Renegotiated Parking Meter Deal Is a Mixed Blessing

Rahm Emanuel announces the meter contract settlement at City Hall. Photo by John Greenfield.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement today that he has renegotiated the city’s much-hated parking meter contract to save an estimated $1 billion over the next 71 years appears to be a big win for Chicago residents. The introduction of a new pay-by-cell option, albeit with a 35-cent convenience fee, also seems to be a good thing. But while many Chicagoans will cheer the news that Sunday parking would be free as part of the agreement, in reality this may hurt local businesses and lead to more traffic jams.

Emanuel heralded the proposed changes at a press event at City Hall. Notably, he did not take any questions from the media after his ten-minute speech. He laid the blame for the original meter contract squarely on the shoulders of the Richard M. Daley administration. “It doesn’t take a math degree to know that this was a bad deal for our city and a bad contract for our residents,” he said. “The city should never have done this deal, period. They should not have put Chicagoans in a position where we have to pay a private company when we make changes to our own streets.”

After months of negotiations, the city and Chicago Parking Meters, the parking concessionaire, have settled their differences over the $49 million that CPM said it was owed for loss of revenue to street closures for festivals, handicapped parking spots, and other modifications during the past two years. The company has agreed to go along with the city’s accounting of the revenue loss as being only $8.9 million, which the city would now pay as part of the settlement.

In the future, the city will do the revenue loss calculations and present them to CPM, which Emanuel said will save about $20 million annually for the rest of the 75-year contract. “We now have the ability to go toe-to-toe with the parking meters company,” he said. “For the first time, we have started to manage this contract on behalf of Chicago taxpayers.”

Floating parking lane by the Dearborn protected bike lanes. Phot by John Greenfield.

As part of the settlement, CPM has agreed to allow free parking on Sundays outside of the Central Business District, bounded by Lake Michigan, Roosevelt, Halsted and North, starting by the end of this summer. In exchange, on all blocks where metered parking currently ends at 9 p.m., paid parking would be extended until 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. In the nightlife-rich area bounded by the lake, the Chicago River and Division, metered parking would be extended until midnight. There would be no extension of paid parking on blocks outside the CBD where metered parking currently ends at 6 p.m.

“This contract is a straightjacket on the city, and I wanted to create a little wiggle room for our residents,” Emanuel said. “I feel strongly that Sunday should be a day when folks are freed from the grasp of the parking meter company. As one resident told me, you shouldn’t have to pay to go to church. Whether you go to church or not, everyone deserves a break on feeding parking meters in our neighborhoods on Sundays.”

As part of the deal, the introduction of pay-by-cell parking, available by summer of 2014, will allow residents to avoid having to print out a receipt at the pay box and then returning to their vehicle to post it on the windshield. Instead, they can simply enter the pay box number into a cell phone app, with the 35-cent surcharge going to CPM for purchases of less than two hours.

The proposed settlement and modifications will be introduced to City Council as an ordinance on May 8. While Daley only gave Chicago’s aldermen three days to review the original contract, this time they will get 30 days. “I expect City Council to take the time to review this proposal and ask the necessary questions, time that wasn’t provided the first time around,” Emanuel said.

He emphasized that the changes to the contract will only mitigate, not fix, what he said was fundamentally a raw deal. “This does not solve our parking meter problem. That’s just not possible,” he said. “I’m trying to make a little lemonade out of a big lemon.”

Parking near the Illinois Medical District and on Division in Wicker Park, from a presentation advocating for demand-based parking fees. Image courtesy of CMAP.

The proposed changes seem to be a good thing for the city overall, but the introduction of free Sunday parking is somewhat problematic. While I don’t have a problem with churchgoing seniors getting a break at the expense of people out on the town at night, free daytime parking in neighborhood retail districts could have unintended negative consequences.

On-street parking works best when its cost reflects the demand for spaces. When meter prices are steep in high-demand areas, it discourages people from parking in the same spot for long periods, which increases the chance that there will be open spots for short-term parking. When parking is free, it encourages visitors to park for longer periods, and it tempts employees to drive instead of walking, biking or taking transit to work. Their cars might occupy spaces all day, eliminating spots for potential customers.

Although free parking makes finding a space more difficult, people who want to visit a business district on a Sunday might not be aware of that fact. Instead, the nice price may make them opt to, say, drive to Wicker Park on a Sunday, rather than taking the Blue Line. When they arrive, the dearth of available spots will force them to spend more time driving around in search of parking, which contributes to congestion and pollution. So while the new deal seems to be a mostly positive development, the free parking clause promises to make Sundays a little less relaxing for drivers and non-drivers alike.

  • I’m wondering how enforcement is going to work on the pay-by-cell things — if there’s no printed out receipt on the dash, how will an enforcement aide know if a given car has paid, or not? I think the city gets the ticket revenue, so it’s in the city’s interest to know how this will work.

  • Fred

    Not such a good deal for us River North residents. No free Sunday parking and the longest parking meter hours. We already have the highest meter rates outside of the Loop.

    I’d like to see the residents get a break somehow. This already happens around entertainment districts like Wrigley and Soldier Field so why not us too?

  • On the bright side, paid parking means that it will be easier to find available parking spots at night, and less cars will be circling looking for parking.

    One big difference between those areas and River North is your neighborhood has very few strictly residential streets. It seems that there should be metered parking just about everywhere in River North, so perhaps residental permit parking is not an option.

  • Good question. It may involve the parking aide looking up the car’s license plate number to see if its owner has fed the virtual meter. I’m guessing the city, which does get the ticket revenue, knows exactly how this will work.

  • That will be a longer process than now, where they look for a valid ticket on the dashboard, meaning a single person may validate fewer cars in the same shift.

  • The blame is on the 45 aldermen who voted “yes” for the contract.

  • You’re right – Daley gets a bad rap for this. Just kidding.

  • Fred

    Maybe you will have to still go to a meter box, but instead of inserting cash or a credit card, you input a meter box number into your phone and it prints off a ticket.

  • m.

    What on earth are any decision-makers of a major city ostensibly devoted to sustainability doing making parking free anywhere on a weekend day? It’s like the city has a split personality!

  • Agreed. Even though I don’t live there, my friends in River North moved there for the abundant parking and ease of car-ownership. If they had wanted a walkable neighborhood with abundant public transit and bike-friendly streets, they would have moved to some communist country!

  • Can we find a company to underwrite free CTA service on Sunday?

  • I don’t think your argument makes much sense. Residents in Wrigleyville have parking passes to protect their ability to park in the neighborhood over night. If memory serves from when I lived there, street parking in the neighborhoods is free before 6pm (5pm on days with night games).

    I guess its bad for you if you park your car on a metered street overnight, but I’m not convinced that happens that often. And if waiting the extra time is a burden for you, you’re always free to rent a spot in a garage.

    And another thing: how many intra-River North driving trips are being taken? it doesn’t seem to me like it would be that big of a deal.

  • Anonymous

    I’d guess that a person paying by cell phone will enter his/her license plate number and the meter reader will either use ALPS (automatic license plate scanning) or key the plate number in – if it matches, then no citation.

  • Anonymous

    I’d guess that the meter reader may use some form of ALPS technology (automatic license plate scanning), which would cut down time and error associated with manual entry.

  • Fred

    If they are going that route then why don’t they just get rid of the paper tickets altogether? Input your licence number into the box when you pay? Some parking lots already do this.

  • Yeah, if you can raise the price on every other day of the week to pay for it.

  • Fred

    I think he meant find a corporate title sponsor. Take the MB Financial Bank Free Sunday CTA Ride to church!

  • Kevin M

    One hope I take away from the prospect of non-revenue-generating Sundays is the potential for City-sponsored Ciclovías (aka Open-Streets) events, perhaps taking place on a regular schedule in neighborhoods throughout the city. The City taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay Chicago Parking Meteres LLC to make up for the lost revenue.

  • From an NBC News report: “Meter maids in mobile parking cities must carry wireless gadgets with them, scan in license plates, and check them against a database of those who’ve paid.”

  • Just like how New Year’s Eve rides were underwritten by some beer company. Or how the Bay Area uses air quality funds to pay for free transit on smog-alert days. However, 52 Sundays a year for a system the size of CTA would be an expensive and probably ineffective advertisement.

  • LSD, I assume you’re being ironic here, since River North is, of course, a walkable neighborhood with abundant public transit and (several) bike-friendly streets.

  • No need to worry about free transit on Saturday for Jewish folks, since observant Jews are supposed to avoid using machinery on the Sabbath and walk to to the synagogue. Anyone know what the commuting-to-house-of-worship rules are for other faiths?

  • That is an excellent point that I had not considered! And street festivals can happen on Sundays without forcing the City to pay CPM.

  • Adam Herstein

    As one resident told me, you shouldn’t have to pay to go to church.

    No one is forcing these people to drive to church. Additionally, why is going to church a special case? How is paying to go to church any different from paying to go to the grocery store?

  • Guest

    Not everyone has a smart phone.

  • Kevin M

    What are you, some sort of atheist-communist-freedom-hater?



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