Parking By Instinct: Why Doesn't the City Study Downtown Parking Needs Before Addressing Them?

Next week, the City of Knoxville will take yet another blind step in its uninformed quest to enhance downtown parking when it boots up two multi-space parking meters on the 100 Block of Gay Street next month. It should come of no surprise to early adopters of technology that the cost to park along the 27-space domain of these new robotic parking overlords will come at a premium. But being on the cutting edge has never been cheap. For a dollar an hour (up to two full hours!) residents and visitors to the block will be able to experience the latest in paid street parking using a variety of payment methods, including modern paper money and credit cards. Luddites and laggards will still be able to feed their quaint coinage to more historical meters adjacent to the block. Sure, they may get more time for their money (assuming those vintage meters actually register their purchase). But there's no cachet in clinging to antiquated ways. Your date will not be impressed.

The particulars on enforcement of these new paid spaces have yet to be defined. A recent posting on the near-moribund 100 Block Construction Blog by a city official offers only this cryptic tidbit on what to expect: "The signage on the multimeters will let motorists know when they must pay to use the meters and we will continue to monitor their enforcement especially all along Gay Street." So right now it's anybody's guess as to whether the enforcement will run beyond the 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday model that is largely in place elsewhere. Whether that flexibility leads to frustration remains to be seen. But for now, you'll need to consult the robots about the details.

In all fairness, I was an advocate of these new devices a half-decade ago when they were first proposed. But I can't take any credit or blame at this point. If the city were taking its cues from me, we'd have public beer taps and a chairlift servicing the entirety of the Central Business Improvement District by now. More recent arrivals to the 100 Block may feel alarmed that the city is finally re-staking its entitlement to charge for these spaces. But veteran residents will recall that parking meters along this short stretch have been an on-again/off-again reality for as long as memory serves. Sometimes we've had them, sometimes not. Sometimes here, sometimes there. Parking on the block has been parallel, pull-in, reverse-angle, valet only, and totally absent, depending on construction projects and prevailing whim for the past decade.

And that, dear readers, is the crux of the situation when it comes to all of downtown and its perpetual purported parking problem. There is no rhyme or reason as to how, why, when, or even if we address what is widely cited as downtown's biggest shortcoming. No one in recent memory has bothered to sit down and look at just what downtown's real needs are and how best to address parking in an area only slightly larger than the footprint of West Town Mall. When you hear about new parking-garage projects that appear to spring forth out of the blue, "enhanced" enforcement for street parking, or the introduction of a pilot project such as the new meters mentioned above, it is a safe bet that it has no foundation in any study or formal analysis.

Intuition, it turns out, is not all that reliable. As a preliminary step to the city's overhaul of Cumberland Avenue, a 54-page parking study was commissioned to examine everything from on-street parking utilization to parking enforcement to the impact of future development on parking needs. Interestingly, the study found that even though "public parking was one of the frequently mentioned problems" for the area, the study also determined that the area "does have adequate parking at no to low cost." It also concluded that a lack of consistent enforcement of on-street parking and appropriate signage contributed to a sense that there is not enough parking available. Meanwhile, downtown, where the same conventional knowledge that there isn't enough parking persists, no study has been conducted to substantiate that assumption. Yet over the past three months, City Council has approved a $6.1 million expansion the State Street garage and dropped another million into land for an entirely new garage based solely on nothing more than intuition.

We're told on the 100 Block that our new cybermeters are the result of a need for higher-rate and time-limited parking to foster retail development. If all of that's true, shouldn't that same principle apply to the remainder of Gay Street to encourage its retail potential? Of course, I'll have to admit that notion is all based on my own perceptions. And it seems the city has spent enough to address downtown parking informed by nothing more than idle speculation for now.