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CITY TALK: Proposal to enforce parking meters until 8 p.m. raises tough questions

Last Tuesday evening, I spent a few minutes standing on the corner of Houston and Broughton sttreets.

It was just after 7 p.m. There were no cars traveling on either street. I didn’t see any pedestrians or bicyclists either.

A handful of the on-street parking spaces were occupied, but from where I was standing, I could see more than 30 metered on-street spaces that weren’t being utilized.

And I don’t even see very well.

It was a lovely evening, by the way, so the quiet wasn’t due to the weather. The city is teeming with tourists right now. SCAD’s spring quarter is in full swing.

From comments I routinely receive, I know that some readers of this column think that downtown is always overflowing with tourists, cars and demand for on-street parking. Apparently, a number of key city officials are under the same impression.

Absent significant public outcry, Savannah City Council appears poised to move ahead on May 11 with some major changes to parking rules in the downtown area. I have written a number of columns about the proposed changes, but I might have written those columns too soon — before the general public was ready to scrutinize the proposals.

I like many things about the parking overhaul, which arose out of the extensive study called Parking Matters.

Actually, “like” is the wrong word. I don’t “like” that meter enforcement will be extended to Saturday and probably much of Sunday, but the parking demand in core areas makes a compelling case for enforcing meters on those days.

I don’t see similar justification, however, for the city’s plan to extend meter enforcement from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. even on weekdays.

Sure, there are some parts of downtown where demand seems to support the extension of the hours of meter enforcement. Around Franklin and Ellis squares, for example, the level of demand would likely warrant extending the hours of enforcement much later than 8 p.m. on weekdays.

Even on a quiet Tuesday evening, you might struggle to find on-street parking in the area bounded loosely by Bay Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, York Street and Lincoln Street. You might find limited spaces on Bull and Abercorn streets until you look south of, say, Jones Street.

However, in the vast majority of the area with current and future parking meters, there is low demand for non-residential on-street parking on the average weekday evening.

Many folks understand these parking patterns, and many readers of this column know that weekday evenings are the ideal time to head downtown for dinner or even just for a stroll.

How many spaces are available on a typical weekday evening? Are all those spaces as far from downtown destinations as Houston Street?

Well, at 7 p.m. last Tuesday, there were 16 empty on-street metered parking spaces on Oglethorpe Avenue between Bull and Drayton streets, right in the heart of downtown. That was not an anomaly. On many blocks throughout the Historic District, you can find fistfuls of spaces on an average weeknight.

According to the extensive data collected for the Parking Matters study in 2015, many of the blocks of Oglethorpe Avenue have parking utilization below 60 percent on a typical Thursday evening at 7 p.m. Ditto for many blocks of Liberty, Jones, Barnard and other streets.

You can look at the parking utilization data and find lots of other information at http://www.savannahga.gov/parkingmatters.

If demand for parking is already so low in so many areas on weekday evenings, what will happen when meter enforcement is extended to 8 p.m.? The answer seems obvious. The extra charge for parking will discourage some locals from driving downtown, and even more spaces will sit empty. The new policy will drive a further wedge between downtown and the rest of the city.

Some experts in urban issues will argue, correctly, that every parking space comes with a cost. For example, cars driving into downtown can create congestion and can take up parking spaces that could be more effectively utilized.

Some advocates of alternative transportation will argue, correctly, that extended meter enforcement will encourage bicycling and mass transit use.

But those arguments start to break down when the supply of on-street parking spaces dramatically exceeds the demand. Plus, our existing bicycling infrastructure and transit services simply do not meet the needs of many Savannahians.

Yes, some downtown residents will find it easier to park on the street if meter enforcement extends to 8 p.m., but the new policy would obviously impact those residents’ evening visitors as well. Many downtown residents are also among those who drive to restaurants in other parts of downtown.

The extended hours of meter enforcement will be especially tough for some service industry employees. For example, a cook at a downtown restaurant can currently park for free after 5 p.m. If the meters are enforced until 8 p.m., that low-wage employee will have to pay an additional $3 per day for parking – approximately $750 per year for a full-time evening worker.

As Savannah has pursued various policies that will make parking more difficult and more expensive, there has been woefully little discussion about the impacts on low-wage workers and on poor people generally.

Perhaps it’s also worth considering the rules in Charleston, where meter enforcement ends at 6 p.m. and metered parking is free all day on Sunday. Do we really have that much more demand for downtown parking than Charleston does?

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

More Info

Breakout Box: 

PARKING PLAN

The City of Savannah will hold “Drop-In” sessions to answer questions and provide information on the parking recommendations in preparation for a May 11 council meeting.

6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Monday,

Space Station at Starlandia Cafe, 2438 Bull St.

6 p.m. to 8 p.m., May 10, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.

For more information contact the Mobility & Parking Services Department at 912-651-6470.

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