Downtown's Real Parking Problem

Sure, downtown has a parking problem. But it's not what you think.

It's that time of year again! I was heading home the other day for lunch when I first noticed the bits of bright color adorning dozens of cars. It's not the annual tradition of Christmas in the City. But you can always tell it's one of those special times of year downtown when the Knoxville Police Department has a fresh crop of cadets. Suddenly the streets are abloom with parking tickets. Like wildflowers, there's hardly a time of year in Knoxville you can't spot at least a few. But when it's cadet season downtown, it's like springtime in the Smokies.

Most of the cars ticketed sported only one per windshield. But a few had lush dayglo clusters of two or three. A cynic might think it's a matter of generating revenue. But if that were the case, there would be steady, reliable enforcement delivering a dependable flow of dollars into city coffers. Instead, what happens is that downtown workers and residents are lulled into a sense of apathy by a lack of enforcement until a new class of police cadets are turned out onto the streets, ticket books in hand, to shoot fish in a barrel. Then we are shocked (shocked, I tell you) to be ticketed.

It's hard to ignore this phenomenon when I start to hear the familiar rumblings about how downtown has a parking problem. I can't dispute that it does. But I probably see it differently than most. Unless and until the city develops a comprehensive strategy toward parking, it's hard to know exactly what that problem is.

Last month, the News Sentinel ran a piece under the headline "Downtown Parking Crunch Prompts Garage Debate." In it, Rick Emmett, the city of Knoxville's downtown coordinator, mulled over the idea of adding another parking garage on the north end of downtown. I'd been in touch with Rick over the summer, and at that time he told me, "We are currently undertaking a comprehensive look at signage and parking in the downtown area through traffic engineering," adding that he had asked for a map "showing all of the various signs and meters and rates downtown to begin to get an idea of the issues we are facing." The thing is, a map might show a good mix of short- and long-term parking options. But how that actually plays out on the street is another matter entirely.

Drive down Gay Street most any weekday past the rows of cars parked in 15- and 30-minute spots and you might conclude that a lot of people are running a lot of errands, making quick stops to pick up dry cleaning, pay a bill, or doing some banking. But spend a few days covering that same ground, and you start to notice that some cars get to be familiar. They're parked on the same block, in more or less the same space, all the time.

This past summer, one car on the 500 Block in a 30-minute zone didn't move an inch for over three weeks. And for anyone who's ever been the recipient of a violation—or had reason to visit the city's impound lot—it was hard to ignore that the car didn't garner a single ticket. Coincidentally, I don't recall seeing any cadets on the street around that time. Conversely, a friend of mine was (rightly) towed from blocking a crosswalk one Sunday afternoon in less than an hour. Then on a First Friday a few weeks later, I watched a bike cop roll by a similar violator without batting an eye.

Before we start drawing up plans for another parking garage, a few things need to happen. First, the city needs to complete the downtown wayfinding project that has dragged on since 2009. One of the things it's designed to do is help people find our current parking—something that is a consistent challenge for visitors to our city. Second, it needs to move forward with plans to install parking kiosks that accept payment in lieu of parking meters for the short-term street parking we already have, and get rid of the forest of parking signs that are routinely ignored. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there needs to be some coordination with KPD to sustain predictable enforcement. The shock and awe strategy of sporadically carpet-bombing violators does little more than sporadically piss people off and foster ambiguity about what to expect.

Maybe help is on the way. Our new mayor has discussed the creation of a parking authority, and I strongly support this move. As I've said before, one of the great things about providing reliable parking is that it converts drivers into pedestrians. And that's what makes for a lively downtown. The least we can do is make it a little more sporting for those cadets.