A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed some of the insights that could be gleaned from the failed Proposition 1 vote (a Transportation Development District (TDD) with a 1% sales tax). This week, I want to offer some ideas to fill the funding hole Prop 1 left. As I said then, Kirkwood still has potholes to fill, bike lanes to stripe, and trails to construct. And regardless of your views of how the city’s leadership has managed its funds in the past, the money still has to come from somewhere. I suggest we implement a three-step plan to fill that gap.
NextSTL – 2018 – “There’s Not Enough Parking” (in Kirkwood)
NextSTL – 2015 – Do The Math: Kirkwood
NextSTL – 2011 – Self-inflicted Suburbanism: Kirkwood Looks to Demo Downtown Stores for Parking
1. Sell a Lot
First, I suggest we raise a little seed money while simultaneously improving Kirkwood’s urbanism. The city owns seven public parking lots in Downtown Kirkwood that provide free parking to Downtown shoppers and diners. While Kirkwood has long fought against perceptions that there isn’t enough parking Downtown, multiple analyses have suggested that the issue is primarily one of perception and that Downtown Kirkwood has more than enough parking to accommodate its visitors.
If that’s indeed the case, Kirkwood should absolutely consider shedding some of its excess spots and doing something more productive with them. That’s because surface parking lots are really bad for walkability.
While on-street parking can be used for things (cars do a great job separating pedestrians from the speeding traffic), parking lots are a drag on walkability. They spread businesses further out, making it less convenient to walk from one to the other and more likely that people will drive and park at each individual stop. Surface parking lots also make for a less enjoyable walk. Instead of window shopping or people watching as you walk by patio seating, pedestrians walking by parking lots get to feast their eyes on rows upon rows of cars. Surface parking lots also cost the city money directly in paving, plowing, and upkeep.
More than anything, surface parking lots represent a significant opportunity cost. Every surface lot represents missing businesses that could be providing residents new amenities and the city additional tax revenue. To try to make up for this cost (and raise a bit of seed money to address the streets issue) I propose the city issue a request for proposals (RFP) on any one of those seven lots.
RFPs allow developers to submit bids for purchasing the lots alongside plans for what they would build on them. If the city doesn’t like any of the proposals they receive or how much money they’re offered, we hold onto the lots and gain a bunch of information on what the market for those lots looks like.
But, if, on the other hand, some developer offers a million dollars to buy the lot and build, say, the perfect, quaint boutique hotel of our dreams in the heart of Downtown Kirkwood, all of a sudden we’re in business. The city gets an amenity that we’ve long held as a high priority, we save money on the maintenance that the parking lot would have otherwise required, and we make Kirkwood a more pedestrian-oriented community in the process.
For our purposes, the main takeaway is that the city would get a windfall in revenue that, given the Prop 1 fiasco, we could sorely use. In addition to the hotel-generated sales taxes that would flow into the city’s coffers, the plan would bring in a large lump sum of money from selling the land itself.
2. Paid Parking
Now that we’ve made that money, the question becomes what to do with it. I think the answer here is to implement paid parking throughout Downtown. Paid parking is great because, much like step 1, it does two things: It makes Kirkwood more pedestrian-friendly while generating additional revenue for the city going forward.
Because paid parking is fairly divisive, I want to make a little bit stronger case for it. Many people argue that paid parking would hurt local businesses, but most evidence suggests that the opposite is true. Parking encourages people to do their shopping or their dining and then leave to make room for more shoppers and diners rather than lingering afterward. Ideally, paid parking also makes parking actually easier. By charging an appropriate price, we can ensure that about two spots are available on every block for those that really do need to park. If fewer than two spots are available per block, we simply raise the price, and if the price is too high and no one driving, we lower it until we reach the optimal level.
Paid parking also serves as a good revenue source for streets specifically for a couple of reasons. First, it raises money for roads from the people who use them: drivers. In raising that money, paid parking also disincentivizes people from driving when they don’t really need to by charging them to do so. This means fewer cars on the street and less wear and tear on our roads (and thus lower maintenance costs).
If you’ve been convinced, the good news is that Kirkwood has already done the expensive part. Last May, Kirkwood quietly added a massive tech upgrade to its downtown parking as Chesterfield-based tech company Fybr installed measurement technology under 275 of the city’s downtown parking spaces for free. (The company plans to use the installation for demonstrations to future clients).
While Kirkwood is currently only using the technology to help drivers find empty spots for free parking, Fybr’s tech is capable of much more. For example, in larger cities like San Francisco, Fybr has been used to implement paid parking at an incredibly efficient level. The app can be used to pay parking meters directly, thus significantly reducing or eliminating the cost of installing physical parking meters. And because the system keeps track of the availability of spots in real-time, things like dynamic pricing (pricing that adjusts up or down based on demand in real-time, on a block-by-block basis) become feasible.
Given this already substantial investment (again, one that we’ve gotten for free, you can download the Park Kirkwood app here and see for yourself), the cost of adding another couple of hundred spots to the system and monetizing it is likely relatively low.
Okay, so now that we have a consistent fair revenue stream, how do we use it? Welcome to step 3.
3. Paid Parking Revenue Goes to Streets
Established best-practice for paid parking holds that revenues should be spent locally (in the general area where the paid parking is located) to build support for the measure amongst the businesses and residents that the change will most directly impact. Even more ideally, the revenue should be spent to improve walking and biking infrastructure to make those modes of transit easier for those who used to drive when parking was free but as a result of the fees have been incentivized to change their behavior.
One problem here is that while some of the streets that need improving are close to Downtown, many more are not. That’s okay, though. We should prioritize the roads closest to downtown first, and we can move to projects further and further to the periphery as more funds become available. The city does have some money to spend on streets even without Prop 1’s additional funding so that existing pot could go towards funding the roads most in need lying outside of downtown more quickly.
As I noted in my previous piece on the proposed Frisco Trail, driving, transit, and walkability operate on a feedback loop. If it is easy to drive and park, people will continue to do it. If we make it harder or more costly, people will change their behavior and use another cheaper, safer method of transportation.
Metro operates in a similar manner. They route buses to places where they know people will use them, and people will use those busses only when taking the bus is a better option than driving. In a community that likely will continue to see increased density and, as a result, increased traffic in the coming years, it’s important that we establish these transit routes now so that personal traffic doesn’t become a binding constraint to that growth.
On another planet, we might be indifferent to the choice between cars and public transit beyond the effect of that slight increase in traffic. But on this planet, one where climate change hinges on these sorts of choices, we should do everything we can to incentivize people to drive less and walk, bike, and take the bus more. If our means of getting to there also gives us a longed-for hotel and a fundraising apparatus to improve our roads, bike lanes, and bus stops long into the future? All the better.