What’s this “variable rate pricing” all about?

(125th in a series of posts on parking)

So we said Council is going to consider two topics from the Bethlehem Parking Authority tonight at the Public Safety meeting:

1) increasing the parking fine structure

2) adopting variable rate pricing

We discussed the fines, now variable rate pricing.

Here’s the report on variable rate pricing prepared by the BPA consultant Kimley-Horn:

BPA Variable Rate Memorandum 8-28-19

Right now, Gadfly believes, the meter parking rate of $1.50/hr. is universal — all places, all times — throughout the City whether you are out on West Broad, in front of the Moravian Book Shop, or tasting a dainty at Lit.

Variable rate pricing —also known as demand-responsive pricing, or performance pricing—means setting curbside parking meter rates based on demand in a block or zone at a particular time of day. The goal is to make sure there are always a few open spaces per block and encourage people to park only as long as they need. Theoretically, this arrangement should enable more customers to shop or eat in a business district.

In other words, parking could be cheaper on West Broad than at the Moravian Book Shop or cheaper Tuesday morning at Lit than Friday night.

In other words, a parking space might be worth more on the 500 block of Main St. on a summer Friday evening than it would on a Tuesday morning.

In other words, the same parking space might even cost different prices at different times of the same day.

Get it?

The question is, should the Bethlehem Parking Authority adopt variable rate pricing?

This concept of variable rate parking entered Gadfly’s wordhouse before he was Gadfly, in the middle of 2018 when there was public discussion of the major parking study done by DESMAN for the Bethlehem Parking Authority.

As part of his approval of the increase of parking meter rates that went into effect January 1, 2019, the Mayor requested that the BPA “consider” variable rate pricing. The Mayor was responding to urging by some members of the public and of City Council in doing so.

The corollary and more basic question is, what current problem would variable rate pricing address?

Gadfly is not sure what that problem is.

Gadfly wishes that problem were identified, isolated, and presented for the consultant to specifically address in the report.

As is, we have a general report on variable rate pricing that is not specifically focused on any reason for the inquiry in the first place.

So Gadfly finds it hard to judge the consultant’s report, which does not recommend the City adopt VRP.

Gadfly remembers these things relevant to VRP from that 2018 public discussion:

  • criticism that the DESMAN report did not investigate or include the potential application of innovative policies and strategies like VRP when we already had the technology to implement it
  • possible usefulness in the Northside downtown
  • laments from Westsiders

That said, these sections of the consultant report stood out to Gadfly:

  • “While system-wide on-street parking occupancy levels never exceeded 60% and 48% in the Northside and Southside, respectively, occupancy on certain streets and block faces did reach or exceed 85% which is a general measure of parking stress. In Northside, the three blocks bound by East Broad Street, E. Market Street, Main Street, and North New Street had peak weekday occupancy percentages between 75% and 100%. Interestingly, the Walnut Street Garage, which exists within that block and has 777 spaces, only achieved a 69% occupancy rate and had 240 available spaces.”
  • “The pattern of peak on-street parking utilization in Southside was erratic with one side of the street exhibiting low occupancy percentages while the other side of the street exhibits high occupancy. The only consistent pattern of parking occupancy was along East Packer Avenue between Vine Street and Ryan Street/Fillmore Street, an area that is clearly influenced by Lehigh University. According to DESMAN’s report (see Lot T and Table 10 from that document), the 602-space parking garage in that location was only 10% utilized during this same period.”
  • “Curbside parking is best when managed to serve short duration, high-turnover activity and uses such as retail, restaurant, and theater are particularly dependent on that supply of spaces. In turn, the management and pricing of those spaces is quite relevant.”
  • “Regarding meter performance data, the IPS meters do not have the sensor (occupancy/vacancy) feature which further encourages parking compliance, short-duration of stay, and higher turnover through effective enforcement, and the BPA’s sensor puck pilot program did not prove worthwhile. As such, the BPA cannot collect real time data on parking utilization and turnover.”
  • “Parking utilization as reported in the 2018 study did identify fourteen (14) of the seventy-two (72) block faces in Southside and five (5) of the forty-one (41) block faces in Northside had occupancy percentages at or above 85% [indicating stress]. But as a system, the two areas achieved only 49% (Southside) and 64% (Northside) occupancy during the peak hour.”

Without a specific problem to address, Gadfly is not sure how to judge the consultant’s conclusion that VRP is not recommended for us:

Based on our review of the Desman report and on our own research conducted as part of this project, Kimley-Horn does not believe that performance-based, dynamic, or progressive on-street parking rates should be implemented at this time. This opinion is based on the fact that curbside utilization is relatively low, there are no large concentrations of intense demand, current monthly and hourly rates are low and offer no variability between on-street and off-street transient rates, and the level of effort and cost required to collect the necessary performance data is prohibitive given the size of the BPA and its budget. The City and BPA could pilot test variable rates based on location and/or time of day for specific streets or blocks but significant surpluses on adjacent streets/blocks and within nearby off-street lots and garage would suggest that the increased rates would simply drive parkers to these other areas of lesser utilization.

Perhaps a pilot program?

Gadfly is just not sure where discussion of this issue will go with Council or if there is an issue here that we should be concerned about.

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One thought on “What’s this “variable rate pricing” all about?

  1. Did Desman really say that variable rate parking is not needed because there are always empty spaces within a block or two? — Are these the same people who defended the need for the New Street garage by saying people will not walk more than 300 feet?

    P.S. — Personally, I don’t think variable rate parking is needed or worth implementing.

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