The last time I had a dinner engagement in downtown Walnut Creek, I foolishly looked for a place to park on the street. Because locating a vacant meter was like trying to find a diamond in a bag of glass, I eventually wound up in a garage.

Isn't that the reason most motorists end up parking in them?

Not necessarily, if you buy the proposal that goes before the city's Transportation Commission on Thursday night. Drivers can be redirected to off-street parking by jacking up meter rates, according to Matt Huffaker, assistant to the city manager.

"It's a strategy that's being used in San Francisco, Redwood City and Los Angeles," he said. "They found by pricing on-street parking appropriately, you can make parking easier to find on the street and also incentivize the use of garages."

A car is ticketed on Main Street near Mt. Diablo Boulevard in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. Some street metered parking rates could jump
A car is ticketed on Main Street near Mt. Diablo Boulevard in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. Some street metered parking rates could jump to $2 an hour here under a proposed plan by city officials. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group) (DAN ROSENSTRAUCH)

"Incentivize" is one of those where'd-it-come-from words that was left at the dictionary's doorstep one day, but its meaning is easier to identify than "appropriate pricing." Six years ago, the last time the city monkeyed with its parking problem, it hiked rates from 50 cents to $1. That had virtually no effect on parking behavior, so apparently the pricing wasn't appropriate.

The new plan will pack more of a wallop. It bumps up metered parking to $2 an hour -- garage rates remain unchanged -- with the goal of reducing on-street parking occupancy to 85 percent. (Why 85 percent? Because that's what the urban planning handbook says.)

"We're essentially trying to ensure that there are a couple of empty spaces available on every block," Huffaker said.


Advertisement

At first blush, this approach seems a bit odd. Why devise a strategy to ensure that 15 percent of the city's meters return no revenue? Do airlines try to keep 15 percent of their seats empty? Do auto dealers try not to sell 15 percent of their cars?

Let Huffaker explain: "When parking occupancy exceeds 90 percent, it results in more people circling the block, increases the congestion and adds to folks' frustration when they are trying to find a place to park."

This way, motorists won't get angry at finding no meters. They'll just get angry at how much they cost.

Relax, it's a joke.

The golden rule of urban planning holds that street parking should be kept available for short-term stops -- running into the shoe repair store; getting a bite to eat; paying a fine for your parking meter violation.

The new plan also calls for an expansion of what is known as the "downtown parking meter zone." (I thought all of Walnut Creek was a parking meter zone.) Premium hourly rates will no longer be restricted to the area bounded by Civic Drive to the north, Newell Avenue to the south, California Boulevard to the west and Broadway to the east. They would also apply to meters as far north as Parkside Drive and to the south just past Las Lomas High School.

Huffaker says business owners generally have embraced the plan, even if it means their customers will have to pay more to park. They're receptive because the added revenue generated by the increased rates is to be invested in enhancing the affected areas.

That money could be used to provide added police services. It could be used for sidewalk maintenance or more free trolley service for shoppers. It might even be used to build another garage.

People just love to park in those things when they are properly incentivized.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.