How Not to Manage Parking (Salem Edition)

Evan Manvel

Downtown Salem has been facing a newfound lack of car parking.

Is it because Salem is getting many more visitors to the businesses? Nope. Is it because the population of Salem is booming? Nope. It is because Salem simply stopped, by and large, putting limits on parking.

The result: downtown businesses are suffering, as Michael Rose of The Statesman-Journal reported in “Free, unlimited parking clogs downtown district” a couple weeks ago:

Lack of on-street parking in the Downtown Parking District, once a sporadic problem, is a near constant irritant. Business owners rue the day in October when Salem City Council voted [remove limits on parking].... “We just aren’t getting the turnover that is critical to every single business down here,” said Lyn McPherson, co-owner of Whitlock’s Vacuum & Sewing Center.

In essence, the Council cut the price of a good (parking), driving up consumption -– while the supply has remained roughly the same. The result has been predictable –- drivers stuck circling the block, with some choosing to not shop downtown because it’s too hard to find a spot. It's bad for the environment, and it's bad for business.

Moreover, the parking subsidies for drivers are diverting millions of dollars in urban renewal money that could be used for other public priorities:

City officials confirmed that over the past six years, about $6 million in urban renewal funds have been used to pay for capital improvements in the city-owned parking garages, such as replacing worn-out elevators.

Parking isn’t rocket science. It’s actually a fascinating subject, deep in economics, human psychology, urban form, fairness and planning... among other issues. Professor Donald Shoup has studied the issue for decades, and written an 800 page treatise, "The High Cost of Free Parking."

There are significant costs when it comes to providing large amounts of space required to store people’s cars on public streets. In downtown business districts, especially, the best use of that space is not for long-term storage of an empty 4,000 pound piece of metal and plastic.

I wrote about smart parking management, and what San Francisco and Seattle were doing, on BlueOregon three years ago. A more recent article is Rex Burkholder’s forward-looking article on GoLocalPDX about parking in Portland.

But Salem doesn’t have to be a Portland or a San Francisco. It simply needs to follow the success of scores of other American cities its size and price parking.

Pricing parking right means spaces will be available for customers, which is what some businesses need to thrive. Pricing parking wrong (or having a zero cost) can mean no spaces, and fewer customers. That's why Salem’s Parking Task Force recommended paid on-street parking last year. The ability to find a parking spot has value, and most drivers are willing, however begrudgingly, to pay a bit for that value - rather than suffer through an exhausting search for a parking space.

Many citizens signed the petition that pressured the Salem City Council into gutting the minor parking controls they had. One wrote a 20-20 hindsight letter to the editor in February:

I was opposed to adding parking meters to the downtown area and signed a petition to prevent it. I, as many, were unaware that the city would eliminate the two-hour restriction that has caused a parking nightmare to occur.

The City Council recently decided to institute three-hour limits on parking. But hopefully, some citizens will realize it’s time for plan C – a plan includes pricing – and take the leadership needed to get the City Council to adopt that plan. Done right, and the results will be more turnover, more customers, less pollution, and more resources available for city improvement projects.

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