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Contemporary Approaches to Parking Pricing: A Primer

6.0 Public Acceptance

Innovative parking pricing policies that do not gain political or public support either will not be enacted or will be quickly repealed. Taking the time to develop and implement an effective communication strategy, outreach plan, and, potentially, marketing plan, will go far toward advancing program goals and reducing the stress placed upon parking managers and planners. Inadequate outreach efforts may lead elected officials and parking managers to be blindsided by public opposition and leave them unable to respond adequately to complaints raised by vocal critics.

This section of the primer discusses the steps involved in the creation and implementation of an effective outreach plan. Depending on the type of pricing program being implemented, it may not be necessary to implement all of the steps discussed, but it is best to err on the side of extra community input and outreach to identify and address community concerns and develop a network of strong supporters. The sidebar on Ventura, California, discusses how unanticipated public concern can quickly force a city to repeal portions of a newly implemented, well thought-out parking policy. Conversely, SFpark, whose outreach policy is discussed briefly, offers an example of a program that significantly changed parking policy and pricing without generating negative public reaction.

6.1 Developing a Strategy

The first question to ask when developing an outreach strategy is, "What problem is your parking policy trying to address?" Hopefully, this answer was developed with community input during the planning process. The answer to this question will help planners identify stakeholders and guide messaging decisions.

The target audience, or stakeholders, will likely consist of elected officials, commuters, residents, merchant groups, visitors, and neighborhood groups. Special attention may be needed to reach some stakeholders, such as older and disabled residents or those who do not speak English. From within the target audience it is necessary to determine who the decisionmakers and influencers are: decisionmakers are typically elected officials whose votes are needed to start or fund a program, and influencers are heads of merchant and homeowners' organizations, business leaders, advocates, and other individuals who can influence political decisions and public opinion. Influencers should be among the first people contacted. After the target audience has been identified it may be beneficial to track all communications with this audience. It is advisable to use a database to store information on contact names, areas of interest, and the communications that occur. In addition, a mailing service should be used that allows people to subscribe and unsubscribe to notifications and information. The database and mailing service should, ideally, be integrated and maintained throughout the outreach effort.

Attitudes and perceptions on the part of the target audience toward the parking project or policy should be assessed. This can be done with surveys, one-on-one interviews conducted in person and over the phone, door-to-door outreach, informal focus groups, small meetings with invitees, and attendance at merchant and neighborhood meetings. Stakeholder concerns and desired outcomes should be identified during this initial process, which is meant to develop trust with stakeholders and to gather information that can be used to develop a marketing message and tone. If the outreach process succeeds at building trust and leads to a constructive relationship with staff, stakeholders could subsequently be called upon to help address unanticipated concerns or objections that may arise during or after implementation of a new policy.

6.2 Creating a Message

Effective messaging is important to public acceptance. Some time should be spent strategizing messaging prior to working with stakeholders, whose input can then be used to test and refine ideas. Simple, consistent messaging needs to be developed that resonates with the community. SFpark defined its message with the following points:

  1. SFpark makes parking more convenient.
  2. Reducing circling and double-parking benefits everyone.
  3. SFpark uses demand-responsive pricing to open up parking spaces on each block and ensure available spaces in city-owned garages.
  4. SFpark charges the lowest possible rate to achieve the right level of parking availability.
  5. The SFMTA's primary goal with the project is not to raise parking revenue but to make the transportation system work better for everyone.

Photo of an SFpark parking meter.
Photo credit: SFpark

SFpark marketing materials and community outreach stuck very closely to the above messages. Other messaging examples include:

  • Reinvesting revenue in the community;
  • Making sure space is available for customers;
  • Making parking easier;
  • Providing more time so that visitors can stay longer;
  • Reducing accidents;
  • Improving walkability;
  • Helping transit become faster and more reliable; and
  • Improving economic competitiveness and vitality.

In addition to defining a message, it is also necessary to decide on a tone for marketing materials. The tone of marketing efforts should be appropriate to the community, audience, and project.

6.3 Marketing

Once a message and tone have been established, it is time to develop marketing materials. The types of materials developed will vary based on budget, target markets, chosen distribution channels, and level of change being sought. Minor programmatic or policy changes are unlikely to require a large marketing effort; however, programs such as SFpark, in which a new concept in on-street parking is introduced in combination with new parking assets and enforcement regimes, require significant education and outreach.

A number of options exist for distributing marketing materials and disseminating messages. Low-cost but effective options include bus-shelter signs; municipal bill inserts; bus wraps; Web sites; emails; radio; flyers left with merchants; door-to-door outreach; press releases; press events; and social media including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In some communities it may be necessary to develop marketing materials in multiple languages. This determination can be made based on city policy, analysis of census demographic data for the impacted area, and feedback received during the outreach stage. For significant changes the visual design of marketing materials will ideally extend to physical parking assets, garages, and off-street parking lots.

Supporters and influencers should be called upon during the marketing phase of the project to discuss actively the benefits of the proposed parking policy with community stakeholders and political leaders. Many individuals within the community may not take the time to understand the details of the proposed parking program. Instead, they will seek the opinions of other community members or try to determine the general level of support within the community. If a vocal minority is able to create the appearance of opposition, the opinions of less informed community members may also turn against the project. Supporters and influencers can help a project avoid this fate.

6.4 Tracking

Marketing efforts should be monitored and tracked. Specific goals should be identified against which the success of marketing efforts should be measured. Examples may include the number of Web site visits, Twitter postings, "likes" to a Facebook page, newspaper articles published, and community meetings attended. Monitoring progress toward marketing goals facilitates making adjustments to correct an underperforming marketing plan.

After a program has been approved and implemented, communication with community stakeholders should be maintained. This will ensure that parking managers are able to address any concerns that may arise and maintain community connections and trust for the next time a policy change is pursued.

Ventura, California

Ventura, California, offers an example of the negative response that can occur to a parking policy change and how a city can successfully respond. In 2006, the city published the Downtown Ventura Mobility and Parking Plan, which verified that there was a downtown parking problem: peak parking occupancy exceeded 93 percent on Saturdays and occupancy was greater than 85 percent during 8 of 11 monitored hours. The plan recommended pricing strategies, time restrictions, parking benefit districts, and a series of transportation demand strategies.

Throughout the planning and implementation process, the city conducted a series of community outreach events, held merchant meetings, distributed print advertising, and conducted door-to-door outreach to discuss and inform residents and merchants about the benefits of parking strategies, including pricing, and the challenges facing the community that such strategies are designed to help overcome. They also asked merchants to speak with customers.

The implementation of pay stations was delayed from 2007 to 2011 to ensure the community was on board. To further garner public acceptance the city assured citizens that every dollar of parking revenue would go back to the downtown. The city also made the wireless Internet signal used to support the parking meters available at no cost to downtown computer users. City-owned or leased parking lots remained free, and additional signage was added to direct downtown visitors to these free parking locations.

Of the 2,915 public parking spaces in downtown Ventura, the city implemented pay stations for 342. The first strategy was tiered rates: $1.00 per hour for the first two hours and $1.50 per hour after the first two hours.

In October 2010 the system was reviewed and showed parking utilization dropping to 85 percent on Main Street during the midday and evenings. Unfortunately, businesses that were struggling due to the economy began to blame the parking meters for bad business and some customers found the tiered rates confusing. Local newspaper articles and blogs stated a dozen downtown business owners faced double-digit sales declines since the meters were initiated. At a merchant meeting, hosted by the mayor, businesses complained that the meters changed the welcoming nature of downtown and said that customers did not like the meters and struggled to use them.

Responding to these concerns, pricing was simplified with the removal of tiered pricing, a 4-hour limit in one parking lot was removed to allow employees more parking options, using loading zones was made free, and evening parking continued to be free. To further encourage public acceptance the city handed out 50,000 1-hour free coupons during the holidays, 14,000 of which were used.

While some vocal opposition remained to the parking policy changes, recent municipal elections favored candidates that supported the meters and most merchants report that they appreciate the new parking turnover, allowing easier curbside parking for customers on Main Street. The city continues to use the data from the meters to make determinations for future pricing adjustments and will use this data to provide information to the merchants and the community about the results of parking pricing downtown.