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

Photo: John Greenfield
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

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.

  • rduke

    ““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.”

    I agree. I tend to drive whenever I have to do anything out in the burbs on Sundays (which is often), because the Metra schedule is so bad.

    Maybe the answer isn’t to make parking easier, but make Metra’s schedule better? Hmmmm

  • rohmen

    I’m not sure his point is as controversial as it seems. You can label my experience as purely anecdotal, but I live in Oak Park, and generally exclusively only go into the loop on the weekdays and weekends by either transit or bike given the cost and overall hassle of parking. That’s great, and probably a good point in favor of higher-cost parking, BUT it does mean than I go into the loop less often then I would.

    There are days where I’d love to go down and walk the Riverwalk or visit Millennium Park with my kids, but I can’t commit the extra time transit will take. That doesn’t mean how the cost of parking has impacted my decisions doesn’t yield a net positive overall for the City (I think it does actually), but it does mean that I do not go into the loop to spend money as much as I otherwise might if I could just zip down in a car.

    It’s all a cost benefit analysis, and it seems like all Schwieterman is doing is trying to accurately quantify one cost here rather than saying it should change the whole equation.

  • Tooscrapps

    Echoing rduke a bit: I would bet traffic, in the City, and the expressways (the Kennedy is increasingly clogged) is just as much as a deterrent as parking. If we really want to change patterns, Metra needs to be more than just commuter transit.

  • planetshwoop

    Two points after reading this:

    1) Cities are absolutely addicted to parking revenue. There is limited motivation for them to develop the empty space used by car lots into something else because of the taxes charged against parking. (Even with the meter deal, the downtown lots surely generate A LOT of revenue for Chicago.)

    So even if Metra worked hard to improve their schedules, I doubt you would see much of the same effort by the city to encourage Metra use.

    2) The study kind of points out that Chicagoans spend a lot less time looking for parking than other cities, esp. LA. That is surely because it’s expensive, so in deed, there’s a trade off. The higher expense means its easier to find a spot when needed.

    Also, I don’t want us to think we’re going to get huge efficiency gains because everyone uses SpotHero to reserve a spot in advance and be more efficient. I majority of the trips are still solo — carpooling would make a huge difference if more widely encouraged.

  • Anne A

    Metra’s weekend schedules



Parking Craters Aren’t Just Ugly, They’re a Cancer on Your City’s Downtown

Streetsblog’s Parking Madness competition has highlighted the blight that results when large surface parking lots take over a city’s downtown. Even though Rochester, winner of 2014’s Golden Crater, certainly gains bragging rights, all of the competitors have something to worry about: Cumulatively, the past 50 years of building parking have had a debilitating effect on […]