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Why transit experts think downtown parking changes are a good idea

A public showdown over downtown parking appeared to end this week in a draw: On-street rates would still double to $2 per hour under a resolution by Common Council President Darius Pridgen – but would remain free most nights and weekends.

Officials hope the compromise amendment, which is expected to pass Tuesday, will end a fractious debate that began soon after the Common Council unanimously passed the rate hike in December. But even as the modified policy goes before the Common Council, some local transit experts say they fear it has been unfairly maligned and misunderstood.

Like similar plans in dozens of cities across the country, they say, it was designed to incentivize small shifts in the way people travel to make downtown more accessible.

“It’s a learning curve – it’s about education and behavior change,” said Kelly Dixon, a principal planner at the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council. “It’s thinking about ways to get around differently.”

Below, a breakdown of the new rules – and the argument for the new policy.

What does the new downtown parking policy do?

The amended parking policy does two things: first, double hourly on-street parking rates from $1 to $2 on some high-demand blocks; and second, create 700 new, on-street parking spaces, largely in the Cobblestone District.

The original plan also included a third plank that would extend paid parking hours until 10 p.m. on weeknights and Saturdays, effectively eliminating free evening and weekend parking on many streets. Under Pridgen’s proposal, however, motorists would not pay to park after 5 p.m. unless a major event is taking place at the KeyBank Center, Canalside, Sahlen Field or Shea’s Performing Arts Center. (Read more on the nitty-gritty of finding and paying for parking here.)

To be clear, the new rates apply only to certain high-traffic, high-demand blocks in the central business district, from Edward and Goodell streets south to the waterfront. The policy does not change rates in city-owned parking garages. And it does not limit the number of hours drivers can stay in a spot.

City workers installed new parking sign rules around the Cobblestone District on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Why does the city want to raise parking rates?

The rate increases are an attempt to solve a basic economics problem, the city says. Downtown has 37,500 parking spots, but demand is overconcentrated in the core – where there aren't enough spaces for everyone who wants them.

Increasing parking rates on those high-demand streets, the theory goes, will nudge some drivers to either seek out slightly more distant streets or find other ways to get downtown. That, in turn, frees up more of those high-demand spaces in the core, making parking easier for other visitors.

How do higher rates make parking easier?

Imagine you’re grabbing lunch near Main and Chippewa streets. You have several parking options under the new rules: park right outside the restaurant on a high-demand street for $2 per hour; park on Oak Street for $2 per 10 hours and walk three blocks; or take some combination of ride-share, bike-share, bus or Metro Rail to reach your destination.

If even a few drivers choose the second or third options, the city reasons, more spots will be available at Main and Chippewa for people with short-term parking needs, such as eating meals, working out or attending meetings. Officials plan to monitor this over the next three months and make changes if it's not working.

Is there any reason for the new policy, besides higher turnover?

Transit experts also like the plan because it makes other modes of transportation cost-competitive with cars. Busing or biking aren't for everyone, but even a fraction of current drivers making the switch would free up yet more spaces and boost foot traffic downtown.

That foot traffic, in particular, will make the neighborhood feel safer and more vibrant, said Justin Booth, the executive director of GObike, a transportation nonprofit organization. He also said the city could accelerate change by reinvesting the new revenues in street improvements and subsidized transit passes.

“We’ve been talking for years about the need to decrease car trips, improve downtown vibrancy, improve people’s health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Booth said. “We can move the dial on all those things if we make other modes of transit cost-competitive.”

Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer told Common Council members in December that the city could spend its new parking revenues on lighting, sidewalks and public safety. But the city does not have any active plans to subsidize transit passes, he said after a news conference Thursday.

Are other cities doing this?

Tiered-demand parking systems have become common across the country, including in midsize cities like Buffalo. In the past year, Cleveland and Minneapolis both hiked on-street rates in some popular areas to reduce congestion. Columbus is also scheduled to increase rates later this month in the booming arts district of Short North.

But Buffalonians don't have to look that far to see progressive parking policies pay off, Booth said. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus diffused its parking crunch through a combination of higher rates, alternate-transit programs and new ramp spaces. Today, the Medical Campus says 80 percent of its employees commute by car – a drop of eight percentage points from 2012.

“People like to say this won’t work in Buffalo,” Booth said. “But if you just cross over Goodell Street, it’s already worked there."

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