safe Routes to School program. People still don’t like the plan, saying it undermines the community’s semi-rural character. There may be an injunction filed to stop the project, which is designed make the route to school safer. (IJ, @mikesonn, Mill Valley Herald)
  • A new Santa Venetia subdivision will not go forward as planned, at least not yet. County Supervisors rejected the 14-unit sprawl project pending a few more months of study. Unfortunately, the area is zoned for 15 units on one-acre plots, so it’s unlikely the project can be stopped entirely. (IJ)
  • Ever wondered how much your town’s Director of Public Works was paid? Bay Area News Group has created a searchable database of all public employee salaries in the Bay Area, so you can know at last. (IJ)
  • Ross faces dramatic cuts now that the town declined to pass the $642,000 public safety tax. Two police officers, a firefighter, and a firefighting apprenticeship program are all on the chopping block. The town will cut other areas to keep the damage minimal. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • The draft Civic Center Station Area Plan has been released to the public and to the Board of Supervisors, who are reviewing the draft now. The plan creates more housing, rezones parts of the auto-oriented neighborhood, and creates a better pedestrian circulation pattern through the area. (Pacific Sun)
  • And…: A yard that has encroached on open space for more than 20 years will finally be returned to San Rafael, though the owners have a history of ignoring officialdom on the subject, so who knows? (IJ) … In a picture of sweetness and light, a Corte Madera father and daughter spent the whole school year biking in tandem to kindergarten. (Twin Cities Times) … Brad Breithaupt goes deeper into the voting numbers from last Tuesday’s election. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • A comprehensive report on San Francisco’s multifaceted and crowded transit system has been released. The 103-year-old report details the pre-Muni world of streetcars and rails in the aftermath of the earthquake and fire. Among the recommendations? Getting rid of horse-drawn cars. (Muni Diaries)
  • Apple will stop using Google Maps on its iPhones, and it won’t include transit directions. You may have to go back to using that 511.org app… (Streetsblog)
  • It turns out Muni has been neglecting maintenance for years as the agency has sacrificed long-term financial stability for short-term savings. Be glad you have GGT managing your fleet, Marin. (SF Weekly)
  • A bill to create a statewide ceiling on parking requirements around transit has shown signs of life in the state Senate. AB 904 would force localities to require no more than one parking space per housing unit, 1,000 square feet of retail, or other measures. (Around the Capitol via @MarketUrbanism and @mottsmith)
  • If you want to encourage transit ridership, the best way is to price driving. While expanding a rail network by 10% nets a 3% gain in ridership, effective car regulations (like congestion pricing) nets a 10-20% increase in ridership and a commensurate decrease in driving. (Atlantic Cities)
  • And…: Santa Rosa mulls electing its councilmembers by district rather than at-large. (Press-Democrat) … The small-government aspects of smart growth appeal to at least some conservatives. (Next American City) … Frank Lloyd Wright hated cities. (Atlantic Cities)

Got a tip? Tweet @theGreaterMarin, email thegreatermarin [at] gmail.com, or post something on Facebook.

Mid-Week Links: Afternoon on the Bay

late afternoon above Richardson Bay, Sausalito, CA

by Stephen Hill

Marin County

  • Neighbors to the proposed Grady Ranch development have appealed the county’s approval of the project. The Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association alleges Grady Ranch would cause too much noise, light pollution, and be a general nuisance. (News Pointer)
  • The San Rafael Airport Rec Center project could run afoul of new California regulations on development near airports.  Though the project fit the old standards, a consultant has been hired to ensure it meets the new ones as well. (IJ)
  • Now that nobody is running for Ross Town Council, it’s up to potential candidates to file for a write-in candidacy.  If there’s an insufficient number of write-in candidates, the three positions will be appointees. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • Sausalito wants to ease the problem of bike tourists getting stuck in town by setting up a ferry reservation system for cyclists, a far more efficient method than the current first-come-first-served method.  Expanding San Francisco’s bikeshare system to town may also help the more casual riders that don’t want to cross the bridge. (IJ)
  • San Anselmo’s moribund nightlife will get a boost this summer, as two wine bars are slated to open downtown – a near-first for the town. (Patch)
  • Novato’s revenues are better than expected, to the tune of $600,000.  Though the city is still in austerity mode, an expected transfer of $300,000 from the rainy day fund has been canceled. (Advance)
  • Southern Marin’s bikepaths got a $118,000 infusion of maintenance money from TAM.  Though chump change compared to road maintenance, the grant is a welcome recognition of the paths’ importance. (Marinscope)

The Greater Marin

  • San Francisco’s performance parking experiment is finally yielding positive results, with spots opening up around high-priced areas and filling up in cheaper areas. (New York Times)
  • Meanwhile, New York City is suffering thanks to its onerous parking minimums, which drive up the cost of housing in an already expensive city.  Though the practice of banishing parking minimums in favor of parking maximums is recommended in the draft Plan Bay Area, Marin’s transit districts would be wise to take heed. (Streetsblog)
  • Then again, pushing for strictly infill development and densification by loosening regulation won’t solve our housing problem given the pace of infill development, the extraordinary costs of consolidating properties, and political wrangling necessary to actually build the thing.  (Old Urbanist)
  • A 2001 study argues that transit-oriented development is not a traffic cure-all, as much of the benefits of TOD comes from densification and better location than simply better travel modes. (Half-Mile Circles)
  • If we want biking to take off, we must take it seriously as a form of transportation first and recreation second, something Americans typically don’t do. (RPUS)
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