Downtown parking meters are like democracy. Controversial, sometimes aggravating, but better than all of the alternatives.
The Spokane City Council on Monday unanimously approved the purchase of high-technology meters, which triggered the traditional complaints about paid parking, and introduced a novel one.
The questions to keep in mind during a parking meter debate are: What’s the alternative? What city does it right?
The answers aren’t easy because any city that has a bustling downtown has plenty of boo birds when it comes to parking: It’s too expensive. Can’t find any spots. Free parking in the suburbs, so why not downtown?
First, if you could park free downtown, it would be a solid indicator of morbidity. Cities with lifeless downtowns have plenty of open spaces, unless employees have filled them all.
Paid parking with time limits keeps spots available for the next motorist looking for one. Shut them out a few times, and they’ll never return.
However, that doesn’t mean the process of paying couldn’t be improved, and that’s why the city will bring in 800 new meters that allow drivers to pay with the swipe of a debit or credit card. No more fumbling for change or dashing into a business to get quarters before the meter police show up. This was the top feature the public asked for when queried about downtown parking.
Now that the city has delivered, some people are upset they’ll lose accidental free parking because the meters are zeroed out as soon as a car pulls away. Currently, if a person leaves early, the next driver gets the surplus time. This is a nice happenstance, but losing this “pay-it-forward” experience is more than offset by how handy the new meters will be.
The new meters will offer a five-minute grace period before ticketing. The current system offers none. They also allow for a smartphone app that could locate available parking spaces if the city chooses to go that route. For that to work, the meters have to “know” when cars leave. The meters also make it possible to extend parking time with a smartphone.
It should be noted that most of the parking meter money goes to make bond payments the city owes as a result of its settlement with the Cowles Company over the River Park Square parking garage. The Cowles family owns The Spokesman-Review. The new meters will boost revenue by an estimated 20 percent, which will also pay for two downtown police officers, sidewalk repairs and general beautification thanks to an earlier ordinance adopted by the council.
The city experimented with paid parking kiosks, and they’ve proven to be unpopular. So, it’s back to a parking meter head at each spot, except these heads are a lot brainier.
Those who don’t particularly like downtowns will continue to complain, but those who value and want to preserve Spokane’s vibrant city center understand that paid parking is a must.
So the city might as well make it convenient.