Editorial: When it comes to parking big problems need a few small steps

March 30, 2011

Parking is a basic American right.

Let's get that fact front and center.

But like many rights, it's a matter of how you exercise it.

For example, when parking do we always need to be front and center?

Consider this:

"Employee/employers don't want to walk very far and are willing to sacrifice customers' business and comfort for their own." City Manager Bob Francis put that statement in writing for city council Monday, adding verbally, "it happens all the time."

This was one of four "frank assumptions about parking philosophy" presented by Francis.

The City of Hood River took a couple of healthy steps toward improving the struggle over downtown parking. For starters, it's a good idea to turn the centrally located "West Lot," on Cascade across from the post office, into a metered area, instead of the permitted lot that it is now.

Further, encouraging downtown workers to purchase monthly permits in the Columbia lot is a sound step toward taking pressure off Oak, State and key side streets near busy downtown stores. In reducing the monthly cost from $35 to $25, the city is putting its money where its mouth is.

The city and the Downtown Business Association (now Council) have worked long and hard reviewing the parking issue over the past 18 months. They came up with a solid set of ideas, though not all will be immediately employed; some not at all.

One suggestion that got short shrift in Monday's council meeting was education and outreach to downtown tenants, employees and business owners.

Again, it comes down to the question: Do you need to be front and center? There are well-known tales of employees parking directly in front of their own businesses, and moving their car(s) throughout the day to avoid parking fines.

Getting through to people that this is not in their interests is certainly a doable task, and one well-suited for the downtown council and its umbrella organization, the chamber of commerce, which in recent months has emphasized practical ways to improve ways of getting business in the door.

Depriving customers of convenient access is a problem not only downtown but on the Heights, where there currently are no meters.

Shop owners routinely exercise their right to park 40 feet away from their front door. But should they? It is understandable that a second-floor professional tenant would want to keep the car close by as part of the nature of his or her duties, but usually it is done for comfort's sake.

Available parking spaces, including some still without meters, are available in peripheral areas that aren't that hard to get to.

(In the interest of full disclosure, those of us at the Hood River News have plenty of off-street parking close and available.)

Even when the weather is not ideal, walking a few extra blocks to work is not only healthy but not all that time-consuming.

As to the macro challenge of parking, it should be noted that Mayor Arthur Babitz made a strong point when he told City Manager Bob Francis that the city needs for more thorough parking data when looking at changes in either policy or enforcement of downtown parking. Expenditures of $3,000-$50,000 on technology or equipment would require better information before they could legitimately be adopted; among those under consideration are an "auto cite" system that scans the outlines and license plates of parked vehicles to determine which cars are in violation, and a "cash key" system. (See details, page A1.)

The auto cite didn't get much discussion Monday - may be a little sci-fi for this river city - but the cash key is still on the table and Francis deserves marks for presenting an innovative idea.

Visitor and resident parking habits change year to year, if not month to month. Hood River's economy, and hence the demands on parking, remains largely seasonal, so a parking system needs to remain flexible.

Here are some more ideas:

Start with agreeing to park a distance from work one or two days a week, and see how it feels.

Employers could agree to pay their workers for those accruing five- or 10-minute walks to and from wherever they might park.

Or, do as Lisa Wiltse of Gorge Dogs: Offer to pay employees 50 cents more per hour to park in non-competing spaces (and have them sign an agreement) or to purchase their monthly parking permits.

A little creative thinking is all it takes. Even small steps are an excellent way to exercise.

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