West Pearl Street was closed to cars for much of the Covid-19 pandemic, turning parking spaces into outdoor dining areas. The city has since reopened the street. Credit: Harry Fuller

New parking policies may kick in this spring, making it easier to find a spot for your car downtown. 

City of Boulder officials are recommending raising the cost of street parking to $2 per hour across much of the city’s downtown. The change is part of a strategy to free up spaces for visitors by encouraging more turnover at meters. 

The price hike would affect several blocks on Spruce, Pearl and Walnut Streets near downtown, according to a memo shared with the Transportation Advisory Board on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022. City staff recommended making the changes in April 2023. 

Currently, parking across the city is $1.50 per hour and free for at least 15 minutes. With the proposed changes, city officials hope more people will use the city’s public parking garages, where the rates are generally $1.25 per hour. The city’s parking garages, on average, are about half full during times of peak demand, according to the city. 

City officials are also considering changes to a neighborhood parking permit program that requires people to have annual passes to park for more than two to three hours in certain neighborhoods, including Whittier, Mapleton Hill and Chautauqua. The program is in part aimed at “preserving the character of our neighborhoods.”  

The permitting program is the reason some workers who cannot afford to live downtown go through the hassle of moving their cars every few hours to avoid otherwise steep charges. Parking fines start at $30.

City staff recommend increasing the cost of the annual permit to $40, up from $30. Similar permits are free in Boston and cost $25 in Austin, $50 in the District of Columbia and $165 in San Francisco

The annual permits are much less expensive for neighborhood residents than commuters traveling downtown for work. 

Permits for commuters to park in these neighborhoods cost $420 per year and must be renewed each quarter. Downtown parking garage permits can cost nearly $2,000 per year. A mobile vendor permit for people who work in these neighborhoods, such as landscapers and home cleaners, costs $75 per year. 

City officials are considering parking policy changes for neighborhoods near downtown, such as the Whittier Neighborhood. Credit: John Herrick

Questions of equity 

The higher cost for commuters prompted a discussion about equity when city staff presented the proposed parking prices to the Transportation Advisory Board on Monday. 

Many of the board members opposed reopening West Pearl to cars and have spearheaded projects to make the city’s busiest streets safer for walkers, cyclists and other nondrivers. But they also acknowledge half of the city’s workers commute into town by car, perhaps for some because they cannot afford to live in Boulder. Several argued the cost for parking should be more fair.

Board member Tila Duhaime, who used to work for Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit New York-based organization advocating for cycling and pedestrian safety, said she does not believe the residential permitting program would square up with the city’s racial equity plan

She said the maps of the city’s residential permitted parking areas match areas of concentrated wealth. “I think that should give us some real pause,” Duhaime said. 

As part of the new parking strategy, a proposed city manager rule would make it harder for neighbors to petition to have their homes added to the neighborhood permit program.

It also includes a new process to remove certain streets from the program, potentially freeing up more affordable parking near downtown. To be removed, the street would have to fail to meet certain requirements for the program, such as parking occupancy, for at least three years before city staff considers making a change. 

“It seems it’s designed to move as slowly as possible and to not ruffle feathers,” Duhaime told city officials. 

The city is recommending an income-based discount for neighborhood parking permits. But under the proposed plan, the discount would only apply to residents — not commuters. 

“While I understand and appreciate the thought of providing discounts for lower-income commuters, that would be contrary to our desire of encouraging other modes of transportation,” Cris Jones, the interim director for the Community Vitality Department, said in an interview. 

The city provides a free RTD regional bus pass — which costs about $2,400 per year — to people who work in the downtown area, in part to drive down car use, a major source of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions

Separately, city staff are recommending creating a working group to consider paid or permitted parking near open space trailheads. A 2018 study indicated 56% of people travel to open space trailheads by car. According to recent city data, parking near Chautauqua, Shanahan Ridge and Santitas have neared or reached full capacity at times. In the last year, peaking near Sanitas has been closed at times due to the construction of the Academy at Mapleton Hill, a housing project for older adults. 

The Boulder City Council is scheduled to discuss the issue of parking on Nov. 3, 2022. The city is accepting public comments on the proposed metered and neighborhood parking policies until October 22.

John Herrick is a reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering housing, transportation, policing and local government. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. Email: john@boulderreportinglab.org.

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