Anyone who is either an admirer or a critic of Donald Shoup should read his book. It’s essential to be well-informed before making a fateful decision to jump into variable priced parking or alternatively, free parking, both of which can work, but both of which also have drawbacks. In big cities such as San Francisco, where there is very strong demand and parking supply is limited, Shoup’s theories have proven effective, at least in the short run, but may be too new to gauge their effect over a longer period of five to 10 years. In smaller towns, a very different situation may suggest a different approach.
The problem in many smaller downtowns is regulating downtown employees and employers who take up valuable on-street parking while off-street garages and lots remain partially vacant.
The whole point of parking is that it’s not about storing cars. It’s about attracting shoppers, diners, visitors, workers, and residents to downtown. To do that, city officials should direct parking managers to create the most customer-friendly parking system possible for all of the above. That doesn’t mean parking should be “free”–it never is. It does mean, however, that paid parking should not cross the “annoyance threshold,” as I call it. And free one-or two hour parking has its place. It works very well in downtown Boise, Idaho, for example.
When people ask me whether or not they should adopt the variable pricing approach I tell them, it all depends. I recommend you do a strategic parking plan first, and then figure out if free parking or variable priced parking makes sense and accomplishes what you want to accomplish, which is a healthy and vibrant downtown.