What’s the deal with downtown and parking?

Before Walt Worthy’s “Grand Hotel Spokane” broke ground, the Convention Center/INB Performing Arts Center complex had a huge parking crater just across the street. And yet, people still complain that parking is too difficult downtown. Why? (PHOTO: Streetsblog)

If you listen to some people, then downtown Spokane’s mostly paid parking causes all sorts of problems for downtown. The theory goes that a large number of people simply refuse to shop or work or locate businesses downtown because they don’t want to worry about finding a space and paying for parking. While we’ve already shown that downtown already has too much parking, the cost issue may or may not be a fair concern. Most other downtown areas nearby (i.e. Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint, Missoula, etc.) don’t charge for on-street parking, and often even off-street parking is free (i.e. Coeur d’Alene’s McEuen Park, which offers two hours of free parking). But is it a fair criticism? You’re never too far from a metered space in downtown Spokane, and if you park near Kendall Yards, you can get free parking and a beautiful five-minute walk. If you’re looking at off-street parking, our rates are comparatively a steal.

In Seattle, or Portland, or San Francisco, or San Jose, or Los Angeles, you’d be paying at least $15 for a two- or three-hour shopping trip. Here, $5-8 probably is the most you would pay. So why do people here freak out over the very thought of paying a small amount of money to park? Or at the thought of finding a place to park, when we have a great overabundance of parking as it is?

We think that three potential solutions could get more and more people downtown. Any of these three, or a combination, could make a big difference in combatting the negative perception that many Spokanites hold about shopping or working downtown.

1. Create a downtown “parking authority.” Under this scenario, all surface parking and street parking in downtown Spokane would fall under one management structure. The parking authority would be responsible for price setting, enforcement, and the creation of a common marketing scheme. No longer would you worry about whether you are in a City of Spokane, River Park Square, Diamond Parking, Convention Center, or Davenport spot. You’re just in a Spokane spot. Less worries. More convenience.

2. Through strong planning and capital investment, encourage more people to use transit to come downtown. This is a touchy subject as it is, but the fact remains that if you don’t use a car, you don’t even have to worry about parking. Let’s make transit even more convenient than driving. Let’s build out a streetcar, a trolleybus, a light rail. Let’s make bus service more efficient, more predictable, more frequent. Let’s build “stations,” with bulb-outs, highly-designed shelters, and ticket vending machines for off-vehicle ticketing. Currently, “choice” riders avoid STA because it lacks a critical experiential element. Make it more of an “experience,” and perhaps more users will ride downtown.

3. Make it free. Yup. I went there. If both other options were employed to reduce the number of parking spaces demanded, perhaps we could get rid of the meters entirely. It’s not like they provide a massive revenue stream for the City. Those funds could easily be replaced with small adjustments in other areas of the budget. And the vitality effect could be huge as individuals make more excuses to shop downtown. Besides, the positive publicity associated with free parking could be reason alone. Let’s go for it.

What do you think? With a historic parking surplus and significantly lower parking costs than other areas of the country, why are people so paranoid about what seems to amount to a relatively minor issue? Does parking stop you from shopping or working downtown? Do you think free parking or an investment in transit could make a difference? What of the parking authority idea? Share your thoughts on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments below, or in person. We love to hear from you.

12 thoughts on “What’s the deal with downtown and parking?

  1. The metered parking is necessary for proper turnover so businesses can have a good flow of customers. I would prefer something like variable rate parking as San Francisco is doing. I like the other suggestions though

    • Yeah, the SF Park system is pretty interesting. Yield management can work wonders for parking availability. That said, as someone who goes to school in the Bay Area, I can tell you that San Francisco’s parking situation before the system was absolutely miserable not because of rates, but because of a lack of available spots.

      Spokane doesn’t have that problem. We have a huge over-abundance of parking both on the street and in garages. Rarely does the River Park Square garage fill up, and the Parkade and other structures downtown are so scarcely used that they are almost empty. Understand that the Parkade has a capacity of over 1,000 cars. The RPS lot isn’t far off. And there are literally dozens of other garages and surface lots in the city. People shouldn’t be complaining that it’s too hard to find a space, and yet they are.


      • I think people feel entitled to the parking spots and don’t feel as though they should be paying for them. I think we really need to open people up to the reality of how much these spaces cost the community to build and maintain.

        In response to your first paragraph. The variable rates may not be needed in Spokane but variable rates have been shown to open up more parking because people are more likely to use the spot for just the needed time and then move on.

        We just need to keep encouraging people to move to the downtown core, switch to bike or public transportation and change some if not many of these spots to protected bike lanes. That is going to be a very tough battle and is not one with easy answers though.

  2. variable rate parking is the best possible solution

    comparing our parking costs to those of cities like San Fran, LA, San Jose and Seattle is disingenuous given the giant population discrepencies. All of those cities also have FAR better downtown living accomodations, meaning people don’t HAVE to own a car. Spokane’s downtown core SUCKS for living, and thus it’s all workers who drive in from elsewhere and require parking. Giving free parking would KILL turn over (as Lex H pointed out!)

  3. People who complain about parking are usually a) cranks who still wouldn’t come downtown because of “those people” b) people who have never lived elsewhere/live in the exurbs who have no point of reference ad to what parking costs are in a real city or c) some combination of the two. I work downtown and ride a bus in the winter and drive in the summer – the bus pass and parking pass cost the same, so time/comfort is the decider in mode for me. Parking in Spokane is cheap and so is the bus – the cranks are just full of excuses, they don’t deserve to have their moaning rewarded with free parking.

  4. I understand the points that others have made – the population of Spokane and the quality of public transportation are both not as high as in Seattle, San Francisco, etc. However there are other factors that even out some of this disparity. Spokane is the hub for the entire region in a way that many larger cities are not; our events and the availability of shopping draw people from many distant cities. These people can’t take public transportation to get to downtown Spokane, and aren’t counted in the population numbers for the Spokane metro area. Also, noone is credibly arguing that Spokane rates are anywhere near comparable to those other areas; people pay hundreds of dollars a month to park their cars in the more densely populated areas of New York or San Francisco.

    Differences with other large cities aside, I still think that Spokane’s parking is far more cheap and abundant than one might normally expect of a downtown area. For most of my trips downtown, I park in the River Park Square garage. I hardly ever have a problem finding a space even during all but the largest events and festivals, and rarely pay more than three dollars even when I’m not shopping at one of the stores for which I get a parking discount.

    When the downtown area is really full I often use the Parkade, and it usually is deserted. When we bring our dog downtown with us we also park in the Parkade, since there is hardly anyone around to complain when we take our (non-service) dog through the elevators and buildings.

    For short-duration large events such as Bloomsday or the Lilac Parade, I park near Fourth and Howard under the freeway. I almost never use the Diamond or any other paid lots at street level.

    The only time I’ve ever had a problem parking in downtown Spokane was on the Fourth of July. I was surprised to find that they completely closed down the Parkade – this should have been one of the few times of year when much of that space would’ve been used by paying customers. As it was it took hours to leave the RPS garage because of the volume of people.

    There are those above who say that making the street parking free will fail to encourage turnover, but how many people do you really think will cut their visit short because they don’t want to feed another fifty cents into a parking meter? This is such a marginal difference I can’t see it greatly affecting the turnover rate. On the other hand, perhaps a hard time limit (not a meter purchase at once limit, but an absolute time limit for occupying the space) should be imposed whether the meters are kept or eliminated.

    I can’t see how anyone can maintain that downtown businesses would have a problem planning for their employees’ parking, or that making street parking free would help this situation. No matter how much money you have for street parking, the spaces are too often not available, so you can’t plan on using them. On the other hand as I made the case earlier there is more than enough garage parking space to go around. I’m not sure if the Parkade offers monthly passes that employees (or their employers) can purchase, but the space is there. Available, and not terribly expensive.

    • If 50 cents is not enough to encourage turnover then we should find the economic equilibrium point where turnover is encouraged. Or we could just put time limits on it and continue to sell parking at below market value.
      If there is a market demand for something and the city can find a price point that can pay for the up keep of that commodity or better yet make a bit of profit then I believe it should do so.

  5. Spokane is in a unique situation because it has so slowly transitioned from being a “town” to a “city”. As a result, old thought processes and expectations remain around longer than normal. I feel Spokane is close to a tipping-point where issues like this will be less of a public concern. The 30 < demographic really don't complain about using public transportation and are more concerned about being places that can deliver "an experience"…..which in Spokane with RPS, Kendall yards, riverfront park, the falls, and a fair abundance of clubs and social hang outs, is still the main place for "an experience".

    In addition to the culture shift, we just need more commercial and residential density downtown and the former will bring he latter ( will replace the ugly surface parking lots) and then it will be a non-issue really.

  6. I think are a few reasons why people complain about parking here:

    -Most of Spokane is suburban. This means “free” parking for anyone who lives outside the downtown core, which is most of the population.
    -A lack of perspective. Our isolation from other metropolitan areas is something of a gift and a curse. In this sense, it acts primarily as a curse: too few people understand that parking in Spokane is comparatively cheap.
    -Out of towners shriek the loudest. Whether it’s the family driving in from a small city in Stevens County, or the couple coming over from CDA, the most persistent critics of the prices for parking downtown are usually those who do not live in Spokane. I can’t count how many times someone from Spokane Valley has told me they don’t come to downtown Spokane just because of the parking. Of course, they’re used to living in a city with no urban core to begin with.

    That said, the idea of making it free leaves a bad taste in the my mouth. If we consider parking a “public good,” then those who use it should have to help pay for upkeep (which is estimated at about $400 annually). We (generally) have no problem understanding this when it comes to roads, why should parking be any different? Not only that, but making parking free would accomplish the exact opposite of what you propose with respects to strengthening transit: it would give people *more* incentive to drive, not less. I would suggest reading Donald Shoup’ The High Cost of Free Parking if you already haven’t.

  7. People complain about the price for parking downtown because parking is free in the rest of the city. In cities like Seattle you pay to park wherever there are businesses. Places like Brown’s Addition, Garland District, Kendal Yards, Hillyard and South Perry would all be covered in meters.
    The parkade needs new signage and advertising. It doesn’t look like hourly public parking, it looks like you need a pre-purchased parking pass. What good are a 1,000 spaces no one knows about.

  8. Pingback: Seven photos illustrate how an obsession with parking is destroying downtown Spokane | Spokane Rising


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