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What’s it to Utz? – Does Decatur have a parking problem or a perception problem?

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What’s it to Utz? – Does Decatur have a parking problem or a perception problem?

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Hans Utz

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This column has been updated. 

Editor’s note: Hans Utz formerly served as the Deputy COO of the City of Atlanta. He writes about local and national politics. He and his family currently reside in Decatur.

By Hans Utz, contributor 

Some residents of Decatur have raised a hue and cry about parking in the city center since Jenny Levison, owner of Souper Jenny, announced the departure of the restaurant and specifically highlighted customer parking difficulties as a contributing factor. She was not the first small business owner in the central corridor to leave and cite parking as an issue.

Decaturish has received more comments on this topic, both pro and con, than on almost any other subject. I thought it might make sense to tackle the topic in more depth.

First, I believe it is important to start from a common set of facts and clear up a few misconceptions that may be out there.

Public parking is not synonymous with free parking. Public parking simply means that the space is open to the public. Unless it explicitly says “free,” assume you have to pay to park.

There is a difference between street parking, which is in the right-of-way and enforced through ticketing, versus private lots or decks, which are typically enforced via booting.

Decatur currently has 679 metered curbside street parking spaces, and 10,532 public lot or deck spaces. The city has posted a helpful map that shows the locations of metered street parking and available lots/decks, along with times and pricing.

Metered street parking is limited to two hours and enforced from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, except for holidays. There appeared to be considerable confusion to this point in the comments, so it warrants a repeat:

You may park for free before 8 a.m., after 6 p.m. or all day on Sundays and holidays. Likewise, time limits are not enforced before 8 a.m., after 6 p.m., or on Sundays or holidays. With the most recent budget, the city authorized a flat $5 fee to street park for the three evening hours from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., but this has not yet been put into effect. According to Andrea Arnold, Decatur’s new City Manager, this evening fee will not go into effect without an information and education campaign.

If you are ticketed in a metered space outside of the enforcement times mentioned here, please let us hear about it since it directly violates the city’s posted standards and all labeled meters within the city.

You may pay with coins, credit cards, or through the ParkMobile app.  A quarter buys you five minutes, a dollar twenty minutes, and an hour will cost you $3.

There are free private lots scattered throughout the city, but users beware. Enforcement on private lots is usually via booting, $75 per event, and it is aggressively enforced in most locations. If you park in front of the CVS and walk out of the lot, even if you have bought goods at the CVS, you will be booted. We’ll talk more about enforcement and booting in a minute.

So now that we have a baseline of facts and enforcement parameters, let’s explore the typical complaints about parking that continue to arise. They tend to fall into seven primary buckets, as follows:

1) Insufficient parking availability/decline in available space

2) Minimum payment/maximum time limits too constraining

3) Too much of a hassle to use the mobile app/payment system

4) Enforcement is too aggressive/issues with booting

5) Parking decks can feel dark/unsafe

6) Parking is a hassle for seniors and people with mobility issues

7) Taxes pay for spots and so parking should be free

Let’s take each in turn.

1) Insufficient parking availability/decline in available space

This is probably the easiest concern to address directly with data, but the hardest to fix from an underlying policy point. Simply put, Decatur has more curb and deck spaces today than at any point in time prior in its history.

It is also an incomplete picture of the issue. The real question is: how many spaces per vehicle does Decatur have now versus the past? The absolute measure of parking space is not particularly helpful. The frustration that someone looking for a spot feels is the relative demand for parking.

That frustration is reflected in surveys that measure how many Decatur residents believe the availability of parking is good. This has substantially declined, from 38 percent satisfied in 2012 to 24 percent in 2018. City leaders should take note, as this is trending terribly.

Decatur’s population has grown steadily in the last few decades, but nothing stratospheric. We’ve gone from 19,708 residents in 2010 to 23,832 in 2017, or a little less than 3% growth a year (2017 is the most recent census estimate available). However, the daily vehicle traffic numbers in Decatur have exploded. For example, East Ponce de Leon has seen the average annual daily traffic count (AADT) grow from 8,750 vehicles in 2010 to an estimated 11,400 in 2018.

Here’s the kicker: that is per day demand, meaning Ponce de Leon is seeing 2,650 more vehicles per day than eight years ago.

That is a lot. For better or worse, Decatur is firmly an in-demand destination within greater Atlanta and draws from the entire region. This is why it feels like parking is less available, even though we have more parking spaces than in the past. Decatur is simply more crowded at peak times.

From a local business perspective this is good news, presuming we can get those folks out of their cars and into the shops. It underlies the argument why Decatur should lean heavily on sales and commercial property tax financing and work to move away from its current over dependence on residential property tax to fund general operations (in short, we should make visitors incur some of the costs of managing the city). And it underlies the argument I will make shortly about why it is critical that we continue to pay for parking rather than offer it for free.

From a policy perspective, however, it is apparent that we need to continue to invest in available public parking space. Personally I find this frustrating, since we have phenomenal transit connectivity and Lyft is often cheaper than a parking deck. But I cannot wave a wand and change the preferences of our visitors. I want those visitors to continue to visit, and I do not want my fellow neighbors to be unable to find space in town when they want a cup of coffee. So, until self-driving cars (or teleportation) make this whole problem obsolete, we need more parking.

Fortunately that is exactly what is happening, and there are developments that may provide a road map for how to accomplish this. We’ll talk more about this in a minute.

2) Minimum payment/maximum time limits too constraining

This particular issue seems to underpin the principal complaint that many patrons of Souper Jenny had: no one wants to pay a $3 minimum fee to run into Souper Jenny to pick up a bowl of soup and be back at the car in ten minutes.

This complaint stems from a misconception about the payment options for street parking. If you are using a credit card, or if you are paying through the ParkMobile app, then yes, you likely have a minimum charge. This is because credit card companies charge transaction fees for every swipe, and it becomes economically unpalatable to run a credit card for a 25 cent transaction. It has never been the case that you could use a credit card to spend a quarter for parking in Decatur.

But what many people seem to not realize is that every single one of the street parking machines in Decatur accept coins. Note this does not hold true for private lots and decks, only for the street meters. But you can absolutely pay the street meter fifty cents to pick up lunch from your favorite place. Prices have gone up since the sixties, sure, but you can pay for parking in $0.25 increments as long as you are using coins.

I specifically visited the machine across the street from the Souper Jenny location and paid for parking using two dimes and a nickel. It bought me a few minutes. Not much time, granted, but certainly functional and enough to run in and out.

The fact that some fans of Souper Jenny purportedly avoided visiting the restaurant because they were afraid of a forced minimum parking fee is deeply tragic, especially since it is a complete and utter error. Please spread the word: you can still pay in very small increments for street parking in Decatur. Bring your coins. Exactly as it has always been.

3) Too much of a hassle to use the mobile app/payment system

I’m sympathetic to this complaint, as in principle I do not like providing companies my personal information and credit card data. For the record, I do not have Facebook, Google, Instagram, or any number of other popular apps on my phone because I don’t like Russian trolls. But having used the ParkMobile app a few years now, I do have to say that it is one of the few apps that I keep on my phone because it works well.

Once it is set up, it is easy to use and quite convenient. It does not allow me to park in small increments, so when I want to run into a store for a quick five minutes I still have to dig for coins, but in general I appreciate the option to use the app. It is there if I want to use it, and I can choose another option if I prefer.

If your complaint is that the parking meters are too complex themselves to figure out, well … we are going to have to disagree about that one. I have seen parking meters with impenetrable interfaces (try downtown Atlanta, where you need a PhD to figure out the interface). By contrast, the machines in Decatur are straightforward and logical.

If you simply do not want to use a computer screen, then parking is hardly the only thing in your life that is a hassle. Changing the entire foundation of modern computerized life is not a reasonable solution to your frustration with parking in Decatur.

If you don’t want to use the app, then don’t.  The machines will still take credit cards and coins, and are straightforward and simple to use.  I’m not sure what more we could ask for on this point, but I’d love to hear from you in the comments if this is still a sticking point for you.

4) Enforcement is too aggressive/issues with booting

I am guilty of overstaying my time in the street parking spaces from time to time. I am also guilty of parking in a space and running into Java Monkey for a coffee and conveniently never opening the ParkMobile app. I have never been ticketed for this, though I probably should have been.

Now, I am not saying Decatur does not ticket people who do not pay for street parking, and I am firmly not suggesting you should follow my example. I got lucky, and if I ever get ticketed it is completely my fault.

What I am saying is that I would have been aggressively ticketed in downtown Atlanta, and in New York City I’d be lucky to still have a car. By way of comparison, NYC assigns meter attendants to very small geographical areas, and will re-ticket a car every five minutes if it is not moved. People have thousands of dollars of parking tickets in New York.

I get that we don’t want to be like New York City, but let’s not pretend that ticketing in Decatur is anything but generous. If you have been ticketed because you did not pay a street meter in Decatur, you earned it. It really and truly could be so very much worse.

In fairness most complaints about parking enforcement are not about ticketing, but rather are about booting on the private lots. I’m much more sympathetic to the complaints on this issue.

First, some data. Decatur Police instituted a dispatch code for booting calls in 2010. A number of private businesses took action around 2014 to curb excessive parking violations, and as a result the call volumes jumped. They peaked in 2016, with 323 calls to Decatur PD for booting-related issues, averaging nearly one call a day.


Booting became so aggressive that the City enacted legislation in 2016 to address the complaints. Clear signs with detailed information were required to be posted, fines were fixed in line with surrounding jurisdictions, response requirements to remove the boot were set, and booting companies were required to accept more payment options than cash.

The changes appear to have worked. In 2018, booting dispatch levels were less than a third of 2016. That doesn’t mean things can’t be improved, as we’ll discuss in a moment, but it does appear that booting is substantially less of an issue than it was three years ago, and closer in line with long-term historic trends in the city.

There are three types of off-street parking options: those that allow free parking as long as you are using the establishments served by the lot, those that require you to pay to park but you can go wherever you would like, and those that require you to pay to park and still require you to only visit the businesses on the lot. We’ll use examples of each.

The Commerce Square lot with the CVS is an example of the first type that offers free parking for customers. If you park at the CVS and you walk out of the lot, it does not matter whether you shopped at the CVS. You will be booted.

The logic here is that it is not OK for someone to park at CVS, buy a pack of gum at the CVS, and then walk across the street to eat dinner at The Pinewood. Fair enough. A number of commenters complained that the Commerce Square lot, which contains the CVS, is not sufficiently marked to know those are the consequences.

So I investigated. By my count, the lot has 29 signs, each several times larger than a stop sign, that almost aggressively warn that you will be booted if you walk off the lot, and furthermore they provide a very clear list of each of the establishments served by the lot. There is literally no place to stand in the lot and not see at a minimum 15 giant signs explaining in excruciating detail precisely what will happen if you break the rules.

One of at least 29 signs in the Commerce Square parking lot.

I don’t see how anyone can credibly argue that it isn’t extraordinarily, almost painfully clear what will happen if you park and walk. If you leave the lot and are booted, as frustrating as that might be for you, that is the process working the way it should. Do not leave the lot.

The ARLO is an example of the second type option, where you have to pay but can go anywhere in Decatur you want as long as you are back before your time expires. The ARLO has also been the target of parking ire from commenters, and so I used the lot to get a sense of the experience of parking there.

First, there are over 90 public spaces in the deck available for paid parking, which means there is capacity in excess of the businesses served by the lot. The meters are compatible with the ParkMobile app, and surprisingly the first 30 minutes of parking is free, which means you can park for free when you go to the Dairy Queen (I say when and not if, because, let’s be honest, you will go to the Dairy Queen).

Paid public parking options in the ARLO deck.

Important note: as you can see in the image, you still have to register your car for the free 30 minutes so the attendant knows how long the car has been parked. Do not assume because the 30 minutes are free you do not need to register the car – this is a great way to get booted.

Similar to Commerce Square, the lot is aggressively marked letting people know that they have to pay the machine to park in the lot, and there are plenty of signs saying that the first 30 minutes are free.

Now, it may very well be the case that the markings and the clarity are new. The ARLO opened fairly recently, and it is entirely possible that they had growing pains at first. Certainly from the comments, this seems to be the case. But I am happy to report that when I recently visited I found it about as well marked and clear as you could expect, and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I could buy a delicious Dairy Queen Blizzard without having to pay for parking. So I encourage everyone to go and do so.

I personally find the ARLO approach compelling. There is a significant amount of available parking for people who are paying, a reasonable window of time for free parking if you wish to go to the Dairy Queen, and plenty of payment and time increment options for those who want to stay longer. I’d like to see this model replicated elsewhere in town, frankly, as it seems to address most manifestations of the complaints that I have seen.

The lot at 315 West Ponce is an example of the third type of lot, where you have to pay but you will still be booted if you leave the lot. The machine in this lot is not compatible with ParkMobile. I find this approach confusing and deeply maddening. If I pay for a space, effectively renting it, why do you care where I go? And why is the payment option not standardized with the app that serves the rest of the city?

Sign at 315 W Ponce explaining that you have to stay but no mention of having to pay.

If it is meant to serve only those businesses, then make it free and boot if I walk like Commerce Square (which, by the way, is literally 100 yards away and patrolled by the same booting company). If you want to charge to encourage turnover for the local businesses, then sharply limit the amount of time I can park like every nearby street meter.

But charging me and still making me stay on the property? That certainly is counter intuitive. To complicate it further, the sign above has nearly identical language to the signs in Commerce Square where parking is free. It is exactly this sort of unnecessarily complicated nonsense that angers residents and visitors alike. Either the sign should have unique language stipulating that I have to pay and then still stay on the lot, or if it chooses to use precisely the same language as the sign in Commerce Square then the rules should be the same as Commerce Square.

I see three primary issues with the current booting system that warrant policy consideration for possible legislation:

The first is the unnecessary complexity like at 315 West Ponce. Make it simple: if parking is free, then I can’t leave the lot. If parking is paid, then I have rented the space and can go anywhere I like as long as I’m back before the ticket expires. The method of payment must be consistent with the rest of the city (i.e., work with ParkMobile). While I realize the property owners who take this approach will whine about these recommendations, I believe it is in the best interest of the citizens and visitors of Decatur and should be enacted immediately.

Second is the perverse incentive for booting companies to boot. They make money off of the number of boots they place. As you might imagine, this gives them incentive to aggressively boot vehicles. I think it is worth exploring best practice here and determining whether we should consider decoupling the booting companies’ income from the number of boots placed.

To be fair, there are advantages to the local businesses under the current system. It means that maintaining and policing the lots is significantly less expensive to the businesses, since the booting companies are not directly billing for their time and services. It’s likely less expensive overall, since in effect the booted vehicle owners are directly funding the policing themselves.

But I might be willing to consider a higher booting fee if I knew that the booting company wasn’t deeply hoping that I’d leave the lot to get a boot. Imagine if instead the booting company’s policy was to inform people leaving the lot to move their car so they don’t get a boot.

In other words, imagine the enforcement being neighborly instead of antagonistic.

This is fundamentally a question of incentive, and if the lots paid directly for enforcement and collected the booting fees themselves, it would allow us to structure the incentives toward a positive interaction rather than a negative one.

I am fully aware of the ramifications of this suggested change: it flies in the face of the business models of all the current booting companies, it adds complexity to the lot owners to directly manage the enforcement and collections, and it almost certainly would increase the costs which would result in increased boot removal fees for the public. Perhaps this approach will not have enough support to be put into effect. But I certainly think it is worth having a public debate and potentially crafting a policy that preserves the neighborly small town feel that residents seem to prefer.

Lastly, I find it appalling that there is no escalation or structured appeals process for someone who finds their car booted. Now, the booting companies say you can appeal by calling the number on the receipt after you have paid, but the arbiter of the appeal is the booting company themselves. How many fees do you think get reimbursed under that regime?

I spoke with Castle Parking Solutions, the company that monitors and boots on both Commerce Square and 315 West Ponce, and was told that the booters always have video or photographic evidence of people leaving lots or evidence of expired tickets on dashboards before boots are placed. This evidence is maintained internally, unless the police are involved or a hold is placed on the credit card transaction.

We ought to have an independent appeals process available prior to paying the boot fee. Again I am fully aware of the ramifications of this suggestion: prosecuting challenged boots will be expensive, and the reasonable concern of the booting companies is that every single person booted will challenge, no matter how egregious the violation.

So let me suggest this: provide the evidence to the person at the time of the boot removal. They can choose to pay the $75 fee at the removal. If they challenge the boot in the face of strong evidence and lose, then the fee is $100, or $150, or whatever the right number is to fund the appeal itself. But if they truly have a case that the booter was being unreasonable, they win the appeal and pay nothing.

Here is an unpleasant fact for the rest of us to accept: far and away most boots are properly placed. Most people that get booted do leave the lot, or fail to return before their time has expired, or fail to pay in the first place. So if an unreasonable person wants to challenge the boot, let them, at the risk of having to pay the cost of the appeal. But so long as the appeal is truly independent and fair, it seems only right to allow a path for the rare individual who was booted incorrectly to challenge that.

At a minimum, I would think it is reasonable for a person paying a $75 fine to see the evidence against them in the event they wish to challenge the boot later.

As long as the booting companies make more money by being aggressive, and especially if there is no escalation or appeals process to curb their aggression, Decatur will continue to have issues with aggressive booters. Right now, the incentives for booters drive aggressive behavior.

5) Parking decks can feel dark/unsafe

I never really thought about this until I saw a few of the comments on this point. It occurred to me that I did remember the decks being somewhat dark and dingy, and so I visited some of the older decks in Decatur, for example the TownCenter deck and the West Court Square deck behind SunTrust by the MARTA station, to check out the current state.

I was pleasantly surprised. The decks appear to have new lighting, and in many cases fresh paint and improved ingress/egress points. In particular West Court Square looks almost new. For all practical purposes, there is little difference in lighting and appeal between the newest decks and the refreshed decks in Decatur.

Now, to be clear, there is a limit to how bright a parking deck is going to be. I can very much understand why some people would think twice about using one of the decks late at night or when few others were around.  We could consider emergency call buttons, perhaps cameras, or even the occasional attendant in some locations, but all of those options are expensive and will impact the deck pricing.

Additionally, with the exception of the conference center deck, the decks in Decatur are privately owned. The city can explore basic standards around lighting and safety, but in light of Georgia state law protecting private property rights, it is unlikely the city can impose particularly rigid or onerous standards that negatively impact the business model of the decks.

That said, it is clearly a reasonable expectation of a resident to feel safe in the parking decks, especially if the policy of the city is to encourage people toward decks as a longer-term parking solution. I would recommend that we at least understand the extent of what can be legislated, and the cost and price impact of some of these improvements in preparation of a public conversation about the trade offs, especially in decks where there have been issues with crime.

6) Parking is a hassle for seniors and people with mobility issues

Simply being a senior should not qualify someone for special parking consideration. However, if you are a senior with mobility issues, then you are absolutely qualified and encouraged to use the disabled parking spaces in the city center. If you have mobility issues and do not have a permit, I encourage you to please consider applying here.

Disabled parking spaces exist on almost every block in Decatur. They are often available even at peak times and even in the highest-demand areas. As we’ve discussed earlier, the spots do not have a minimum fee and all will take coins, same as before.

One reasonable suggestion to improve things for mobility-challenged individuals would be to place single meters immediately beside disabled spots, to minimize the distance a disabled person needs to move to pay the meter.

Or, conversely, Decatur could opt to not charge for disabled parking, similar to a few other nearby jurisdictions. While I’m sure this suggestion will be quite popular, please keep in mind that it will absolutely result in a sharp decrease in the amount of available disabled parking, as spots will get taken and not turn over anywhere near as quickly as they would if the spot was paid.

I firmly believe the first suggestion is the better of the two, if the goal is to shorten the distance while still maintaining a high degree of availability.

Furthermore, I believe Decatur could invest a little time educating and ensuring that mobility-challenged seniors are familiar with the parking options available to them. It does us little good to have robust availability if the people who could benefit from it are unaware of it.

7) Taxes pay for spots and so parking should be free

Using the general fund (i.e., your property taxes) to pay for parking spot development and maintenance is fundamentally regressive. It spreads the cost of a service to all residents, despite the fact that many residents do not make use of that service. It also fails to force non-resident visitors to pay for their share of using that service.

This logic is the same reason why gas taxes are used to support interstates: the cost should be borne as much as possible by the people who benefit from that service. It is the reason why seniors get significant exemptions from paying into the schools, for example. This is extremely common and generally considered best practice.

According to Decatur’s last budget, parking fees are expected to generate close to $1 million in revenue. To put this in perspective, that is approximately equal to the Active Living budget outside of personnel. It is enough to pay for all of Public Works supplies and other services. It would fund the entire 911 Emergency Telephone System (although this is not technically a general fund expense…I just include it to give a sense of scale). I.e., parking revenue offsets a lot of expense that would otherwise result in higher taxes or fewer services, and a substantial portion of that revenue comes from visitors rather than residents.

Furthermore, urban planners and researchers often claim that paid street parking actually increases foot traffic to proximate businesses. This would be an extraordinary point in favor of paid street parking, if true.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any studies that have specifically tested whether paid street parking increases foot traffic and ultimately revenue for the nearby businesses.

The hypothesis behind the claim is reasonable: when you are forced to pay for a space by time, you will use it for the shortest period of time that you need. This should result in parking spots opening up and turning over during the day, resulting in more people able to park and access the city center.

The bulk of the research seems to reference back to Donald Shoup, a professor with UCLA. His tome “The High Cost of Free Parking” is the common reference for a slew of new parking policies enacted in the past decade worldwide by city planners. The impact on local businesses should be quite an easy claim to test, which is why the dearth of quality studies is surprising. That is not the same as saying the impact doesn’t exist, but to me it seems a glaring data gap given how impactful the claims would be, if true.

Wrapping up

So, to summarize: paid parking with time limits reduces property taxes, balances costs to residents more fairly, forces non-residents to pay their share, and purportedly improves the foot traffic to businesses in the city center (take this last claim with a dose of skepticism until you see real data behind it). It is safe to say paid parking is here to stay, and broadly for very good reason.

There are a few conclusions to draw from all this. First is that Decatur definitely, though unfortunately, needs more parking in the city center. That parking should not be free. We should continue to offer the option to use small-increment coins for street parking. There are reasonable additional regulations of booting companies that should be considered to curb the worst excesses. Decks need to be well-lit and absolutely safe. If you have mobility issues, please make use of the robust disabled parking availability within the city. And new developments might look to the compromises made at the ARLO to create a welcoming and supportive parking environment for the local businesses within or near the development.

Lastly, some responsibility does need to be borne by poorly located businesses that don’t adapt to the emerging preferences of their customers. The emergence of food delivery services such as Door Dash, GrubHub, or Uber Eats have been a huge boon to restaurants that depend on take-out service. Take-out restaurants that are not available on any of those services have been hammered. This is a clear indicator of customer preference, and if you choose to operate a take-out service but do not opt to work with a delivery app, blaming the results on parking is disingenuous at best.

At a minimum, if your take-out food shop depends primarily on non-pedestrians that require short-term and nearby parking access, you should locate near a lot or a deck and not in the exact same space that a similar business left because they could not rely on foot traffic to meet their needs. In other words, there is an onus on you as the business owner to do the research prior to signing a lease rather than retroactively demand changes.

Beyond restaurants the same logic holds: it should go without saying that if you are operating a professional services firm that requires in-person consultations with people unfamiliar with the area, do not locate on the Square. You need to be near easily-accessed high-capacity parking.

There are without a doubt things that need to be improved with parking in Decatur, but pretending an alternative parking situation is the panacea that would have cured your business’ ills is merely a retroactive excuse, especially when there are blatantly obvious choices that could have been made that would have improved outcomes.

I’m looking forward to your comments.

Correction: An earlier version of this column contained incorrect information. The street parking machines do not take bills, as was first reported. The payment options for street parking are limited to coins, credit cards, or the Parkmobile app. This story has been updated with the correct information.