Is Parking Part of the Problem, a Potential Solution, or Both?
Why Parking in a Mobility Plan?
Free and abundant parking may sound appealing, but it comes at a high cost. Space used for storing cars cannot be used for other types of land uses and activities that generate revenue and jobs, provide housing, or provide a community benefit or amenity. Constructing and operating new parking garages is very expensive. Additionally, free or very low-cost parking subsidizes and incentivizes driving. This results in an increase in vehicle trips and traffic.
The control and management of parking through pricing and availability is a key component of most transportation demand management plans. In numerous studies, parking availability and price have been identified as the strongest predictors of how people travel. At the same time, ensuring that people are able to readily access employment, services, shopping, recreation, and arts venues is essential to Walnut Creek’s health and vitality. Having alternatives to private automobile travel that provide comparable levels of access and mobility at a similar or lower cost is critical in order to effectively manage parking and traffic, and to maintain convenient access for both residents and visitors.
Parking in Walnut Creek Today
Walnut Creek has focused on managing public parking in the downtown Core Area for several years, and has implemented a number of initiatives that use both price and time limits to regulate demand and ensure availability. The overall supply of publicly available parking spaces (as opposed to private spaces that only certain people can access) in the downtown area is approximately 10,000. Of those, approximately 1,400 are on-street and approximately 1,600 are off-street in metered lots and three municipal garages (Broadway, Lesher Center, and South Locust garages). These numbers are approximate because the number of on-street spaces varies somewhat depending on how close together people park both on-street and in garages. For instance, parking garages can fit more cars when they employ attendant-assisted parking.
Of the total 10,000 publicly-available parking spaces, the City manages 3,000 – or about 30 percent of the total.
Most employers in Walnut Creek provide free, on-site parking for employees. This includes employers clustered around the Walnut Creek BART station, Shadelands’ extensive supply of surface parking, and the two medical centers (John Muir and Kaiser). The City of Walnut Creek subsidizes employees’ parking costs, and monthly employee parking rates in downtown garages are significantly lower than hourly or daily rates.
In most cases, the provision of parking has been required by the City’s Zoning Ordinance. For example, one parking stall is required for every 250 square feet for new office buildings. While some employment locations have areas of very high parking demand, parking is also over supplied in some cases.
Parking counts were low for a recent study at Shadelands, revealing that few surface parking lots were near capacity during the AM peak.
Parking demand is greatest in Walnut Creek’s Core Area, particularly within and around downtown. The City has been collecting and analyzing parking data since 2001. The following are key observations of how demand has changed over time.
Parking demand has been increasing in Walnut Creek since 2001.
- On-street occupancy from 7-8 pm on Friday increased from 87 percent in 2001 to 100 percent in 2013 and 2015.
- The average peak Friday occupancy in municipal garages increased from 71 percent in 2001 to nearly 100 percent in 2015.
Parking demand varies significantly by time of day.
- Occupancy peaks during two times of day:
- 12-2 pm
- 6-8 pm and later
Parking demand varies significantly by location.
- On-street parking typically has higher occupancy rates than off-street.
- Demand increases for on-street metered spaces the closer they are to downtown.
Parking demand varies somewhat by day of week.
- The variation is not as large as by time of day or location.
- For on-street spaces, demand is quite consistent across the days of the week.
- At municipal garages, Sunday and Monday have the lowest demand for the Lesher and South Locust garages; Saturday and Sunday are the days of lowest demand at the Broadway garage.
- Weekdays are the busiest days at all three garages.
The primary goal of the City’s parking management program in downtown Walnut Creek is to create enough open parking spaces so that customers can find a spot on each block, without having to circle around searching for parking. Another key objective is encouraging people to park once and walk to multiple destinations downtown.
Walnut Creek’s parking ordinance articulates the policies that guide how staff approach managing parking demand and complements overall parking-related principles in the General Plan.
The City’s Parking Ordinance:
Authorizes the City Traffic Engineer to install meters where needed on downtown streets (but not on block faces managed by residential parking permits).
Establishes a demand-based approach to managing parking to ensure parking is reasonably available. This includes regular surveys of parking occupancy rates.
Establishes 85 percent as the target peak parking occupancy for on-street spaces, lots, and garages; allows the Transportation Commission to adjust parking fees (between $0.00 per hour and $5.00 per hour) and hours of operation to achieve that target.
Specifies that to achieve the target 85 percent peak occupancy, the Transportation Commission shall adjust rates up or down by no more than $0.50 per hour. The Transportation Commission’s review of parking occupancy and adjustment of rates must occur at least annually, but not more than once per quarter.
Parking Revenues Benefit Downtown.
All revenue from municipal parking meters, citations, and garages goes to a City enterprise fund that helps to pay for parking operations and equipment. Additionally, the fund assists in providing for services benefiting downtown, such as the downtown trolley, public safety, downtown landscaping, and downtown events.
How Has the City Implemented the Parking Ordinance?
By regulating the cost of parking and time limits, the City has successfully shifted some demand away from the most impacted parking areas in downtown.
"Purple Pole" meters
To encourage people to park outside the downtown areas where demand is highest, the City lowered parking rates to $1.00 per hour and removed time limits. In areas of high on-street demand, time limits are two hours and rates are $2.00 per hour.
Hours of operation
Meters are enforced Monday through Sunday from 10 am to 8 pm.
Reduced garage rates
To encourage people to park in the garages and reduce demand for on-street spaces, the first hour in the municipal garages is free.
Parking Management is ongoing. Demand for parking in downtown continues to exceed the 85 percent occupancy target in some locations. As part of Rethinking Mobility, the City is working to address both parking demand and the need for easy, convenient access to downtown. This includes further rate and time limit adjustments both on-street and in garages, as well as developing additional alternatives to driving and parking downtown. It also includes continuous improvements to parking management technology (e.g., parking meters) that make it easy and convenient for downtown visitors to pay for parking by enabling them to use multiple forms of payment and extend meter times by phone.
Regulating Parking in New Development
Through its authority to regulate proposed development, the City of Walnut Creek can affect the future supply of parking.
Automobile Parking (Citywide)
Walnut Creek’s parking regulation for automobiles is similar to many North American cities in defining parking minimums in terms of the type and intensity of land use of a particular development. For example, multi-family residential projects are subject to a schedule of parking requirements that is based on the quantity and type of dwelling units (e.g. studio, one-bedroom, etc.) proposed.
Exceptions to this citywide formula are possible through a few limited avenues:
- As in most cities, requirements may be appealed to the Zoning Administrator on a case-by-case basis due to contextual issues that make the standard parking requirements an undue burden.
- Development in the Core Area of Walnut Creek (roughly encompassing the downtown area and land immediately adjacent to the Walnut Creek BART station) is subject to some reductions based on the square footage of the project and the project’s location in proximity to BART. In addition, development projects within the Pedestrian Retail Zoning District (mostly located within the downtown area) can opt to pay in-lieu fees to support municipal parking structures that serve multiple users instead of providing parking on site.
North Downtown Specific Plan
Notable exceptions to the citywide parking policies described above can be found in the North Downtown Specific Plan. Due to the presence of rich transit, pedestrian, and bicycle facilities in this area, projects within this specific plan are required to provide fewer off-street automobile parking spaces than comparable projects in other parts of Walnut Creek. Additionally, this area contains parking maximums for development projects.
West Downtown Specific Plan
The City has already enacted lower parking requirements for development projects adjacent to the Walnut Creek BART station. These lower parking requirements were adopted for the entire West Downtown Specific Plan area, with the exception of the Almond-Shuey neighborhood. Parking reductions for office use near BART are also included. The plan also allows for parking reductions to be considered on a project by project basis; based on parking studies and the implementation of appropriate parking management and transportation demand management strategies.
Parking maximums were considered as part of the West Downtown Specific Plan, but ultimately were not included. The plan states that parking maximums may be reconsidered at some future point, depending on transit improvements and other factors ensuring parking remains adequate to meet demand.
Bicycle Parking (Citywide)
The City of Walnut Creek currently requires new commercial developments or existing structures undergoing significant alteration to provide secure bicycle parking. This is calculated at 10 percent of the required automobile parking.
Currently, there is no bicycle parking requirement for multifamily housing, although the West and North Downtown Specific Plans have proposed adding such requirements to the City’s Zoning Ordinance. These plans also have more rigorous requirements regarding the provision of bicycle facilities by new development. Depending on the type and size of project, amenities such as long- and short-term bicycle parking and showers for bicyclists are required.
How Are Other Cities Addressing Parking?
Many cities across the nation are experiencing problems similar to Walnut Creek’s challenges in terms of managing existing supply, anticipating future trends, and addressing emerging forms of mobility.
Seattle: Time of Day Parking Pricing and Elimination of Monthly Parking Permits
Seattle is an example of a municipality that uses a more sophisticated approach to setting parking meter rates. In this data-driven approach, the City uses occupancy data to vary rates from morning, afternoon, and evening to find the lowest price where there is almost always at least one parking space on every block. The goal is for drivers to quickly find a space without needing to circle or double park, which is good for both customers and for business.
The City of Seattle has found that one of the most effective transportation demand management tools involves replacing monthly parking permits with daily, pay-as-you-go parking charges. The City found that instituting a pay-as-you-go approach to parking had a significant impact on reducing drive-alone commuting by providing people with more options for traveling to work. When someone buys a monthly parking permit, they are pre-paying parking costs for the entire month, and have little to no financial incentive to use a transportation mode other than driving.
Denver and Sacramento: Using Parking Meters Later into the Evening
Parking meters are simply a tool to make it easy to find a parking space when and where stores and restaurants are open and demand for parking is high. Denver, Colorado and Sacramento, California provide examples of how cities with dynamic downtowns are using parking meters far later into the evening to make sure it is easy to find parking when restaurants, shops, bars, and theaters are open.
In its downtown, Denver operates meters nearly 24 hours a day (with low rates during the early morning and free parking on Sundays). The City of Sacramento operates meters until 10 pm in the heavily visited Old Sacramento area.
Needs, Opportunities, and Challenges
Ongoing coordination between parking and TDM strategies is needed. Walnut Creek has already taken a number of important steps to better manage parking in and around downtown. As additional residential and commercial development occurs in the Core Area and more people travel to, from, and within this area, it will be necessary to further develop the City’s parking management program in coordination with new TDM strategies aimed at reducing vehicle trips.
Walnut Creek has an opportunity to build on its successful parking management program to become a model for municipal smart parking management. Walnut Creek’s current approach to parking management reflects years of steady effort to better manage parking in order to achieve its goals for both economic development and vehicle management. In fact, Walnut Creek stands out among peer cities in the Bay Area for implementing a successful parking management program that incorporates demand-based pricing and extended meter hours.
There are opportunities to build on this success in order to address areas where parking demand is exceeding supply through the use of additional pricing mechanisms and operational approaches. Additionally, some driving trips could shift to other modes of transportation through the use of incentives and additional programs, services, or infrastructure. Walnut Creek has an opportunity to further build on its leadership position among Bay Area cities and become the model for smart parking management in smaller cities.
Since most people drive to downtown for shopping, dining, entertainment, and work, it may be challenging to implement multimodal transportation improvements in conjunction with greater parking regulation or a reduction in parking supply. To better utilize parking management as a TDM tool, it will be necessary to implement services, infrastructure, and programs that enable and encourage transportation options other than driving alone in addition to parking management strategies.