A Radical Notion: Paying for Onstreet Parking in Cville

Image credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow

Image credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow

Irony time: Virginia soon may get a test in market-based parking in… the People’s Republic of Charlottesville. The city would start charging for 800 on-street parking spaces downtown, now free, and install a system of smart traffic meters under a proposal advanced by Mark Brown, new owner of the Charlottesville Parking Center (CPC).

The city reverted to a system of free parking two years ago, creating a severe misallocation of parking spaces. Downtown employees grab the free on-street spots, making it exceedingly difficult for visitors and shoppers to find convenient parking spots. The idea is to encourage downtown workers either to park in long-term structured parking, which would free on-street spaces, or to ride bicycles or use mass transit.

“The promotion of free parking on the street is at odds with the promotion of walking, cycling and mass transit,” said Mark Brown, the owner of Yellow Cab and the Main Street Arena who became the sole shareholder of the CPC last summer, reports Sean Tubbs for Charlottesville Tomorrow.

The proposal, very conceptual in nature and subject to revision, is to install about 60 kiosks where parkers would enter their license plate information to pay. There would be two zones, a core zone with more restrictive parking lengths and higher rates, and a peripheral zone, where people could park longer and pay less. On-street parking rates would encourage long-term parkers to use structured parking. A smartphone app would provide real-time information on parking availability and rates. A portion of the parking revenue would be dedicated to transportation alternatives such as a free trolley, park-and-ride-options and cheap monthly bus passes. The remainder would go to a Business Improvement District.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m sure some of Brown’s ideas will prove controversial. Downtown employees won’t want to give up their free, convenient parking. But there is no compelling public policy reason for subsidizing their hogging of downtown’s supply of on-street parking. Indeed, quite the contrary. Parking spaces have a cost; they are not “free” to the city. Parking is a scarce good that people are willing to pay for. Charging the right price for parking is a critical element of any downtown development strategy. Although the details may need to be modified, Brown has the right idea.

With all the tools available today, every large and midsized Virginia city should be asking the same questions as Charlottesville.


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14 responses to “A Radical Notion: Paying for Onstreet Parking in Cville

  1. Tubbs also tweeted out an interesting stat for the city: 14% of Cvillians walk to work, 7% take transit, and 2% bike. So 23% “non-car” commuters v. 77% “car” commuters.

    What do you think would be a healthy % breakdown of auto/nonauto commuters in a city in Virginia?

    • Interesting question. I don’t think there is a single/simple answer to that one since it depends on the options available. A quick online search (caveat emptor!) reveals that compared to Richmond, Charlottesville has moderately higher %’s of non-auto commuting in all non-auto modes, with the exception of walking. For walking, Charlottesville’s % is much higher (12.5% vs 4.2%). This one modal difference heavily skews the auto/non-auto (70% auto in C’ville vs 81% in RVA) . (BTW, the %’s I found included teleworking, so the %’s may not be comparable to the %’s quoted by Tubbs.) Arlington (arguably, the Virginia metro with the most transportation options), has a auto commuting at 60%, with a large component of mass transit – different from both C’ville and RVA. My source: http://www.bestplaces.net/

  2. So why would shoppers want to park in the high rate parking? Wouldn’t they be more likely to avoid downtown all together by shopping else where?

    • The point of this approach is to let the market decide. Rational shoppers will weigh the benefits of shopping downtown (desirable stores, pleasant shopping experience, interest in supporting local businesses) against the obstacles, such as the lack convenient parking. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that if parking is priced properly, the supply and demand will balance, resulting in adequate, convenient parking for retail patrons. The Charlottesville proposal is targeting the counterproductive tendency of downtown workers to snag the “free” on-street parking for long periods, making it difficult for short-term retail patrons to find convenient parking. Having structured parking expensive and the street parking “free” results in an effect exactly opposite of the intended one. The most expensive parking should be the most convenient, high-turnover spaces near busy retail. By the way, while it may not be immediately obvious, high-capacity “free” parking in a suburban setting is also not free. The difference is that the cost of providing parking is buried in the overall cost of the project and passed on to the patron in the retail transaction. You see all of those empty spaces in the big-box retailer’s lot? You are paying for those every time you shop there.

      • Actually I don’t shop in malls, downtown areas or anywhere else unless I really need something. I price check the stores online before I pick the one I want. Then it’s get in, get what I need, and get out. Put a parking meter in front of the store and you will never see me again.

  3. Hill City Jim,

    If you are reading, isn’t Lynchburg also looking at stricter time limits/stronger enforcement on Downtown parking? I believe I’ve read that recently.

    I also thought everyone might find this interesting:


    The micro-apartment comes to Charlottesville. It will be interesting to see if this gets built and if it’s successful.

  4. “The city reverted to a system of free parking two years ago, creating a severe misallocation of parking spaces. Downtown employees grab the free on-street spots, making it exceedingly difficult for visitors and shoppers to find convenient parking spots. The idea is to encourage downtown workers either to park in long-term structured parking, which would free on-street spaces, or to ride bicycles or use mass transit.”

    This isn’t correct. The current parking regulations have been in place for far longer than 2 years. The “free” on-street parking spaces in downtown area that we’re talking about have time limits (typically 2 hours).

    The issue is that some downtown employees do the “2 hour shuffle” – moving their car to a new close-in space every two hours to avoid tickets rather than finding a free all-day spaces farther away from the urban core and walking in (and thus freeing up the close-in spots for shoppers). What remains to be seen is exactly how many downtown employees are doing it. I work downtown, and I don’t think the number is THAT large.

  5. How many work for the city?

    • In the context of this article, I’d say about 100-150 employees in City Hall and two adjacent building. There are far more, but they’re in facilities outside the urban core that is being talked about here.

  6. I believe it was more like 20 years ago, not 2 years ago

    And this is fantastic – there are some sharp minds working in the PRCville whatever you may have to say about it! Though the comments on Tubbs’ article show that there are plenty of people who still just don’t get it.

  7. So why don’t the city employees park in structured parking instead of on the street? Is Cville too cheap to provide their employees a dedicated place to park?

    • City employees actually have a bunch of options. There’s a parking subsidy for the structured parking garages in downtown that gets the cost from $110/month down to $50-ish. The City also has the use of a free parking lot a 1/4 mile from downtown. city employees can ride the bus system for free as well. There’s also a fair amount of all-day on-street spaces between 1/5 and 1/4 of a mile from City Hall that are available early in the morning (don’t really fill up until around 9:00).

      All of this makes me think that the issue is more than just public employees, it’s all employees. The retail employees, the private office workers, restaurant employees, etc. In some cases, those employees are parking in front of where they work, and then their bosses don’t want to be jerks and tell them to move their cars, so they want a higher power to come in and deal with it.

      • You are very accurate in your comments. I’d also note that everyone looks at storefronts on the Downtown Mall. What most don’t realize is the office space above the storefronts. There are a number of small firms (tech, design, architecture, etc.) that have moved into those offices in the past few years. There are a lot of people working in the Downtown Mall area compared to five years ago. Those people are also taking advantage of the “free” parking.

  8. And from the looks of all that ‘no cars allowed’ downtown street-scape, it would appear that the paid parking meter plan is really about adding a sin tax on cars.

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