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Not So Fast on CF Parking Meters

A building falls for parking in Old Pasadena. Today Pasadena
meters street parking and returns the revenue to the local shops.

It has had a big resurgence as a result of this program.
Around April I recall seeing some Twitter posts pop up with an article linked to Central Falls getting rid of its parking meters and seeing a business resurgence. I worked for a year and change in Central Falls as a substitute teacher and summer school teacher, and I remember at the time scratching my head, unaware that there even had been any parking meters. I commented on them, @-ing the reporter and saying that I didn't think removing meters was a good idea, but then I put the matter out of my mind.

I never clicked through the article until today, when a conversation about an article I wrote on Providence's parking meter situation led to a branch-off about Central Falls having removed theirs. I was talking to someone else who has spent time in the city, expressing my dismay that Central Falls had become a poster child for meter removal, when the person reminded that Central Falls hasn't had any meters in the recent past.

"Central Falls doesn't have any parking meters. Seriously, not a single one! I think they were all removed twenty or thirty years ago," the person said.

As it happens, the article does refer accurately to the time period in which parking meters were removed, and if I'd read the article beyond the headline back in April I'd have seen that. The article plays some games with cause and effect though, claiming (accurately) that Central Falls is experiencing a business resurgence, and then quoting Mayor James Diossa saying he's not thinking about adding parking meters. The parallel facts don't really have any relationship to one another. It's been two decades since C.F. had parking meters, but the resurgence has followed from completely different causes.

Things Not Reported

Note the contrast with the postcard below.
Interviewed for a position as a city planner in Central Falls. One of the things I did to prepare for the interview was to speak with other planners and community members about the history of the town, and what I gathered from those informal conversations was that before Mayor Diossa, many of the city mayors and state officials who dealt with the city saw it as their mission to slowly suburbanize it. Houses and stores were torn down to make room for parking or drive-throughs. Certain types of new housing were discouraged, while other more suburban types were encouraged. Central Falls remains a highly urban and walkable community, but you can see the damage that was done to parts of it by these decisions. 
Note the contrast. "Rhode Island directions" two tropes: things that "used ter" be there, and Dunkin Donuts locations, merge.

I think the Central Falls, like other cities, should be looking to turn some of its on-street parking into protected bike lanes, while metering other parking for use by drivers. One of the things I was keen to look out for was what kind of parking occupancy there was, and I found out about this both by walking around and looking at things and talking to people. The street parking on Dexter or Broad is not always full, but it is heavily used in some areas (riding in the parking lane as a bicyclist is an option for many parts of Dexter and Broad, but you hit sections where it's not possible at all and have to go into traffic). Many times the parking off-street is not as full. Yet there's a strong perception of parking not being available in the city, and that continues to drive a lot of conversations.
One of many surface lots on Dexter Street (I don't know if this was one of the
one's created by RIDOT). 

In the 1980s, I was told by several people, RIDOT bought up a number of parcels on Dexter Street. These parcels were at one time buildings. Today, they're parking lots. The DOT and the city tore down buildings because it was perceived that there wasn't enough parking to sustain the local economy, a decision that mirrored actions across the country. Not having been in Central Falls at that time, I can't speculate as to whether the community approved of this or not. It seems totally likely to me that, as in many places, tearing down housing and shops for parked cars seemed like a good idea. But Dexter Street, despite many very nice shops and quite a lot of cool things to offer, still has the gap-toothed appearance of a place that's had too many demolitions. This is why.

Besides drawing too close of a causal link between parking meters and business success, a major flaw of the GoLocalProv piece is that it ignores this history. Hopefully, as Central Falls develops and experiences a resurgence, it will actually add some of these shops, homes, and apartments back (and, in fact, if resurgence isn't going to spell out displacement of working class residents, that's exactly what has to happen). As more demand for business grows, and less land is available for parking, there's going to have to be a way to figure out parking. That's what meters are.

The Shoup Way

In many places around the country, buildings have been leveled to make room for parking. It was the economist Donald Shoup that came up with the seminal text on how to fix this, The High Cost of Free Parking. In it, Shoup advocates for parking meters with flexible pricing based on demand to manage parking supplies on streets, for cities to remove off-street parking requirements from buildings, and for cities to give any money from parking meters back to the affected communities to do with what they please. Shoup has had a lot of success with this program.

The GoLocalProv article on C.F. was meant to question Jorge Elorza's choice to use parking meters as a revenue boost to the city. Two things need to be said about this: first, I would advocate that the city return the revenue to shops and residents just as Shoup says the city should. But second, where exactly do people think the revenue would come from if not from parking meters? Mayor Elorza did forego raising property taxes at the time that he implemented meters. If we had chosen to not meter parking, we'd have just paid a different way (and those of us who don't drive would pay more to subsidize those who do). Journalists who talk about parking meters need to start being more honest about what the economics of them are, so that we can get to better solutions. Some of those solutions are parking meters with revenue return, some are improving transit connections, some are biking or walking. 

I don't know if Central Falls is in a place for parking meters, or where exactly those meters would make sense if they were ever implemented. The way to go about it if there ever were meters would be to take stock of where the highest demand is to park, and to meter near those places. Above all, the money from those meters should never be thought of as revenue to be taken away, but as a resource to be given directly back to community members. That way meters help to balance supply and demand, but don't hinder business. Businesses can use the money to compete with lower prices, or throw festivals, or add street trees and nicer outdoor seating. They can pocket the money. It's all up to them. It's up to Central Falls residents to decide, not me, but I think they should take another look at parking meters.


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