Berkeley Goes There With Parking 

The city is moving forward with a proposal to extend parking meter hours to 8 p.m. in order to free up more spots for patrons of restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues.

In 2009, the Oakland City Council sparked outrage when it voted to extend parking meter hours until 8 p.m. At the time, the council was attempting to close an $83 million budget gap, and the parking meter extension was expected to generate nearly $1 million in annual revenue. But the policy angered businesses owners who contended that it was driving away their evening customers. The city then rescinded its plan, making parking free after 6 p.m. Yet despite this debacle, the Berkeley City Council is expected to vote on a similar pilot project this spring that would extend parking meter hours to 8 p.m. However, the difference is that Berkeley's proposal is part of a new philosophy toward parking — one that has gained considerable buy-in from merchants because it's based on data and research, and because other aspects of the program have proven successful so far. The proposal also should boost business for area merchants.

Berkeley's plan to extend meter hours isn't part of an effort to close a budget gap. Rather, it's intended to help Berkeley restaurant and bar patrons find parking in the city's commercial district in the evening. Currently, it's extremely difficult to score a parking spot after 6 p.m. because people park their cars in metered spots for most of the evening.

"After 6 p.m., there is no parking available on streets," said Willa Ng, project manager of the city's new goBerkeley parking program. As a result, motorists "end up circling the block for twenty minutes" or more, which makes them late for their dinner reservations or for theater shows, Ng added. Frustrated patrons then sometimes leave and don't come back.

Over the past several months, city officials have studied evening parking conditions in Berkeley and have discovered that metered two-hour parking spots in downtown and other commercial districts typically start to fill up after 4 p.m. Motorists feed the meter until 6 p.m., knowing that they can then keep their cars parked in those spots after 6 because it's free. City parking officials believe that this is a common practice among employees of restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues. It's also common for local residents, who keep their cars parked in those spots until the next morning. "That does happen a lot," Ng said of people who park from 4 p.m. until 8 a.m.

Under one of the options to be considered by the city council, parking hours would extend until 8 p.m. in all metered spots, including two-hour and four-hour parking areas, during a four-month pilot program that would launch this summer. Two-hour parking is currently limited to streets within the downtown core and other commercial districts. Four-hour spots are on less-crowded side streets in those areas. The city is also proposing to increase four-hour spots to eight-hour parking.

The idea is to get workers and residents to park on less-busy side streets in four- or eight-hour spots. That way, they can feed the meter until 8 p.m. and keep their vehicles parked there throughout the evening (much like they do now in two-hour spots in which the meter ends at 6). That, in turn, should free up parking close to restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues for customers of those establishments.

Berkeley's proposal is based on research conducted by UCLA professor Donald Shoup, who is nationally known as the guru of market-based parking pricing. Shoup's research has found that parking programs work best if they're designed to prevent people from parking for long periods of time — so that customers of local businesses can always find parking.

Yet even though Berkeley's proposal makes logical sense and is research-based, it likely will still be a tough sell for many merchants. Ng said the feedback the city has received so far from business owners is that they're afraid their customers are going to avoid Berkeley because they're not used to paying for parking after 6 p.m. Ng said, however, that once she and other city officials show merchants their research about the lack of evening parking spots and how that hurts businesses, merchants become more open to trying out the program. The city plans to conduct extensive outreach as well — something Oakland did not do.

Berkeley also has earned the trust of city merchants because the first parking overhaul, which launched last fall and was also based on Shoup's work, has been mostly successful. That program varied parking prices and parking-hour limits in downtown, the Telegraph area, and the Elmwood, based on the availability of parking. The city raised prices and shortened the amount of time that people can park on crowded streets to discourage people from hogging parking spots, and extended parking-hour limits to three or four hours on less-busy streets to encourage more people to park there.

City parking officials, however, are going to ask the council to tweak parts of the program in the coming weeks. They're proposing to raise prices in congested areas in downtown from $2.25 to $2.75 per hour to free up more parking spots. And they want to extend parking limits from four hours to eight hours on less-busy streets, while raising the hourly price there from $1.25 to $1.50 an hour. The idea is to encourage motorists who plan to be in an area for long periods of time to park on streets where there's plenty of parking.

Clarification: Extending parking meter hours to 8 p.m. in both two-hour spots and four-hour parking is just one of the city staff proposals that the Berkeley City Council is slated to review. Also, the month in which the pilot program would start this summer has not yet been finalized.

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