Turning off the parking meters to allow free parking during the holiday season as a way to encourage more traffic to the city is a grand idea … if this were still 1982.
We're sure Philadelphia Parking Authority chief Scott Petri was well intentioned and even generous in continuing the practice that the PPA has instituted for decades.
The policy – free metered parking and reduced rates in some lots on Saturdays from Thanksgiving to New Year's – is designed to lure shoppers away from suburban malls and encourage them to take advantage of the city's retail offerings. We have to say, as a mindset, that's a little old school. Who prefers big box malls over the variety and interest offered by the city's shops? And at the end of shopping, who would prefer a bland chain restaurant over one of the cutting-edge destination dining options that are available on practically every block in the city?
Part of the point is that Philadelphia used to need such encouragement from delicate suburbanites who weren't up for coming into the big city. Now? Not so much.
But there's another point to be made: In light of the city's real transportation challenges, encouraging more cars to come into the city is the opposite direction of how we should be thinking. With congestion and environmental stresses increasingly problematic, we should be finding ways to discourage more cars on the city's streets.
The free parking plan has some smaller, but real drawbacks, according to transportation experts: For example, free parking encourages people to park all day, meaning fewer spaces would encourage even more congestion, as cars drive around looking for available spaces. That congestion will impact bus service, which affects people from all over the city, not just in center city.
The shopping season does present opportunities for doing things differently. For example, the lost revenue — PPA estimates it is foregoing $400,000 in meter revenue from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day – will affect the schools directly, which gets a portion of PPA money. Even putting the hit to the schools aside, why not keep the meters collecting money and earmark December's revenue for different charitable causes? Many people might find altruism a stronger motivator than saving a few bucks on parking.
The holiday season might have also been an opportunity to get shoppers into the city by offering free off-peak SEPTA fares – another way to discourage congestion. That, of course, would take coordination among disparate entities: SEPTA, PPA, and the city. That's the kind of coordination required to have a real impact on the long-term transportation strategies of the city.