Traverse City News and Events

Parking Changes Proposed

By Beth Milligan | Sept. 15, 2022

As part of an ongoing effort to address parking demand in downtown Traverse City and align rates with areas of highest and lowest use, the TC Downtown Development Authority (DDA) will consider a recommendations Friday as part of an updated transportation demand management (TDM) study. The DDA manages parking for the City of Traverse City.

The study recommends several changes over the next few years, including reducing rates at the Old Town Parking Deck, eliminating annual permits in favor of monthly permits that can be price-adjusted seasonally, changing meter enforcement hours, and potentially launching a downtown shuttle to circulate between parking decks and other key locations.

Consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard first completed a TDM study for the DDA in 2017 to analyze downtown parking needs and solutions. The DDA used that study to create a three-year parking plan the organization adopted in 2018. That plan outlined several major changes the DDA implemented over the past three years, including adjusting meter rates based on premium locations/hours/seasons, installing smart parking meters, collecting data through sensors on vehicle counts and parking occupancy, decoupling surface and deck parking permits, and offering downtown employees free BATA commuter passes through a program called Destination Downtown.

Now, Nelson\Nygaard has updated the TDM study as the DDA looks ahead to the next several years. The new report, which will be discussed by the board Friday before it’s officially adopted at an upcoming meeting, includes “quick win opportunities” – or parking changes that could be made easily and at minimal cost in the next 1-2 years – as well as “short-term priorities” for the next 3-5 years. Some of those changes could happen even sooner based on downtown conditions, says DDA Transportation Mobility Director Nicole VanNess.

For example, the DDA is losing one of its three surface parking lots – Lot P on East State Street – starting October 31 due to redevelopment. That will eliminate 55 surface permit parking spaces downtown, with only Lot V (on West Front Street) and Lot T (at the corner of Union Street and Grandview Parkway) remaining for surface permit parking. “That means we’ll have to reinstate the wait list (for permits),” says VanNess. One of the new TDM recommendations calls for reducing the permit rates at the Old Town Parking Deck, which has lower usage than the Larry C. Hardy Parking Deck. Lowering Old Town prices is now already in discussion, according to VanNess, and could move forward this fall – a move Nelson\Nygaard says “should be promoted to help address the impact of the redevelopment of Lot P.”

The study also recommends moving away from annual permits entirely and instead going to monthly permits. That would allow the DDA to vary permit rates by season. According to Nelson\Nygaard, that change “should become a central strategy for reducing cost barriers to downtown employment, and employee recruitment and retention – leveraging the fact parking costs can be lowest during months when driving alternatives are the least appealing/viable, and that parking costs are highest for just a few months when high-visitor demand must be prioritized and when seasonal conditions make options like transit, biking, and walking from peripheral lots more acceptable to more commuters.”

Adjusting rates to reflect demand – making parking costs highest at the most desirable times, seasons, and locations and lowering them proportionally as desirability drops – is a core focus of the study. That could materialize in two other proposed changes: creating “flex-use loading zones” and adjusting meter enforcement hours. According to Nelson\Nygaard, “key blocks of Cass and Union streets have been identified for conversion to flex zones, with loading zone schedules more closely aligned with patterns of loading activity and remaining hours used to provide more short-term parking.” In other words, spaces now reserved as loading zones could be opened up for street parking when deliveries are minimal or non-existent, such as evening hours. Conversely, more generous loading zones or areas on secondary streets or alternate sides of prime streets could be established to accommodate higher delivery and loading demand in morning hours when parking demand is minimal.

“For instance, if you look at the post office and Central United Methodist Church, those both have no less than five loading zones,” says VanNess. “But if you think of the operation of the post office and church, they don’t need loading zones 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You could create flex zoning, where those spaces are turned over for regular parking when they don’t need to be used for loading.”

Adjusting meter enforcement hours, now currently Monday-Saturday 8am-6pm, is another recommended change. Nelson\Nygaard – noting that parking availability “remains ample until at least 10am on most downtown blocks, even during the summer season” – suggests starting enforcement at 10am instead of 8am. “Such a shift will provide hundreds of spaces of free parking during early morning hours, incentivizing visits to coffee shops, bakeries, cleaners, and other businesses that typically have an early-morning, pre-work rush of customer visits,” the firm writes. “These spaces will also become more convenient for business owners to use for early-morning loading/unloading activity as part of opening their businesses for the day.”

On the flip side, the DDA should consider expanding enforcement hours from 6pm to 8pm, according to the report. “Metered spaces in downtown cores that transition to free parking too early in the evening tend to become popular parking options for evening-shift employees – consuming the most valuable customer parking spaces for several hours just during critical demand peaks for downtown restaurants and other evening-focused businesses,” the report states. VanNess says sensor data confirms there’s “steady on-street parking use” on Front Street through at least 9pm most evenings.

Two other proposals have considerable interest from the DDA’s parking advisory board, but come with significant logistical and cost considerations that will need to be addressed before moving forward, says VanNess. One is trying to reduce or eliminate costs for employees to park downtown, which DDA board member and parking advisory chair Scott Hardy calls “anecdotally the greatest prohibitor to attract and retain employees.” Hardy cites free employee permits as an option worth exploring. However, VanNess says the DDA will need to survey employers and workers to truly understand parking needs and wants. For example, while employees often complain about parking costs, VanNess says that’s typically tied to parking at meters – the costliest option downtown. If the DDA offered free BATA passes – as it does now, with limited participation – or even offered free deck permits or park-and-ride options, would employees use those options if it meant more walking or logistical steps? Exploring feasible options employees would actually use – and identifying how to pay for those options while still protecting parking availability for visitors – would be key to moving forward.

Another option is launching a downtown circulator, a shuttle that would run consistently between the downtown parking decks and other key locations, such as major attractions or park-and-ride lots that could be established along the district outskirts. Nelson\Nygaard says the DDA would need to evaluate the feasibility of a circulator from several angles, including whether it would be run by BATA or another third party, how it would be funded (including possible financing partners), and components it must have to be a successful service (like route simplicity and efficiency, vehicle tracker mobile apps, and fareless rides). VanNess says a circulator could be useful downtown, but requires significant study before moving forward.

“It would be a long-term investment, not just a short-term Band-Aid, and they are very costly,” she said. “So we need to figure that out. But it could benefit just not employees but residents and visitors as well.”

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