A few months ago in this space, we took the managers of Ventura Harbor to task for their shortsighted plan to charge for parking at the harbor. Revenues were much lower than expected, merchants complained of depressed business, and the harbor went back to free parking before the summer was up.
Now it’s the Ventura City Council’s turn. In September, the city unveiled new high-tech, solar-powered parking meters for the core of downtown. Where parking had been free for years — with the exception of a couple of previous short-lived attempts at meters — it now costs $1 an hour.
The paid parking covers only six blocks of Main Street, plus the first block from Main on each side street. It’s still free to park anywhere else on the street, and in any of the city’s downtown parking lots and garages.
Still, downtown business owners say the meters have had an immediate and disastrous effect on their sales. They stormed City Hall for a meeting on Oct. 12 of the city’s Downtown Parking Advisory Committee, where they were thrown a bone or two: The committee agreed to simplify the rates and end pay parking at 9 p.m., rather than midnight.
That hasn’t quieted the merchants a bit. They want the meters out — or, at the very least, a grace period of an hour or two before customers have to start paying.
We won’t go so far as to endorse pulling the meters just yet, but we would urge city officials to listen to the business community with an open mind. If parking meters aren’t working — if they’re really driving people away from downtown stores and restaurants — they should be removed.
Stubbornly sticking with them could undo much of the good work the city and its merchants have accomplished in revitalizing Main Street over the past 15 years.
There are some compelling economic arguments against free street parking. Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, has made a career out of them, and he was profiled recently in the Los Angeles Times as the “parking rock star.”
His view boils down to this: Parking that’s free or priced below its market value encourages people to use their cars more than they otherwise would and to cruise around for a space, both of which cause traffic congestion. Charging for parking solves that problem and gives cities revenue to clean up their downtowns, which is what Ventura plans to do with the cash from its meters.
Shoup is right when it comes to thriving urban areas like San Francisco or Manhattan — or, for that matter, downtown Santa Barbara. There’s more demand than supply in such places, so it makes sense to charge as much for parking as the market will bear.
But Ventura is not Santa Barbara. Ventura’s downtown has come a long way, but it still needs more: more visitors, more customers, more residents, more employers. If free parking helps coax people downtown, then a little more traffic and a little less city revenue are worth the trade-off.