Wow — Free Parking Brought em in, or did it?


Wow — Free Parking Brought em in, or did it?

A couple of days ago I commented on a little village in New Jersey that felt it could revitalize downtown by bringing in free parking. I said that it wouldn’t work.  A correspondent responded that with the proper promotion and high tech hoohas, it does work, and he can prove it.  Read both parts here.

Ok, so here’s the deal — Free parking on Saturday, but we promote the hell out of it to folks whose phone number you happen to have in hand. But it isn’t really "free."

First, you have to have a "pay by cell phone" system. Second you have to have a sponsor to pay for the parking. Third, you have to have a bunch of people who are signed up on the "pay by cell phone" system and fourth, you have to market it along with other promotions for downtown (I’ll bet). In any event, Phil’s "Christmas Comes Early Campaign must have some promotion beside a text message in one’s phone. 

And in the end, the Parking Isn’t Free.  Its subsidized by local merchants who are simultaneously promoting the project.. What most merchants want, and and they did in the NJ burb, was free parking for all. and then sit back on let the money roll in.

Subsidized parking, Hey — have each merchant give each person a quarter for the meter  — it just like validated parking at the mall. I’m all for it.  Its one part of a campaign that malls (and some downtowns) use to increase business. Go for it.

Most dwindling down towns simply don’t have the understanding of marketing their area or it wouldn’t be hurting in the first place. Sorry, Phil, but your approach is not in any way equal to "free parking." Its a super duper, Madison Avenue, holiday promotion. And guess what — advertising and promotion works.


Picture of John Van Horn

John Van Horn

2 Responses

  1. Hi,
    Well no such thing as a free lunch I guess, however even if the city removed all the meters and made parking totally “free” the city would be back next year looking for a tax increase to fill the revenue hole. i.e someone somewhere will get stuck with the tab. Cities need funding, thats unavoidable, we just think there are some relatively painfree ways of getting it
    In summary, what I meant was parking is free to the motorist. In the case here it is just that. We don’t charge a subscription for the service, the call cost to park is of the order of $0.07 or less depending on your mobile plan and we do ‘bonus’ frequent parkers which pretty much offsets the $0.07 per call. (although I will admit it is entirely up to the city what call tariff they want to charge)
    For the traders well yes you are right they are effectively paying the cost of parking BUT they are getting a very pointy marketing tool in return. They get zip from meters.
    I guess my main aim here is just to say that traditionally city street parking has been divorced from the economic cycle of a city. i.e traders have little if any direct input or interaction with parking revenue flows, however parking directly affects pretty much all of their customers. It made sense to us to link the two and involve traders with direct connectivity to customers. It seems to work too:)

  2. John,
    There is no such thing as a free lunch and there is no such thing as free parking. Every time you go to the mall and buy something, you are paying for parking. But since that cost is hidden in the price of the product you buy, the malls have successfully marketed their acres of “free” parking for years to the detriment of neighboring downtowns.
    What we have is a perception problem, and I can guarantee you, we are not going to change the public’s perception that “free” parking is better that plugging a nickel in the meter. So let’s pull out the meters, it can be done successfully if everything is planned right. Let’s address the issues individually;
    1) Money- If you add up all of the taxes that are generated by downtown businesses it far outstrips the amount that is generated by parking meters. So it goes to reason that if you can increase the amount of shoppers you will increase both sales tax receipts and property values. Even a modest increase in tax revenues will replace the loss of the parking revenues. I agree with you that the increased tax revenues should be earmarked for downtown improvement and marketing, which takes us to item number 2.
    2) Marketing- You must develop a comprehensive campaign promoting downtown that gives shoppers a reason not to go to the mall. The campaign has to be more than just “free” parking, nobody goes anywhere just to park their car, but it certainly must be a component. Additionally, downtowns have a lot to offer that malls don’t; history, public facilities (libraries, etc.), unique shops that don’t exist at the mall, etc. Play up these differences.
    3) Control- As you alluded to in your post, control is key. It is critical to keep the stalls turning for all of the new shoppers that are coming to see your revitalized downtown. It is important to get the buy in of the local downtown association; they need to understand that they are slitting their own throats by not controlling their employees and keeping them out of customer spaces. Now it is a matter of enforcement; make it painful for the employees to take customer spaces, raise the fine for overtime parking, and invest in handheld tire chalking devices to beat the cheats.
    This particular program is not for every city, it works best for smaller, secondary communities that are near major metropolitan areas. I see that Easton has a population of 26,263 and is part of the Philadelphia DMA; I would think that it would be an ideal candidate.
    I have done my level best not to make this a product plug, but I think it is important to know that this is not some hypothetical exercise. We have several clients with our electronic tire chalking handhelds that have done just what I have outlined above and they are extremely pleased with the results.
    Craig Bagdon

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