There’s Nowhere To Park Downtown! (Not) City Announces Parking Changes

Market Square Garage during Rhythm and Blooms, Knoxville, Spring 2012 (a good problem)
Market Square Garage during Rhythm and Blooms, Knoxville, Spring 2012 (a good problem)

It’s the only topic guaranteed to be discussed in every city the rest of our lifetimes and beyond. Generations of us have lived in suburbs where the parking expectation is that we park in front of the door we expect to enter. The only garage we want to encounter holds each of our three cars and it’s attached to our house – because we don’t want to get wet!

Urban areas don’t generally offer such options, so discussions and arguments about cars in general, and parking specifically, rage onward. On the one hand, people like me insist there is more than enough parking if people would only be willing to take a (healthy) walk from their cars, while others get angry when they get a parking ticket, refuse to use garages even when they are free or insist on using only their favorite garage every time they drive into the city.

So, what is a city government to do? Build more garages and widen roads while driving people like me insane or narrow roads and clamp down on space devoted to cars while enraging the suburban masses? It’s a conundrum and not one I’d like to have on my shoulders.

The answer is that the plan is ever evolving. Bill Lyons pointed out last night that no one cared a few years back because very few cars drove downtown and they found what seemed to be an ocean of parking relative to the cars. No one bothered with enforcement because what difference did it make? Those days, happily, are gone.

Bill Lyons Presents New Parking Regulations, Knoxville, May 2016
Bill Lyons Presents New Parking Regulations, Knoxville, May 2016

The city is now making their most recent attempt to provide parking regulation that is “rational, fair and effective,” in Bill Lyon’s words. Changes will take place July 1 designed to address a number of problems such as a patchwork of parking rules downtown, meters that don’t work and uneven enforcement. As it’s evolved over the years, there have been changes both good and bad. He mentioned that Gay Street used to be four lanes until people simply started, of their own volition, parking by the curbs, reducing the street to two lanes.

The changes are a result of an extensive examination of best practices and fundamental principles in the study of parking. Rick Emmett, particularly, has attended a number of conferences and seminars on the topic. One feature the city will retain in the face of credulity on the part of other cities: free night and weekends in garages. No other city does it that I know of and I’m not sure it’s a great idea at this point in our evolution, but it’s certainly popular, so it will remain.

It’s interesting to know the breakdown of available parking in the city. We have 596 street spaces, 5,066 spaces in garages and parking lots and 2500 in the Coliseum garage. Counting the Coliseum, 93% of all downtown spaces are in parking lots or garages. What does this tell us? That the street spaces are the luxury spot and that we’ve completely underutilized a great asset in the parking garage located beside the Knoxville Coliseum.

We also have long-term and short-term rates for parking meters. Short term is sometimes 50 cents per hour and sometimes $1 with a two-hour limit, with no obvious reason for the variation. Long-term metered parking is 15 cents per hour with a ten-hour limit. Some spaces have no meters, but are limited to two hours. Most rates haven’t changed in more than ten years. With most garage spaces costing $1 per hour, the luxury spots (street parking) cost less than the bulk of the spots.

Bill Lyons Presents New Parking Meters, Knoxville, May 2016
Bill Lyons Presents New Parking Meters, Knoxville, May 2016

Monthly parking rates are also interesting (and cheap by any city standard). Full rates range from $20 in the Coliseum parking garage to $40 in the Jackson Avenue lot to $85 in the Market Square garage. Downtown residents are given half-off these rates.

So, given this hodgepodge, what does the city plan to do? For a start, new meters (which will be black, not grey like the one pictured) will be installed throughout downtown. These meters actually monitor the spots and have the capacity to be linked to apps which will notify the Public Building Authority (who will monitor downtown parking with the aid of additional officers) when a meter has expired. They also have the capacity to notify drivers where spots are available – but there is no app. at this time. They’ll accept coins (for a range of times) or credit cards for a minimum amount of time required.

Meter rates will increase to $1.50 per hour for short-term parking spaces with the goal of promoting regular turnover and striving for an 85% occupancy rate, which is considered by the industry to be ideal. Long-term meters (the north side of the Gay Street viaduct, for example) will double to 30 cents per hour. Hours will also become consistent: Monday through Saturday, 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM everywhere except Gay Street and the immediate area around Market Square, which will be 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM.

Monthly rates will also change. The full rate will increase $5 per month to $80, or $2.50 for residents to $40. Conversely, monthly parking in the Coliseum garage will decrease from $20 a month to $15 per month. Dr. Lyons pointed out that a free trolley passes the Coliseum garage every seven to eight minutes and that the walk from there to Gay Street is five minutes.

So, if you work downtown, you have an option of parking in a garage near Gay Street for $80 a month or taking a short trolley ride from the Coliseum and paying $15 a month. Easy decision, to me. Someone present even pointed out that for someone who comes downtown often, it would be worth getting the monthly pass from the Coliseum and not worrying with paying for parking each trip downtown.

Walnut Street Garage, Futre Home of Enterprise Car Rental, Knoxville, October 2015
Walnut Street Garage, Knoxville, October 2015

More changes will come. That app should be down the pike. Increased (and I assume similar) technology will be added to the garages. Changes may be made if portions of this approach don’t work. I have to say it all makes sense to me, though I think our rates are still extremely low. I also wonder if we haven’t passed that point where free parking in garages nights and weekends is a worthwhile idea. Parking isn’t really ever free.

Also, regarding enforcement, if you are one of the people who have banked on the lack thereof, you need to understand it is about to be enforced very well. If you are someone who accumulates parking tickets and never bothers to pay, be prepared to have your car towed the next time you have a parking violation.

So, what do you think? Sensible? Draconian? What would you do if you were the parking czar of the city?

Finally, a programming note: I’m going to take a couple of days off this weekend. You’ll get your Ten Day Planner on Sunday, but no Saturday Sounds and I’m taking Memorial Day to be with my family. I hope you’ll do the same. I’ll return Tuesday, but soon thereafter I will revert to my traditional summer schedule of somewhere around three posts per week (besides the planner). My staff needs a little down time to relax and travel around a bit.