A reader’s tale of his heated, emotional experience sparked by a conflict with dozens of empty valet parking spaces in one of the downtown private garages prompted me to request a copy of the Downtown Parking Customer Survey conducted by the city last fall.
It was an online survey of people of who, work and visit in Walnut Creek. Nearly 400 respondents participated, and 237 of them shared their personal opinions of the parking situation. In reviewing those opinions, I determined the top gripes.
Not everyone complained. A fair number said such things as: “Walnut Creek has plenty of parking. Those who are complaining need to learn to walk a little.”
But, not surprisingly, most people had gripes. I say "not surprisingly," in part because it’s the nature of this kind of survey to encourage people to share criticism—constructive or otherwise—than for people to say, "Everything is great! Don't go changing!"
Still, I think city and business leaders know that the parking situation could be better. Why else would they have created a Downtown Parking Task Force?
“The goals of the Task Force are to make parking work in Walnut Creek,” says Councilman Kish Rajan, who serves as co-chair of the Task Force. “ We want to make it simpler and more convenient for our residents and our visitors to find parking and to get out of their cars quickly so they can enjoy our downtown. We want to provide a range of parking options that give everyone choices that work for them. And we want to alleviate congestion in our downtown to help improve convenience, safety and to preserve our environment. “
City and business leaders must know, especially after reading the survey, that the parking situation can be a turn off, as it was with this respondent: “ Shopping in downtown Walnut Creek is a nightmare now. It is not my first choice for shopping, which is a shame because we need the tax dollars. But I don’t need the stress.”
Rajan participated in an e-mail Question and Answer with me regarding the top gripes I identified.
Here are those gripes (some of which I share), sample quotes from survey respondents about them, and Rajan’s response. He also wanted readers to understand that he was speaking for himself, not on behalf of the City Council or the Task Force. Thanks to Rajan for participating and to Gayle Vassar, the city's Community Relations manager for making the survey available.
Gripe No 1: In general, not enough parking, and people saying they don't even want to deal with downtown WC for shopping or dining anymore.
“I avoid WC because traffic and parking are so bad. We now go to Alamo or Danville for groceries, library and other small items. For clothes and larger items, it’s both easier and faster to go to Concord or Pleasant Hill.”
KR: One of the key issues we want to solve is the perception that there is insufficient parking supply in our downtown. A detailed study of our downtown showed that there is lots of available supply, but much of it goes unused, e.g. the top floors of most parking structures, outlying street spaces and surface lots. Most people naturally gravitate toward the most convenient spaces in town, but if everyone is chasing that small percentage of our supply, those spaces will always be full, causing the perception that there is no parking. The hovering for these spaces also causes traffic/ congestion which adds to driver frustration, not to mention the negative environmental impact of all the emissions.
Gripe No 2: The number or location of spaces taken up for valet parking on the street, but mostly in private downtown garages.
“Also, if there is going to be valet parking the valets should park far away and not in prime parking spots—it is annoying when long-term valet spots occupy prime parking areas.”
KR: Valet parking is one parking option that we do want to make available in our downtown. Certainly not everyone will use it. But many people like the convenience. And, valet parking is an efficient way of getting cars parked away from the premium street and garage spaces. That said, we do need to ensure the valet operations themselves don’t occupy the most convenient spaces. Valet cars should be parked elsewhere.
Gripe No 3: The flat $5 charge for event parking at the North Locust Street (Lesher Center) garage
“It is really irritating to when going to the Lesher theater to be hit with “event” parking for $5 in a city garage.”
KR: The Task Force will be taking a long look at our pricing policies in general: to review what are appropriate charges for every day parking and for events. However, I do think that the communication to the public about how and why we price can be improved. I think ineffective communication has caused some frustration.
Gripe No 4: Management and confusion around the private lots, over the meters, whether they are city-enforced or not, and the rules for using them (These comments were among the most heated--SM)
“I absolutely hate the private parking owners. Their rules are confusing and arbitrary. The city should take over all these lots so the rules are uniform, and it would get rid of half the parking complaints about the city.
“The private enforcement of the private lots encourages me to shop elsewhere. The private parking people are overzealous and it is legalized blackmail. I cannot believe the city is condoning their tactics. Their license to operate in the city should be revoked.”
KR: The City will be taking another look at the policies and practices of the private lot management companies. But, in general they are good companies that are sincere in trying to do a good job. But again, I think ineffective communication is an issue here. The city ordinance that prescribes how the signs read, and how the public is informed about the rules in these private lots, can be improved to make it clearer and easier to understand.
Gripe No 5: Difficulty navigating through city and private garages. The spaces are difficult to get in and out of.
“The design of the lots keeps many people out.”
KR: The task force spent a couple of meetings specifically on the topic of improving the garage experience. We developed a series of recommendations on subjects ranging from safety to convenience. We believe these recommendations, if adopted, will make the garage experience much better.
Gripe No 6: Parking in Walnut Creek is too expensive
“Even the meter prices have gone up. We shop in places where the parking is free, and anyone, that is not in downtown WC.”
KR: Again, the Task Force will be looking at pricing policies in general over the next several months. But, in my view, the cost of parking in Walnut Creek is quite reasonable relative to the quality of the shopping/ dining/ entertainment experience that we have in Walnut Creek. And, in fact, the professional study we had done suggested that our pricing for the premium spaces in actually too low, thereby contributing to the hovering and circling problem I mentioned above. They recommended that we change some pricing as a means of better regulating supply and demand to create more overall availability.
That said, while we want a pricing scheme better manages our supply and demand, it must remain appropriate for our Walnut Creek residents. We will be examining this carefully over the next few months.
The city is also inviting the public to a talk this Thursday evening, co-hosted with the City of Lafayette, by a UCLA professor to discuss the concepts of his book The High Cost of Free Parking. Donald Shoup is a professor of urban planning, and he will share his ideas about parking policies as they relate to the economy, the environment, and urban design. The talk starts at 7 p.m. and takes place at Lafayette's Library and Learning Center, 3491 Mt. Diablo Blvd.. Although the talk is free, it would be a good idea to let organizers know you want to attend so that they can reserve a seat: (925) 299-3201, or firstname.lastname@example.org.