It only took 20 years for Cyndi Rowe to earn a parking spot at the Hotel Boulderado, where she works the front desk. We are being a tad bit facetious here, because parking is such a difficult issue in downtown Boulder and on University Hill, as well as around the University of Colorado Boulder campus and in surrounding neighborhoods.
When you talk about parking in Boulder, the conversation can quickly turn into a quagmire of issues — from access to ebikes, EVs and mass transit, to socioeconomics, lifestyle and the existential crisis of climate change.
Complexity is a good thing, because the singular view that we have to make it untenable to park in Boulder in order to get people out of their cars is not an equitable solution for many people who matter in our community —people like Rowe, who commutes from Lyons, where RTD suspended its line into Boulder, as well as several more routes since issuing its 2020 COVID-19 service plan.
“Oh yes, parking is a problem,” Rowe says, especially for the hotel’s housekeepers. Many of them come from Longmont, and with a minimum wage of $12.32, they are unable to afford Boulder’s $400 annual commuter parking pass, which city staff is proposing to raise by $20 each year until it’s $460.
News last week that the City Council is likely on board to increase neighborhood parking fees could not come at a worse time for low- to mid-level hourly wage workers and the businesses that employ them.
The first issue is timing — We can’t believe we have to say this, but we are still in a pandemic and dealing with a severe hiring crunch. Ask a random manager of a café, clothing store or restaurant if they are hiring, which we did, and the answer is an unequivocal yes, with a hint of desperation. Hotel Boulderado, for instance, is looking for housekeepers, servers, cooks and valets to fill its staff of 200.
Could increased parking fees hinder hiring? Maybe, because people working downtown who cannot find one of the scarce and secret (we won’t divulge where) nearby free parking spaces by coming to work an hour early are willing to suffer frequent $15 parking tickets. They cannot feed the parking kiosk or move their cars fast enough from time-limited spots, because they are working. What happens when $15 tickets go up to $30, and even higher based on multiple offenses as the city is suggesting?
Business owners trying to gain a sense of financial stability in a pandemic don’t need any more heartburn, as they likely will be required to monitor their employees’ transportation under a newly proposed rule by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The potentially statewide Employee Traffic Reduction Program would require by July 2023 that employers with at least 100 workers somehow prove that no more than 75% of their workers do (or one in four don’t) drive a gas-fueled car to work.
No doubt gas-powered cars — through tailpipe emissions and fuel production — are among the worst emitters of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas. Colorado fails statewide in reducing ozone pollution, and we must be aggressive to combat climate change. Studies in Los Angeles and Washington, for example, show that raising parking fees reduces driving.
But every city is unique in design and before Boulder adopts a steeper-price approach, we think our leaders need to scrutinize possible negative outcomes, as well as consider more positive approaches for its citizens to get on board with enthusiasm. As any good and experienced dog guardian knows, the behavior you desire is best reinforced with rewards, not punishments.
In Norway, for instance, a country that sells more EVs than combustion engine cars, electric car drivers report they are incentivized by the ability to park for free or pay a 50% reduced fee. Boulder should consider free parking for EVs and hybrid vehicles, especially since the new and used EV car market is growing and becoming more affordable.
Or how about dedicating a portion of commuter permits specifically to low-income workers, with reduced fees based on income level or efforts to offset a carbon footprint? At least until RTD restarts its popular routes and Boulder takes significant strides toward solving its affordable housing crisis so workers can realistically ebike to work.
We talked at length with City of Boulder Deputy Director of Community Vitality Cris Jones, someone who should have a Ph.D. in parking, if there is such a thing. The city is proposing higher fees mainly because this has become best practice along with building attractive, useful and vibrant community spaces rather than a bunch of parking lots, he says. The philosophy is spelled out in University of California Los Angeles professor Donald Shoup’s book, “The High Cost of Free Parking.”
“Shoup is mentioned a lot around here,” Jones explains.
Jones makes great sense, and Shoupistas are well-regarded in urban planning. But what is still missing from this conversation is consideration for people like Rowe — who will celebrate her 40th work anniversary this year — and her fellow workers, who are a vital part of our community.
“I don’t know if my voice is one that will be heard at Council, but I rode a bus for 16 years, and now I can’t because there’s no route, and I’m truly incensed,” Rowe says. “It’s the people who work here who are driving this economy. And did you know, if our guests get a parking ticket, the hotel pays for it? It’s called doing the right thing. I’m just asking that Boulder does the right thing.”
— Julie Marshall, for the Editorial Board