Paid Parking Can Make People Feel Free

If you ask any Eugene resident to form a sentence containing the words “downtown” and “parking,” the result will always end with an exclamation point. Everybody cares deeply about parking, but we must match any solutions to actual problems. Recent rhetoric has offered more conviction than clarity.

Now, if you want to test the limits of punctuation, add a third word to your sentence-making challenge: “free.” Some believe the best things in life are free. Others insist there’s no free lunch.

Everyone agrees that free parking has played a role in revitalizing Eugene’s downtown. The only question being debated is whether those benefits have peaked. Downtown business owners Nicole Desch and Thomas Pettus-Czar recently referred to free parking as a crutch that downtown no longer needs.

Eugene City Councilor Alan Zelenka then stated what Desch and Pettus-Czar only hinted. “Downtown has turned into an employee parking lot, and it hurts businesses,” he said at last week’s city council work session. “They don’t have people being able to park in front of their businesses … because their employees are parking there.”

Councilors Betty Taylor and Mike Clark found some rare common ground in opposing Zelenka’s assertions. Clark: “I have no idea why … we would now want to give people a new reason not to come downtown.” Taylor: “The businesses who think they are going to get more business if you have to worry about parking, I think, are totally mistaken.”

Before we do the right thing for the wrong reason, let me bury the canard in a mineshaft.

For seven years, business owners and supporters have complained in conspiratorial tones about employees using up the free parking spaces. That may or may not be true, but what are they admitting if the problem has continued for seven years?

If employees are abusing the policy, it’s safe to assume they are parking the same vehicle in the same area every day. If their bosses cannot dissuade them from the habit after seven years, what sympathy do they deserve from us? If a few businesses have allowed or encouraged such scofflaws, why have those businesses not been called out?

Any downtown employee who repeatedly abuses the free parking policy deserves what they get, including notes under their windshields or reprimands from their superiors. With that now on the record, I think there’s a way to bring paid parking back to the downtown core that helps everyone.

Paid parking could return as much as $300,000 annually to the city’s coffers. Every penny for the first year should be reinvested in the downtown parking experience.

First, accelerate parking garage improvements. Steam-cleaning made a noticeable difference, but better lighting cannot come soon enough. Sensors that signal where empty stalls can be found will reduce one source of drivers’ anxiety.

Eliminate every possible confusion with improved signage. Parking garages are elaborately ramped circles, so people naturally feel spun around. Remind them where they are and what’s ahead. It’s a wonderful challenge, involving both science and art.

Second, add a second or third hour to the garages’ free limit. Sixty minutes is enough time to run an errand, but meeting a friend for lunch takes longer. Downtown should reward — not punish — those who explore. That won’t happen if people are watching the clock.

Third, buy parking meters that accommodate changed plans. Modern meters can be connected to your smart phone. They send alerts when time is almost up, offering you the option of paying for more time without returning to the car.

This gets to the best reason for downtown parking changes. For too many years, a downtown visit was a tactical maneuver, a quick strike on a specific target. Now, at last, downtown is a place where leisurely visits are possible and can be encouraged.

Our parking garages and updated parking meters must require no predictive skills. Guessing how much time you’ll need downtown should be delightfully discouraged. You might run into an old friend, or discover a new store, or find yourself playing life-sized chess with strangers.

The only surprise you don’t want downtown shoppers to encounter is a parking ticket.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.