The No Benefits of Free Parking


At the December 12 meeting of the Santa Monica City Council, the Council voted to extend the “free parking” hours in city owned lots from 90 minutes to three hours during the last three days before Christmas to encourage more people to visit and shop in Downtown Santa Monica.

The debate was high-spirited as questions as to whether this would actually do anything to help businesses (posed by Councilmember Jesse Zwick) or whether this was the best use of roughly $26,000 the city would lose in revenue (posed by Councilmember Gleam Davis) were met with a harsh rebuke from the Council majority that implied that anyone who would dare vote against this was either a grinch or didn’t support Santa Monica’s businesses.

Well, it turns out these questions were more than valid. In a report for next week’s council meeting (available here while we wait for it to be posted on the city’s website), it turns out that the program did nothing to help businesses or encourage shopping. This shouldn’t come as surprise as the city tried the same trick in 2020, and it also did nothing to help businesses.

“This isn’t just conjecture or vibes,” commented Zwick at the meeting about his concerns. “the city did a similar program in 2020, and it didn’t make a difference.”

However, the argument that a past program hadn’t actually produced the results hoped for in this program carried little weight with the majority, two of whom lambasted Zwick and Davis for failing to understand how the extra ninety minutes of free parking would provide a huge benefit for residents of lower income.

“This is a gift,” declared Councilmember Christine Parra who recounted stories of how she would choose to shop at places with free parking at Christmas because “she couldn’t put her three kids on a bike” to head downtown. Vice Mayor Lana Negrete took things a step farther.

“These are luxuries and conversations that only certain communities have the luxury of being a part of,” said Vice Mayor Lana Negrete of people that promote walking, bicycling or taking transit. “Not everyone lives in a space where they can afford an electric bike.”

“We hope that this will encourage more people to shop longer, or stay out for dinner,” she concluded.

By and large, it did not.

The staff report outlines the city’s efforts to promote the increased free parking program which included a press release and signage at the parking lots. This effort did not bring flocks of people to the lots. In fact, over the three day period that they used to compare 2022 to 2023, there were 640 fewer vehicles that parked in the lots.

The report summarizes the failure of the extended parking program better than I could, so we’ll give it the last word.

Based on this analysis, it is apparent that the 3 hours of free parking did not encourage people to visit the downtown parking structures during the 2023 holiday season. Much like the 2020 analysis referenced above, it can be concluded that “Parker behavior may be driven by accessibility to the amenities by the parking facility and less on the benefit of free parking.”

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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