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Is Pricey Downtown Parking Really a “A Drag on Downtown Retail and Tourism?”

Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday the Chicago Tribune’s Mary Wiesniewski discussed a new report on the impact of “parking pain” in the U.S., U.K., and Germany by INRIX, a Seattle-area firm that provides real-time traffic and parking data to companies and governments. INRIX found that -- wait for it -- problems with drivers circling to find spots can be better addressed through technology that uses the parking data they sell.

The report does include some interesting stats that really hammer home why it’s a terrible idea to bring a car to downtown Chicago unless you really have to. It states that the average local driver wastes about 56 hours a year searching for parking in the central business district. It also says that our city has the highest downtown metered parking rate in the U.S., at $13 for two hours. Chicago came in third for most expensive off-street parking, at an average of $26 for two hours in a lot or garage. In addition, the study found that time, emissions, and fuel spent searching for parking costs local drivers an average of $1,174 a year.

Wisniewski checked in with DePaul University transportation expert Joe Schwieterman about the parking pain study. He noted that using data-based apps to avoid long searches for parking will be the norm for drivers in five years. “We’ll all going to have SpotHero or Parking Panda on our phones.” Seems like a reasonable prediction, and if motorists being able to quickly find the available spaces in a neighborhood reduces circling, congestion and emissions, that will benefit all of us.

However, another Schwieterman quote from the article was a head-scratcher. "Chicago's unusually high fees for parking no doubt encourages people to switch to transit, but they also are a drag on downtown retail and tourism when supply doesn't meet demand."

Joe Schwieterman
Joe Schwieterman

What? Schwieterman generally has sensible things to say about transportation policy. Surely he knows that high parking prices help increase the supply of available parking spaces (and on-street parking is generally underpriced) by encouraging turnover, so that a single driver doesn’t hog a spot all day. This in turn reduces circling and its associated ills, and helps business owners by allowing a greater number of customer to visit their establishments.

I checked in with Schwieterman for clarification. He confirmed that he actually is a supporter of high meter costs to promote turnover, with some reservations. "Expensive parking downtown isn't necessarily bad, since private vehicle traffic generate significant social costs, but it has the downside of suppressing certain kinds of trips that general commercial activity,” he said. “The ‘good’ of expensive parking comes with some ‘bad.’"

Schwieterman argued that transit isn’t a viable option for some downtown trips. “The Metra schedule on Sunday, when trains on most routes only run every two hours and make every stop, is a good example of where the transit option is really limited,” he said.

The professor said he isn’t aware of any studies on the effects of parking on downtown retail, although he said he has heard complaints from retailers. (Other research shows that merchants typically believe a much higher percentage of their customers arrive by car than is actually the case.) He directed me to a 2008 survey of motorists who parked in downtown Chicago conducted for the Parking Industry Labor and Management Committee, which provides info on who was parking downtown, for what purposes, for how long, and at what locations.

Even though downtown Chicago parking is expensive compared to other cities, there’s still a perception that it’s scarce, which suggests that we're not be doing a good job of managing this valuable resource. All the more reason for the city to try strategies like congestion pricing – charging more for parking during high-demand times. This tactic debuted in the Wrigleyville area during Cubs games this year, and it should definitely be piloted downtown and in other retail districts. And, of course, the best way of all to reduce the incidence of downtown parking pain is to improve walking, biking, and transit access.

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