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Four Reasons Free Parking on Sundays Is Bad for Chicago

Wicker Park

On Monday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel outlined some changes he's proposing to the infamous parking meter deal the City Council approved in 2009 (henceforth to be referred to as "The Parking Meter Deal," in recognition of its unique awfulness). Unfortunately, Chicago isn't getting a better deal. In fact, the city's parking policy is set to get worse.

The 75-year contract with Chicago Parking Meters, LLC has been panned by drivers and non-drivers alike: It raises fees every year, tied to inflation instead of the actual demand for parking, and it complicates moving or removing parking in order to use the curb lane for other purposes, like bike lanes or bus lanes. No one likes it except the investment bankers at Morgan Stanley who created CPM.

In his campaign, Emanuel said he would try to make the contract better for Chicagoans, and Monday was the big reveal for the results of that attempt. The proposal extends meter hours: In areas where metering ends at 9 p.m., it would extend to 10 p.m., and in River North it would extend by three hours. The proposal also eliminates paid parking on Sundays in "neighborhoods" -- defined as any place outside of the Central Business District and the Loop.

This doesn't make the contract better for Chicagoans. First off, Emanuel positioned this ploy as "relief for churchgoers" -- a double standard for anyone who pays a transit fare to get to church, not mention the many religious Chicagoans who don't have services on Sunday. Secondly, free parking on Sundays means more traffic: more people will drive through already-congested intersections like Milwaukee/North/Damen in Wicker Park, and Halsted/Fullerton/Lincoln in Lincoln Park.

This proposal is not good for business or for traffic in neighborhood commercial areas. Chrissy Mancini Nichols, transportation director for the Metropolitan Planning Council, said that people who live on streets with "side street" parking, which is metered until 6 p.m., will park their cars in front of the meters from Saturday night to Monday morning, eliminating any space for customers driving for brunch and shopping. "It's a bad way to manage parking demand and will most likely result in a lower customer base and more congestion from people circling even more to find a parking spot," she said.

Nichols criticized the blanket policy approach, applying one rule for the entire city, when some neighborhoods see a lot of demand for curbside parking while others have much less. "The parking and congestion issues we see in Wicker Park/Bucktown aren't experienced in some less dense neighborhoods," she said. "WPB [currently undergoing a parking survey] is left with no options to address those issues."

A third problem with free parking on Sunday is that it creates a further disadvantage for transit. Yonah Freemark, a transportation policy expert at MPC, said that because of less-frequent Chicago Transit Authority service on Sundays, "there is already a disincentive for people to be taking transit." With free parking, he said, "we're creating a situation in which people who want to drive are stuck finding it very difficult to find parking."

Finally, the city will probably take a revenue hit because parking meter enforcement is likely to cease in most of the city on Sundays. It's possible that the city could impose time limits instead of prices at meters, which would compel some level of turnover and allow other people to park, but there's no indication that's in the works. With one less day to collect enforcement revenues, the maintenance of parking spaces – which the city still pays for – will be further subsidized by Chicagoans who never drive and park.

Emanuel's modifications to The Parking Meter Deal will be introduced to the City Council on Wednesday, May 8, which is the first opportunity we'll have to read the actual ordinance text and contract amendments, after which we can analyze how this costs the city and benefits CPM's bottom line.

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