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.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

5 Responses to Mill Valley tries free parking downtown

  1. dw says:

    ^The culprit is underpriced parking.

    The underlying culprit is _insufficient_ parking.

    Mill Valley sized towns which converted their downtowns into retail centers with ample free parking are thriving. Los Altos and Los Gatos are two prime examples.

    I’m a fan of revenue neutral, demand based pricing of scarce public resources to achieve usage metering, and there are plenty of examples where parking fits that model. Unfortunately, few if any politicians can forgo the temptation to extract the maximum total revenue which seems apparent. That excessive taxation suppresses broader economic activity, and can be economically devastating in marginal situations. A few years back I was in downtown Portland, Oregon. A weekday, 50% of the on street parking places were open, while businesses languished.

    Don’t strangle the golden goose.

    Indeed, public resources which are both insufficient and free create the opposite temptation among the public. One solution, used at some of Santa Cruz’s most desirable beach overlook parking, is the 20 minute parking zone. Spots remain open, even though demand is high. Older and less able visitors can drive along the shoreline and stop a bit here and there to see the spectacular sights. Combined with almost-sufficient parking a bit further back, this yields a highly functional economic engine.

    • Alai says:

      And how do you deal with insufficient parking, if not by raising the price? Generally speaking, it’s done by restricting the number of businesses and residences allowed in the area, and allowing new development only if matched by ample (and expensive) space devoted to parking.

      In some cases, that may be fine: if there’s no demand from anyone but drivers, or if it’s not worth catering to non-drivers because they have no money, then the number of cars will limit the amount of business anyway, so it may be reasonable to refuse to allow additional business. Maybe Los Altos is like that; I don’t know.

      But if there is demand from non-drivers, then limiting the amount of housing and commerce based on the number of cars you can accommodate will prevent it from “thriving” as much as it could– especially when you consider that concentrations of housing and commerce, backed by transit, are the very thing that non-drivers are attracted to, because you can easily travel by foot.

      As for Santa Cruz, I can’t make heads or tails of your argument. Limiting visits to 20 minutes is an acceptable way of dealing with congestion, but charging a couple of bucks is beyond the pale? Sure, the Portland meters may have been charging too much at that time– that was the theory behind SFPark, after all– but limiting visits to 20 minutes doesn’t seem like a workable solution, unless the only thing you want to offer is a stretch of your legs and a nice view.

      • dw says:

        ^concentrations of housing and commerce, backed by transit, are the very thing that non-drivers are attracted to, because you can easily travel by foot.

        In modern America, there are few commercial zones indeed where pedestrians provide primary commercial support.

        I’m all for maximizing opportunities to live a full local life, but the vision of life independent of automobiles is a very limiting vision here in 2014. The automobile adds to our lives immensely. Those who choose to live independent of cars share much with those who choose to live independent of electricity.

        So the modern vision is not a return to the 1880-1930 golden age of mass transit. Rather, it’s properly sized pedestrian colonies with good peripheral access to and for automobiles.

  2. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog San Francisco

  3. Nicholas says:

    The High Cost of Free Parking

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