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Free Parking Downtown? It All Depends

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.

About Dave Feehan

Dave Feehan is president and CEO of Civitas Consultants LLC and former president of the International Downtown Association. He is a member of IPI's Accreditation Committee and a frequent contributor to various professional journals. He is working on a new book, Design Downtown for Women - Men will Follow.


  1. Jeff Petry says:

    Dave – The City of Eugene converted a small downtown section (12 blocks) of its 52 block on-street metered system to 2 hour time limited parking. The goal was to use parking to (1) leverage retail development in an underdeveloped area of downtown and to (2) invest in the existing downtown business by having parking customers spend their quarters at the small shops and not in the parking meter. The program sunsets in October after 3 years (2 year pilot + 1 year extension). We used the free parking tool in conjunction with our downtown business loan fund and downtown economic development team to redevelop the core of this area. As of today, we have an art cinema, theatre, many, many new restaurants, tech companies, downtown apartments and new businesses within the free parking area. This was not all due to a 12 block free parking program, but a team approach to keep our existing businesses while we worked to redevelop a small section of our downtown. Parking is an enterprise fund and we had the resource to forgo this revenue/make the investment in our downtown core, for a period of time. We are now at the 85% capacity figure for on-street parking, complaints of no where to park, and issues with employee parking. This is the good parking problem that parking professionals love to offer solutions!

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