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Complete Streets and the myth of ‘free’ parking

John Bennett is Safety Education Programs Manager at Georgia Bikes.

WHAT WAS your favorite memory of Small Business Saturday? Mine didn’t occur until the following Monday, when I marched up to the front counter at the City of Savannah Mobility and Parking Services office, showed photos of my bicycle locked up in front of various local business, and presented the receipts for my purchases.

The man behind me in line offered a photo of himself boarding a Chatham Area Transit bus, his arms full of shopping bags from local merchants. Each of us was given a crisp $10 bill.

As you might imagine, it was an unusually jovial day at 100 East Bryan St.

None of this happened, of course. At least not for the people who biked or took the bus downtown to spend money at local businesses.

Instead, the City of Savannah offered financial incentives designed to encourage people to drive their cars into the Landmark Historic District during a busy holiday weekend. And they were not required to patronize local businesses.

Whether they bought a hamburger at McDonough’s or McDonald’s, they qualified for the same deal. Truly, they didn’t even have to spend a dime.

You see, had I driven instead of riding my bike, the city would have rewarded me with complimentary parking. That’s a $5-10 value depending on which parking garage I used.

You’d be correct in pointing out that because I rode my bike I was not charged for parking, either. In response I’d ask you to consider the mountains of money the City has spent on storage facilities for private automobiles over the years.

Call me when City Council votes to spend $10 million on bike racks.

That was the value of the construction contract alone for the Liberty Street Parking Garage way back in 2005 and does not include the value of the land, nor ongoing expenses for maintenance and staffing since then.

There is really no such thing as “free” parking. When we are not charged a fee to park, the money still has to come from somewhere (or someone) else.

Although it invites people to use the least efficient and most highly subsidized mode of transportation, I guess I understand why the City continues its Holiday Parking program.

Cities all over the United States provide similar incentives, hoping to deliver a seasonal boost to downtown retail and restaurants.

Some even offer unlimited “free” parking throughout the holiday season, though critics point out that this can actually hurt businesses by reducing turnover of parking spaces.

The City of Savannah avoids this unintended consequence by offering “free” parking spaces in garages only, and only for the first three hours. In addition to Small Business Saturday, drivers can claim three hours of “free” garage parking every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday through Christmas.

While it’s probably a good PR move in a city where some local folks complain they no longer feel welcome downtown, I can’t help but wonder if the program delivers the desired effect.

Does “free” parking truly convince local folks, who might otherwise stay away, to come downtown and make locally-owned cash registers ring? Might there be a different method that’s proved effective in stimulating local businesses? And not just on holidays, but year-round?

Indeed, there is.

Investing in Complete Streets — which reduce motor vehicle speeds and improve access for people who walk, use wheelchairs, ride bikes, and take transit — has a remarkably favorable effect on retail sales, a substantial amount of research confirms.

The New York Department of Transportation’s landmark study, “Measuring the Street: New Metrics for 21st Century Streets” [] found that after improvements were installed on 9th Avenue retail sales increased 49 percent at locally-owned businesses, as compared to 3 percent for Manhattan overall.

Another finding of that study also deserves our attention here in Savannah: The economic benefits of Complete Streets to local economies flowed “just as much to lower-income neighborhoods with ‘mom and pop’ retail as to glitzier areas with sky-high rents.”

A companion area of research is examining an argument often used to scuttle one type of Complete Streets improvement. As the authors of the latest study [] explain, “Bike lane projects on retail streets have proved contentious among merchant associations in North America, especially when they reduce on-street parking. A limited but growing number of studies, however, detect neutral to positive consequences for merchants following bike lane implementation.”

Economic benefits aside, there’s an more even compelling reason to invest in Complete Streets projects: They make streets safer for everyone, including drivers.

“Free” parking can’t do this. In fact, the areas of Savannah with abundant “free” parking are also the most dangerous places to walk.

Knowing this, should we really be using the lure of “free” parking to encourage more people to drive into the most pedestrian-friendly part of the city, thereby making it less safe for everyone?