Public Comment

The Right Price for Downtown Parking Meters

By Charles Siegel
Friday November 24, 2006

Annette Fleming never used to stop to pick up dinner in Old Pasadena. It used to take five or 10 minutes each way to walk between the restaurant and the parking lot, and she did not have that extra time on her way home from work. 

Now, Annette stops in Old Pasadena once or twice every week to get take-out food for dinner. She can always find a metered parking space on the same block as the restaurant, so it only takes a minute to pick up her food. How did Old Pasadena get these convenient parking spaces? It adopted Donald Shoup’s proposals for pricing parking. 

Most cities have low prices for parking meters, thinking that this will attract shoppers. Donald Shoup, a professor of city planning at UCLA, points out that when meters have low prices, they all get taken by commuters and by other long-term users. There is no short-term parking left for shoppers who want to stop for a few minutes to buy something or to stop for an hour to eat a meal. 

Shoup says we should charge a high enough price for parking meters that there are always a few spaces open on each block. This means that different meter prices are needed in different parts of a shopping district; we need higher prices on the busiest shopping street than on less busy side streets. 

Shoup also says we should spend the extra revenue from parking meters on improvements to the shopping district. In Old Pasadena, they raise over a million dollars a year, which they spend on landscaping, advertising, security, removing graffiti, and cleaning sidewalks and alleys. These improvements plus the more convenient metered parking transformed Old Pasadena from a skid row into a prosperous shopping district. 

Downtown Berkeley can learn a lesson from Old Pasadena. Today it is very difficult to find metered parking near shopping destinations in downtown Berkeley because 30 percent of all metered parking is taken up by downtown employees who feed the meter all day, and more spaces are taken up by other long-term parkers. 

If we had the right price for metered parking, these long-term parkers would shift to off-street parking or to alternative transportation, opening up the metered spaces for short-term customers. Customers using the meters for short-term parking would still pay relatively little because they stay in the space for a short time. There would be quick turnover of metered parking, accommodating many more customers. 

Downtown Berkeley would generate much more revenue from this policy than Old Pasadena. Imagine what downtown could do with that money! We could have more performances on the streets of downtown. We could plant more trees, which are badly needed on side streets. We could provide more street furniture like the old-fashioned light standards that were added several years ago. We could fund the improvements in the BART plaza that downtown businesses support. We could make downtown the most attractive destination in the Bay Area. 

We could also fund Eco-Passes for downtown employees, which would shift hundreds of commuters to public transporation, opening up hundreds of parking spaces for shoppers. 

We need all the stakeholders to look at Shoup’s proposals carefully and tailor them to the special needs of downtown Berkeley. For example, many performing arts venues that rely on on-street parking and their managers say that using parking structures in the evening can be a safety issue for women. For this reason, we should continue to make metered parking free in the evening, as we do now. 

Though we need to work on this sort of detail, there is no doubt that Shoup’s plan would be a major win for downtown Berkeley, as it has been for Old Pasadena. There would be more convenient parking for customers, and there would be funding for major improvements in downtown. It is impossible to add more on-street metered parking downtown, so we have to use the parking meters that we do have as effectively as possible, rather than letting them fill up with meter-feeding employees. 

When Shoup spoke to Berkeley’s DPAC, the committee liked his ideas. The DPAC will be considering similar proposals soon. 

I do not see how anyone who cares about the future of downtown could oppose these proposals. It is very obviously true, as Shoup says, that the right price for parking meters is the price that makes it possible for customers to find convenient parking. 


Charles Siegel is a Berkeley resident.