There has been a lot of discussion this last month at City Council and the Transportation Advisory Board about parking fees and policies in Boulder. Most of the debate centers on how much prices should be raised to get people out of their cars and reduce emissions. Some members of the advisory board want to see massive increases in fees.
Of course, reducing emissions is a laudable goal that no one in Boulder disagrees with. To a casual observer, the idea of changing behavior through pricing seems like a simple solution. Charge significantly more to park downtown and more people will choose to leave their cars at home and ride the bus or their bikes to Pearl Street.
On the surface, this makes sense but a closer look reveals fundamental flaws. The fact is that many people do not have an easy choice to use public transit or the ability to ride a bike everywhere they go. Many live in areas not well-served by RTD. Others have kids or job commitments that require pick-ups and drop-offs all over town. Still others have physical challenges.
But people do have choices. Customers can choose to drive to stores and restaurants somewhere other than downtown. Twenty Ninth Street is just a mile down the road with acres of free parking. There are myriad other choices in and around Boulder as well.
Employees have choices, too. Baristas, dishwashers and retail clerks can find jobs anywhere these days. They can choose to work somewhere where the cost of parking does not eat into their paycheck. Businesses can choose to move out of downtown to locations that offer free parking. More than a few already have.
When people make these choices, emissions are not reduced. Cars are simply diverted from downtown where the city controls the available parking to other areas where private owners provide spaces for free. Behavior changes but not in the way intended.
Our local restaurants and shops downtown just suffered through a terrible year dealing with the impacts of COVID. Some did not survive. Those that did need both customers and employees to recover. This is certainly not the time for a massive increase in the price of parking that will drive people away from Pearl Street.
Another misconception is that the city subsidizes parking and loses money in the process. This is totally false. In 2019, parking meters downtown generated over $3.2 million for the city’s general fund. Public parking garages racked up $7.3 million in revenue from parking passes and short-term fees. Much of this money was used to subsidize more than 9,000 EcoPasses for employees downtown and on University Hill.
This program of using parking revenues to subsidize employee transit has been around for decades and is a national model of progressive parking management. In fact, the percentage of downtown employees using alternative modes is among the highest in the U.S. The city staff — both past and present — should be congratulated on their work over the years to reduce emissions in a way that does not handicap the local economy.
So am I arguing that we should never increase the cost of parking? Not at all. The cost of payroll, maintenance and those EcoPasses for employees are all going up every year. City staff has proposed reasonable increases in fees along with demand-based pricing to both boost revenues and manage access during peak periods.
The staff proposals are sensible, balanced and will continue to encourage alternative modes without punishing small businesses and their employees. This approach has worked for decades and it is not broken. City Council should not try to fix it with massive and disruptive price hikes.
Sean Maher is the CEO of RRC Associates in Boulder. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org to blog