Modesto leaders must fix doomed approach to downtown parking

Street parking on H Street in Modesto, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.
Street parking on H Street in Modesto, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. aalfaro@modbee.com

Here’s a simple idea for improving downtown Modesto: parking meters.

It’s hard to find street parking downtown on a weekday because it’s free. Such crowded curbs are not helping restaurants, shops and other businesses that should value customer convenience.

Meanwhile, the city charges to use parking garages. Except for the one near Brenden Theatres, which gets decent use, they sometimes sit mostly empty.

What every thriving downtown wants is heavily used parking garages, freeing up a curb space or two on every block for people who don’t mind dropping a buck or two in a meter for shopping or eating convenience. Modesto offers exactly the opposite, and that needs to change.

It’s not a novel concept.


In 2006, city leaders commissioned a study that pointed out our self-defeating parking model. Walker Parking Consultants estimated Modesto City Hall was losing out on $1.1 million a year by doing things backward. Recommendations included replacing free curb parking with meters charging $1.25 an hour.

City leaders at first kicked that can down the road. A couple of years later, in the middle of a full-blown recession, they listened not to the experts, but to a few downtown business owners and the persuasive Modesto Chamber of Commerce, who feared that meters would discourage customers.

Over the years, instead of tackling the problem, city leaders tinkered, bringing automated pay stations to garages in 2010 and increasing some time limits for free curb parking from one hour to two, in 2014. The latter helped many avoid $33 parking fines for staying too long in one spot, but did nothing to reverse Modesto’s losing approach to parking management.

In 2014, another consultant was paid $10,000 for another downtown parking study. Guess what it found? That Modesto’s incentives were backward, encouraging cars to cram curbs while parking garages often were mostly empty. That San Francisco firm, Nelson-Nygaard Consulting Associates, noted the “two-hour shuffle” practiced by many employees of downtown businesses, who would park along free curbs for two hours at a time.

And once again, the powers that be at City Hall did nothing to change things.

That’s not leadership.

You can blame turnover on the City Council dais, or in the city manager’s corner office, or lukewarm city staff, or caving in to merchants who think they know what’s best for them individually while ignoring the greater good. Frankly, blame no longer matters. What’s important is getting it right this time and moving ahead with the right plan.

So once again, city leaders have hired a firm to tell them what they should already know. That’s exactly what happened last week when Patrick Siegman of Siegman Associates, a transportation planning firm, spoke at one session among many in an effort to build a new downtown master plan; other sessions focused on traffic flow, parklets, housing and transit.

“This is a parking management problem, not a supply problem,” Siegman said, noting 2,600 parking spaces downtown. His words echoed advice from the past; he even quoted from the 2014 study, which found the same confounded backwardness.

Then he issued a set of 18 recommendations, many repeating the same things city leaders learned at least 13 years ago. Why not try offering free parking in garages, or free for the first 90 minutes? For those who resist garages, why not install some curb meters?

While we’re at it, why not let anyone willing to bring market-rate housing downtown off the hook from nonsensical requirements for off-street parking? One of the reasons we haven’t seen new housing in five decades is the high cost — $50,000 per parking space, if you’re building a new garage, Siegman said. “This is an economically illiterate theory,” he said. And it’s entirely in the hands of our City Council.

Meter technology has greatly advanced in recent years. No spare change in the ash tray? No problem; most meters accept credit cards these days, or offer pay-by-phone options accepting payment by text or through an app. Often you can add more time from your restaurant seat. Also, city staff could adjust rates any time on any block, depending on demand, including lowering to as little as 25 cents per hour.

“Don’t build more parking; rather, manager better what you’ve got,” Siegman concluded.

The downtown master plan, with its many elements, could be ready for leaders to consider by year’s end. The City Council could review specific recommendations by spring. This time, leaders must listen to their experts, who base suggestions on models they’ve studied in successful downtowns like Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Monica and Seattle.

Modesto doesn’t need another study repeating what the last said about our backward parking model, and the one before that. What we need is leadership.