Lynne Lancaster and James Jackson visit the downtown RMA parking deck.
Lynne Lancaster and James Jackson visit the downtown RMA parking deck.

City Hall is trying to bring order and reason to the administration of downtown Richmond’s 24,000 parking spaces. The job could take years.

by James A. Bacon

To get an idea of just how crazy the parking problem was in downtown Richmond before City Hall decided to give focused attention to the situation, consider this. In the 23-block Capitol District, dominated by city, state and federal office buildings, there was more than enough parking to handle the demand — nearly 1,800 spaces between on-street, surface and structured parking — and only two thirds of it was occupied, according to a 2009 parking study. Yet government employees were hogging the on-street spaces, making it difficult for citizens transacting business with the city to find a space to park.

“People were working all day long and monopolizing on-street parking spaces” said Lynne Lancaster, operations manager for the Richmond Department of Public Works, who oversees parking. “Many people were feeding the meter, running in and out of the office all day long.”

Some didn’t even bother feeding the meter. They learned that if they got tickets, nothing would happen. No one collected the fines. One individual racked up 1,400 tickets. “He was basically daring the city to do something,” declared James Jackson, director of public works.

I was meeting with the city’s two parking czars in a coffee shop just around the corner from a Richmond Metropolitan Authority (RMA) parking deck that the city was planning to take over (and since has) in order to rationalize the fractured ownership and operation of public parking assets. Earlier, City Council had raised rates on metered parking. On the theory that parking policy was one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated functions of municipal government, I’d set up the tete-a-tete to find out what the city administration was up to.

For years, parking policy had been conducted on an ad hoc basis. If merchants or other downtown constituencies wailed loudly enough, the city or some quasi-independent authority would build a new parking deck. At various points in time, the city also tried installing more parking meters for on-street parking, un-installing meters, relaxing enforcement of violations, and then ratcheting it back up. There seemed to be no underlying vision guiding the city’s actions.

A parking strategy began to cohere in 2002 with a seminal parking study, and then came into sharp focus in 2009 with a follow-up report by Timothy Haahs & Associates, a Miami, Fla., consulting firm. Those studies sketched out a vision for how parking could contribute to creating “a vibrant downtown containing active streets, pedestrian life, and occupied storefronts.” Among other critical findings, the Haahs report debunked the perception that “there are not enough downtown parking spaces.” While there were localized shortages in certain districts, downtown Richmond in 2009 had 24,019 spaces and peak demand of 17,000 — a surplus of roughly 7,000 spaces.

RMA parking deck
RMA parking deck

Further, the report found, spot shortages of on-street parking could be remedied by raising rates. It is an axiom of municipal parking policy that rates should rise to the point where on-street spaces are 85% occupied. That level ensures that spaces are nearly fully utilized but have enough vacancies that people can readily find somewhere to park without contributing to congestion by driving around and looking for a space. Proper pricing for street parking also encourages drivers to utilize structured parking, of which there is an abundance downtown.

Of the 22 recommendations advanced in the two parking studies, the city has implemented about half, says Jackson. One accomplishment has been to bump up the hourly rates from $.50 to $.75 — higher than before, but still short of a market rate. “[Mayor Dwight Jones] appreciated that the recommendation was to raise the rates. But he said to raise them incrementally. He didn’t want to give anyone sticker shock.” The idea, says the public works chief, is “to wade in, as opposed to jump in.”

Another priority was consolidating ownership and control of the public parking facilities. Entities holding a stake in public parking assets included the RMA, the Richmond Housing Authority, the Broad Street Community Development Authority, the Economic Development Authority and the city itself. The city could save considerable money by spreading the management and operation of its parking facilities over a larger number of parking structures. Stated the report:

The numerous entities controlling these assets create a bureaucratic nightmare in which no single person or group is the ‘go-to person.’ From a management standpoint this is not the most efficient system to manage parking. We believe it is imperative for the City to take the proper steps towards developing a centralized parking operation in which all the assets are controlled and managed by one agency.

One critical step was taking over the RMA parking deck built in the air rights above the Downtown Expressway. The city financed construction of the structure in 1990 by purchasing $18.9 million in bonds issued by the RMA. The plan was for the RMA to pay off the bonds from profits generated by the deck. But revenues fell woefully short. Twenty years later, the RMA owed the city the entire principal amount plus $15 million in unpaid interest. The city administration proposed taking over the parking deck and forgiving the $33 million — an idea that did not go over well with some council members, who said the RMA has plenty of money and should pay the city back. In the end, Council approved the transaction. Read more.

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11 responses to “The Quest for Smarter Parking”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    I am not at all sure of this.

    1. Claiming that there is sufficient parking somewhere within a 23 block area is kind of crazy. A person driving into Richmond to attend a meeting, shop or eat will look for parking in the immediate vicinity of their destination. If those lots are full – how is the person supposed to figure out where there are available spaces within the 23 block area? I would guess that 3 – 5 blocks is a better area to consider available parking.

    2. Raising prices alleviates the parking problem. Wow. Talk about penny wise and pound foolish. Yes, raising prices will reduce demand for parking. People will just stop coming to meet, shop and eat where the parking is overpriced. Parking problem solved!

    3. Richmond has no effective mass transit. There is no subway and the bus system is poorly rated. What do you expect people to do? Ride their bikes into downtown?

    You have to think about these things systematically, rather than as a series of isolated decisions. If you want people to come to downtown Richmond to meet, eat and shop then you have to make it easy. The worst retailer in America knows this. Yet it seems that there is always this bizarre discussion about how to optimize one piece of the puzzle while de-optimizing all the rest.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    To be fair, things are not much better in NoVa. How many Metro stations have parking lots that are completely full from early in the morning ’till late at night? Falls Church – East and Falls Church – West seem to be perpetually clogged. If the half-wits in Fairfax County really wanted to increase ridership they would demand that WMATA build bigger parking lots. Or, they would construct the lots themselves. How much in congestion and road costs are saved by every car that parks at West Falls Church for commuters headed into DC?

    Oh, I forgot. Parking lots would have to be built by the county or MWAA and road costs are paid by the state.

    What an amazingly hopeless governance process we have in Virginia.

  3. re: parking scofflaws:

    Our fellow commenter, Reed says parking if “complicated”.

    But then I’ve heard other claims that companies like WalMart are “forced” to provide more parking than is necessary though I’m suspicious that is the case rather than WalMart never, ever wanting to see someone leave because there is no parking available and I’m betting also that we will NEVER see the day when WalMart “charges” for parking so they don’t have to build oversized parking lots..!!!

    so I’m not surprised than commercial business is not so hot about higher prices for parking as a solution to displace govt employee (or corporate) squatters.

    I’ve been to the state capitol a number of times and often times the event organizers will “steer” you to a place where parking is assured which is handy.

    At other times I end up driving around until I find a lot because I’m not one to keep running out to feed the meter – and actually if I was an employer, I’d take a dim view of paid employees doing this kind of thing “on the clock”.

    but the best way to visit the Capitol is to take a bus (provided by organizers) and step off right in front of where you need to be and then get picked up later.

    there IS a downtown map of parking available via google search and I suspect as a phone app…

    I’m not sure parking is something that govt should be doing directly at
    all.. contract it out to a company that would specialize in real-time status of available spots and let them charge to recover costs + make a profit.

  4. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    My sense is that Jim has written a fine article and Don has written the perfect nutshell critique of that article. Larry as efficiently reaffirmed the latter with good examples. Yes, parking is so complicated and subjective it can’t be left to knuckleheads and experts either one – together or separately both will kill the gold geese in the blink of an eye. Here recall to the Newton Galileo Principle.

    Newton Galileo Principle is found at:

  5. Reed – do you believe that public parking should be managed by govt or a private sector company using supply/demand principles and modern technology?

    Do you think that parking should be “free” or cost?

    If you feel it should cost – do you think it should be dynamically-priced?

    is it a core govt function or is it something else?

  6. So in summary…the City is floating bonds to build more parking capacity that it needs, can’t afford to pay the debt service, and may be rethinking its laissez-faire approach to collecting revenue.

    Champagne tastes and beer budgets (aka liberalism at work). Glad I don’t pay taxes in the City of Richmond.

  7. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Larry – my short answer is I do not know. But your questions go to the heart of lot of important factors for sure. Here are some general thoughts.

    I thought Jim’s article was excellent. He highlighted much of importance. This included that Richmond government has an important roll to play on many levels and its work is important step forward in Richmond, a recognition that parking is to a degree a government asset that often must be managed for the public benefit, including for the city’s financial benefit.

    So Richmond’s hiring of the experts, and its serious pursuit and application of expert advice as described in article is an important step forward.

    On the other hand …

    I thought Don counter was excellent. It pointed out for example, the market distortions and absurdities that can follow if experts put blinders on when they focus too sharply on one view of the problems that parking might present and/or the opportunities that parking might afford.

    In connection with the opportunities, for example. Yes, parking can generate substantial “tolls”, that is “space rental fees,” that are dearly needed perhaps by the city.

    But as Don and you suggest, if those tolls are not wisely applied, they can quickly and easily cost the city FAR MORE in lost sales and property taxes than they generate in parking meter income. Indeed, those parking tolls can throttle wealth and it power to generate more wealth in a city’s downtown and throttle the wealth potential of its citizens living, working, and recreating in downtown. This point leads to one crux of what I believe is the central reality of building best practices in parking policy …

    Parking is at base a lost leader. But it is a hugely important lost leader. Parking can generate huge “Collateral” revenues if properly managed. Conversely parking improperly managed can do huge collateral damage.
    Pure Parking Experts too often can fail to see this, particularly in nuance.
    This can particularly true in urban situations where the stakes are very high.
    (as pointed out in Fiscal Fix article.) So good parking policy and management is hugely important to private interests, beyond the fact that it is often on private property, and built underground only by private interests. In most cases I believe it is a very good thing done right. Here recall my earlier comments regarding whether to build beyond by parking codes for a downtown office building next to a metro stop. I will supply that citation of the parking discussion later.

    The second big crux of parking is, I believe, its complexity aspect. Parking must be looked at in a holistic way within the huge matrix of the city and all its almost endless parts. In that sense its like traffic, indeed related.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      One extensive discussion of urban parking referred to above is found at:

  8. It’s one of those things where some commercial – commercial that is dependent on automobile-borne customers rather than folks on foot/bike needs it.

    but then I end up asking myself, with all this discussion about urban spaces -walkability – why would commercial locate where parking is limited rather that just locate in the suburbs where they can have their own on-site parking and not be at the mercy of public on-street parking?

    I agree, Jim Bacon contributes a lot to the analysis and others here tend to confirm, validate or contradict …

    sometimes there is no one answer or at least no one satisfying answer.

  9. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    To bring this conversation full circle, I suggest the cities like Richmond most likely have to look at their parking from a broader perspective.

    Thus, first, they need to analyze their parking policy as a tool to create wealth in their city, by serving private enterprise in ways that build inter city prosperity for individuals, corporations and small businesses. These policies should be redesigned in ways that will not only help citizens within the city to thrive, but should also turbo charge city revenues through the growth of property, sales, corporate, and personal taxes. Thus new parking technologies can be combined with new land use and transportation metrics to enhance the power of parking policies that create exponential wealth within the city.

    Second. the city should analyze it parking potential from the point of view developing parking schemes that best finances the construction of best mix of parking spaces (the short, long, and mid-term parking fees, public and private) to serve the ends of developing a thriving base of private enterprise.

    Thirdly, it should look at the best way to turn parking into a revenue generating profit center for city, after coming up with what works best accomplish 1 and 2 above.

    Thus, after it has considered its parking policies from the broader perspective, the city might quite likely discover that they need to bring their parking policies into a far better and more productive balance.

    This in particularly true in a city like Richmond.

    I have not visited Richmond since the mid nineties. But I gather that the city is still lacks the mix of mass transit infrastructure enjoyed by some cities. If so than the cities parking and auto transport policies are more important than they might otherwise might be. Second, it appears from the Google map that Richmond continues to have large holes in the fabric of its as build land uses. That is large numbers of under developed properties.

    Thus city needs to mix in good, targeted, and wealth creating parking strategies and tactic with enlightened land use, and transportation policies that, working together, fill in these gaps with the best most productive kinds of mixed use development.

    I am not suggesting these policies are not being looked into now, only that if they are not being given full consideration, the city might profit from taking that boarder perspective before implementing a new parking plan with the new tools now available.

    For more perspective on the pitfalls of parking and tolls generally see on this website:

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