Embracing a bold experiment to alter human behavior, Santa Monica is poised to raise parking rates on the city's most coveted downtown spots to discourage some motorists from using them.
The idea is to get people out of their cars and end what city leaders deem an ill-advised subsidy for public parking.
By boosting rates, officials intend to make the parking closest to the congested Third Street Promenade expensive enough that some visitors will instead walk, take the bus or park in more-distant garages. If it works, the city would benefit from smoother traffic flow, reduced pollution as fewer people cruise for spaces and a better return on land developed for public parking.
"What we're saying is: 'Parking's not free in Santa Monica anymore,' " said Councilman Bobby Shriver, who advocates changing the parking rules.
Santa Monica is one of several cities -- including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- turning to market-based pricing in an effort to keep parking lots busy with paying customers while making alternatives such as walking, cycling or taking public transit more appealing.
But critics contend the proposed changes might chase customers away, a risky prospect in a city that depends heavily on sales tax dollars.
"Because of the economic climate, any reason to choose another place is one too many," said Kathleen Rawson, chief executive of the Bayside District Corp., the public-private partnership that manages the downtown business district.
Proponents of the pricing strategy say the opposite is more likely: higher rates will mean more open parking spots, which would appeal to rushed customers. Moreover, the motorist willing to pay higher rates is probably also willing to spend more in stores or leave bigger tips.
Santa Monica arrived at the market-based pricing idea when consultants hired to evaluate the need for additional downtown parking discovered something unexpected: The city actually had plenty. The problem was that visitors and employees were vying for the most convenient spots as hundreds or thousands of other outlying or privately owned spaces sat empty.
"We don't really need more parking downtown," said Santa Monica Mayor Ken Genser. "It's the way the parking is being used that's a problem."
The study found that downtown employees were parking and reparking in structures on 2nd and 4th streets near the promenade to take advantage of the two-hours-free policy, taking away spaces from potential customers. To Shriver, the study's key revelation was that municipal structures had essentially become subsidized parking for private-sector employees.
"The city policy in its public structures can't be that everybody who works on the promenade gets a free space," he said.
Santa Monica workers and residents have mixed views.
Anne Troutman, an architect who lives near the shops and restaurants, sees higher parking fees "as a necessary and gentle step . . . along the path toward reducing our dependence on cars." But she worries about the elderly volunteers at places such as the Santa Monica Bay Woman's Club, for whom even a small increase might prove a hardship.
Hilary Kenny, a bartender who uses the municipal garages, said the current two-hours-free policy is a big selling point for visitors. Higher rates, she said, would "discourage people who want to pop in to have a drink or go to a movie." However, she said $1 for the second hour would be "not so bad."
The consultants recommended the city rebuild and expand two existing structures near the promenade but forgo building 1,000 new spaces. The city had projected that new or replacement spaces would cost about $57,000 each.
"It's shockingly expensive," said Steffen Turoff of Walker Parking Consultants, which prepared the Santa Monica report. "From an environmental and financial perspective, it's a waste to build more when so many spaces in this area sit empty even during the busiest times of the week."
Cities indeed pay dearly to create and maintain free or inexpensive parking and devote a tremendous amount of land to it. Parking experts say the cost of building above-ground parking can range from $15,000 to $30,000 per space. Subterranean spaces can cost $25,000 to $70,000 each.
"We grow up thinking that somebody else should pay for parking," said Donald Shoup, a Yale-trained economist and UCLA urban planning professor who wrote "The High Cost of Free Parking," considered by many the definitive text on the subject. "The cost doesn't go away just because the driver doesn't pay for it."
Ideally, Shoup contends, a city would charge enough so that 85% of all parking spaces were occupied at any one time. If too many spaces are vacant, the price is too high. If no spaces are available, the price is too low.
Once Santa Monica city staff recommend a plan, perhaps by late this year, the City Council is expected to raise daily and nighttime rates and monthly parking fees and charge a dollar for the second hour of parking in garages. A full day of parking would rise from $7 to $9 and on-street parking meters from $1 to $1.50 per hour. Meters might be converted to accept credit cards.
Parking rates in downtown Los Angeles are generally higher. Meters in the most congested areas run $4 an hour, comparable to off-street parking; some other meters near the central districts cost $2 an hour. Most meters, however, are $1 an hour. Municipal lots vary, from a $4 flat rate to $6 per hour.
Under an agreement with the Bayside District Corp., the city also will explore a comprehensive program to make better use of private parking lots, a centralized valet system, public-transit incentives and shuttles to and from outlying garages. Rates at the newer Main Library and Civic Center lots might be reduced.
Santa Monica's discussion reflects a vexing reality -- that parking has an "unbelievable power . . . to shape and distort cities," said Ventura City Manager Rick Cole.
"It's illegal for a car to be homeless but not for people," he said. "As a result, we devote a huge amount of extraordinarily valuable real estate to asphalt and concrete and then we give it away."
Ventura, which does not charge for street parking, plans to install meters in January, three years after it first committed to market-based pricing. "You have to break the initial barrier of charging for parking," Cole said of the delay.
He speaks from experience. As mayor of Pasadena in the early 1990s, he helped broker a deal with Old Pasadena retailers that paved the way for paid parking. All the meter revenue went into area amenities, which strengthened demand, turning Old Pasadena into a municipal cash cow.
Turoff, the consultant who managed the Santa Monica project, said it comes down to simple tradeoffs: "Do you want a free space, or do you want to be able to find a space? Are you going to substitute desirable destinations for car storage? You'd lose the attraction, but everybody could park there."