Four Reasons Free Parking on Sundays Is Bad for Chicago

Wicker Park
In some parts of the city, traffic on Sundays may soon resemble weekday rush hour. Photo: Ian Freimuth

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.

  • CL

    I hadn’t thought about the fact that you can now park in metered spots from Saturday night until Monday morning. I am definitely going to do this when I get home very late on Saturday night — usually I end up parking many blocks away, and then I have a long walk home in the dark. Now, I can park in a metered spot close to home and move my car on Sunday when I wake up. I get why people think this is a bad thing for business, but it’s going to help residents.

  • In addition to the lower frequency of transit on Sunday will also be the fact that bus service on already-awful routes (like the 22) will just get worse. It already runs at 20 minute intervals on Sundays and is frequently bunched. So now it will get even worse; I know a lot of people who do errands on Sundays and rely on the bus to do them.
    Now, Rahm’s “deal” isn’t as bad as the whole debacle in the first place, but this is definitely not going to help anyone; good post.

  • Helping residents really does nothing for the local economy though, so it isn’t exactly “helpful” to anyone but the person parking.

  • Fred

    I would hope people are supporting local businesses. Therefore if you make parking easier you make the neighborhood more desirable to live in and increase business by there being more people in the neighborhood.

  • Send Chrissy a thank you for the walk-saving idea!

  • CL

    I don’t really have tons of sympathy if someone can’t park right in front of a restaurant because I parked there at 2 a.m. During the day, there is lots of movement, and you can find parking within a block of where you’re going. (Unlike at 2 a.m. when I have actually cried because I couldn’t find anything after 30+ minutes of looking.)

    Besides, they don’t need to drive to my neighborhood (they could take the bus) while I do need to leave my car somewhere near my home.

  • I don’t think that’s how it works… urban neighborhoods aren’t exactly desirable for their parking accessibility.

  • CL

    Also, I thought you all wanted to discourage suburbanites from driving to the city to patronize businesses? Maybe seeing my car parked in front of a restaurant will be the final straw that causes someone to think, “Screw this, I’m getting a bike.”

  • Kevin M

    This is a re-post of my late comment on John’s 29-April Chi-Streetsblog post on this story. I’m re-posting here to see if you agree that there is at least one silver-lining to this renegotiated CPM contract. I don’t disagree with the negative aspects you’ve pointed out.
    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.

  • Free parking makes parking cheaper but it doesn’t make it easier to find a spot, it makes it harder because it reduces parking turnaround. When you don’t have to feed your meter there’s no incentive to not occupy a parking space as long as you like. That hurts local businesses because it reduces the number of short-term parkers.

  • Yep, I’d rather see suburbanites patronizing their own local businesses (there are some awesome tiki venues out there), or taking Metra or CTA into the city, then using transit or cabs to get around. Of course the new Divvy bike share system will make it easy to get off a train from the ‘burbs and pedal to a destination in the city, quite a boon for our suburban brethren.

  • CL, While I sympathize with you not wanting to walk home in the dark, the larger issue is that metered spaces in commercial corridors should be priced to support demand so that customers who want to support local businesses and who are willing to pay for parking can easily do so. If your car is sitting in that spot because parking is free on Sundays, there won’t be spots left for those customers. That results in either the customer circling to look for a spot, causing traffic congestion or they just won’t go to that neighborhood to shop, dine, etc.

    A better step would be to implement variable priced parking by neighborhood, so parking is cheaper in places or times of the day with less demand and more expensive, say on a Friday night in neighborhoods people want to be.

  • Whatever you think, it was a pretty slick move politically – giving free Sundays back. Mentioning church was double-genius since it shows Rahm the Orthodox Jew looking out for other religions!

  • Adam Herstein

    There’s no reason that church-goers should get a free pass. Why is church a special case? Why not grocery store-goers?

  • I’m not saying they should. I’m just saying this move was politically slick by Rahm.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately, though, IDOT plans to keep making driving cars into the city as easy as they possibly can while at the same time discounting the benefits of improved and expanded transit, which would enable and encourage transit use. If a suburbanite has to drive half way or more to the city before a reliable transit connection can be made, they will not likely stop five miles short of their destination and hop on CTA rail. According to IDOT, improving and expanding transit results in a decline in total transit ridership.

    I guess Chicago really does need a lot of parking to accommodate the added cars that will be coming on IDOT’s added highway capacity . . . free parking, well that’s all the better for those cars coming downtown and into the neighborhoods.

    IDOT is taking comments until May 20th on their Purpose and Need, alternatives analysis, etc.

  • Anonymous

    Yep. Pricing is the only way to generate churn.

  • Seniorpunk

    It would be nice if he would look after the overall health of the city. How can he not realize that it is imperative to reduce the use of cars.

  • peter

    I support the free sunday parking, I’m with CL! Ok so local business may possibly be hurt by this. How about us residents, I have to deal with people parking all over my neighborhood (LIncoln Park) including business employees who always seem to find a parking pass. They can deal with us 1/7th of the week, its nice not to have to park 3 blocks away and carry grocery bags all the way back to my condo. The real problem is the parking meters!


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