[Note: since I wrote this post, I’ve also written a post about a few places for free parking in Downtown Colorado Springs here. You may want to check that out as well.]
Colorado Springs is a great city, and I am blessed to be able to work and play here. I particularly like our downtown area… it’s the heart of the Springs; it’s where our city and county government operations are based, it’s where community thrives, it’s where our public events take place, and it’s where business gets done. There are many, many great aspects to downtown Colorado Springs.
Like every city, our city isn’t perfect and downtown has its fair share of issues and challenges (crime, low vacancy, panhandling, etc). But I’d like to call attention to what I think is a very big obstacle in our goal for making downtown hospitable, yet is one with the simplest solution: metered parking.
There are two specific ways I believe parking downtown is challenged: one regarding the parking meters themselves, and the other regarding the EZ Park card, which was intended for making metered parking easier.
First things first—as anyone who has spent time downtown knows, almost all the parking spots on the streets are metered. This is par for the course in the downtown area of just about any city that I’ve been to, so I’m not necessarily taking issue with that. (Though the simple act of having metered parking at all does give people incentive to go elsewhere, such as the University Village Center and Shops at Briargate shopping centers, which both have unlimited free parking.) What I do have an issue with is how complicated our metered parking is. Here are several ways I think they’re too complicated:
- Most of the parking meters only accept quarters and dimes. I know why they do this (profitability) but parking should NOT be a profit center for the city—it should be a public service. C’mon. Please stop being so picky and start accepting nickels.
- Colorado Springs can be very windy at times, and windy gusts containing sand and dust can effectively “sandblast” anything made of glass after a few years, making them so occluded you can’t see through them. The parking meters are not immune to this, and the little window on the front of the meter that shows how much time you have left is clouded over on several of the meters downtown. The result? You’re not able to read what the meter says, which renders an entire meter essentially useless for parking.
- Occasionally, a meter will take your quarter(s), and not give you any time because it’s broken.
The meters have no identifying numbers that I can see, so there’s no way to “tag” a meter as broken. So if you park at a meter, and hop out of your car and drop a quarter in and receive no time, there’s no remedy except to get back into your car, go find another meter and try again, and pity the sucker who comes after you and makes the same mistake.[Update: apparently, all the meters are numbered—the numbers are way down on the pole where you would never think to look. I wonder how many others like me never noticed this before.]
- All of the parking meters have a “maximum” limit on the number of hours you’re allowed. Meaning, you can’t just shovel $6.00 worth of quarters into the meters to buy several hours—you’re limited by the meter’s allowance. There are three basic types of meters downtown: one-hour, two-hour, and four-hour meters. The problem is that a significant amount of them are one-hour meters. If you have a meeting at a coffee shop that you expect to last for approximately one hour, you can’t use the one-hour meter because you will be out of time before you have a chance to walk back to your car. Despite this, most people do in fact park at a one-hour meter, and what often happens in the course of a business meeting is you’ll hear someone awkwardly excuse himself to “feed the meter” and walk back to his car (sometimes more than a block away) where he’ll stuff perhaps 30 minutes’ worth of quarters in the meter and hustle back to his meeting and apologize to his party for the interruption. This is a frequent occurrence, and it’s an extremely convoluted way for people to make their meetings and comply with the metered parking. But even as complicated as this “quick fix” is—it is still “technically” against the rules. Most meters specifically state that you must move your vehicle after the allotted time; you cannot simply recharge the meter. But this is a warning not heeded by most people, because it’s nearly impossible to comply with. I think it’s a dirty trick.
My second big issue with the downtown parking situation is that there is supposedly a solution to all this coin-wrangling—the EZ Park card. But before you run out and buy one, please note that the solution itself presents even more issues than the problem. The EZ Park card is like a credit card for the meters that’s powered by a flash memory chip. They’re advertised on the meters themselves, and people often talk about how getting one makes parking so much easier. So several months ago, I figured I would give this a shot and purchased an EZ Park card. Instead of solving my problems, it actually made things more complicated. Here’s why:
- Having an EZ Park card doesn’t solve any of the problems with the one/two/four hour meters. It doesn’t resolve any of the hassle of parking at a one hour meter. You still have to run out and “feed the meter,” which is still technically breaking the rules.
- Needing an EZ Park card instead of simply being able to use a credit card is a major hassle. It’s a separate card you need to carry around with you, and you need to maintain a balance on it and recharge it frequently.
- There are two ways to purchase an EZ Card: 1) online, and 2) at the parking administration office on Nevada Street Avenue the parking garage. For purchasing a new card, the online option is simple. However, the administration office has very limited hours so if you want to visit the office, you have to go during banker’s hours. They’re only open five days a week, from 8-5 [Update: actually, they’re only open 8:00am—4:30pm, so it’s even fewer hours than I originally thought], and they’re closed during lunch. For those who work normal hours for an employer, this means you can’t reload your card during your lunch break or even after work.
- While initially buying a card online is very convenient, you CANNOT reload it online. You can only reload it at a downtown kiosk or in-person at the parking office. This is a major inconvenience.
- You cannot check your balance online, either. The only way to check your card balance is to find a meter, insert your card, view the balance, then take your card out. Or do the same at the parking office. This is a hassle.
- As I mentioned above, there are a few kiosks where you can reload your card, which is great in theory. In practice, however, I’ve found that they are fraught with problems:
- First, there are only three kiosks.
- Second, the kiosks are small, hard to find, and are placed inconspicuously at random intersections in the middle of the sidewalk. If you didn’t know what they looked like, odds are you would never find them.
- Third, most of the time, the kiosks don’t even work. I’ve tried all of them at various times on various days, with more than one EZ Card and with three separate credit cards—I have never been able to reload my card. I always get a message saying “card cannot be read.” I brought this to the attention of the parking office and was told “People complain about that all the time. Because it’s so windy downtown, dust gets into the card reader so it can’t make contact with the flash chip in the card.” If that’s the case, why are they still there? It’s false advertising. They just don’t work, so get rid of them.
- Fourth, you cannot buy an EZ Card at a kiosk—you can only reload them.
- When reloading your card, you can only load it in increments of $10 or $20. Want to put $25 or $50 on your card? Tough luck. [Update: I still don’t know the straight story on this—the first few times I’ve reloaded my card, I was told I can only had two options: a $10 or $20 balance. Most recently, I was told I could put “whatever balance I want” on the card. I give up.]
- Not all meters accept the EZ Park card. There is no rhyme or reason to this either (i.e. I could forgive something easy to remember like “meters on Wahsatch only take coins“)—instead, it’s completely sporadic, and you won’t know until you’ve actually parked at the meter and gotten out of your car to take a look and what’s worse, the meters that don’t accept cards are exactly the same as the ones that do—they even have the same exact slot to insert the cards. The only way you’ll know it doesn’t take cards is by reading the cheesy label slapped on the meter that says “this meter does not accept EZ Park cards.” This is especially frustrating for users of the Penrose Library, where NONE of the meters accept the EZ Park card. As a governmental institution, the library should be hooked into the city system. It simply makes no sense for them not to.
- Some meters are broken in such a way that the coin slots work, but the card reader doesn’t. When you go to use your card, you’ll get an “ERR 6” message on the screen. The card can’t be read. I wonder if anyone is checking the meters’ card readers as part of the meter maintenance.
- The meters have hours of operation. The “hours” are from 9am-6pm, Monday – Saturday. You do not need to pay for metered parking before nine or after six. This is excellent. But… the problem is that EZ Park cards always load the maximum time available on the meter. For example: when you park at a four hour meter, it will put four hours on your card unless you return sooner to “clock out.” This means if you park at a four hour meter at 5:53pm (i.e. 7 minutes before the cutoff where you don’t have to pay anymore), the meter will load four whole hours on your card, and keep on burning time until those four hours are spent, even though the metered parking technically “ended” at 6:00pm. To prevent this, you would have to run back to your car and turn it off after the 7 minutes are up, or you’ll be charged for four hours of parking. I also mentioned this to the staff at the parking office, and was told “Yeah, we know it’s a hassle, but the meters just aren’t smart enough to figure it out. You should just keep some quarters with you to use in that instance.” Well, obviously that works, but WHAT IS THE POINT of the EZ Park then?! Why have an electronic card to relieve people of the hassle of needing to carry quarters with them at all times, if they still have to carry quarters with them at all times?
- There are several parking garages downtown that allow you to park for much longer periods of time than the meters, but they don’t even accept EZ Park cards. And if having the garages is the solution, then we should just rip out all the meters, because there’s no point in having two systems when only one system actually works. Besides, while the garages are good for people who know they’re going to spend several hours or all day downtown, they’re no solution for those who just need a quick place to park. Please either fix the meters, or take them out of commission.
My intention is not to simply gripe about the way things are, or point the finger and blame others. My desire is to call attention to the situation because I think a lot of people are unaware of the hassle involved in parking downtown, or if they are, they may be forgetting that it discourages people from being downtown and using the meters. I want to see business thrive downtown, and I believe that parking is a major obstacles in the way. Parking is one of the most basic functions in doing business downtown—you can’t do business here if you can’t get here.
I do have some solutions I propose, which I outline below. I make no claims about any of these being “easy” or “inexpensive” fixes—I’m not a city planner, I’m just a citizen who cares. Here’s what I suggest:
- Number all the meters with unique identifiers and place a label on each with a phone number for people to call in case a meter is out of order, and offer refunds for people who’ve lost money in a broken meter. Yeah, it may only be $0.50-1.00, but you’ll ease a lot of the anger it causes people.
- Have someone (perhaps the one who collects the coins from the meters) check the status of each meter. I would suggest checking the status of the following:
- The readability of the screen (looking for sand-blasted windows, condensation forming on the inside, etc)
- Verify that the slots work correctly, BOTH the slot for the EZ Card as well as the change slot.
- If a meter is out of order, place a hood over it that states this.
- Change the system to allow for either:
- A) Using credit cards at the meters instead of the EZ Park card
- B) Allowing the purchase, reloading and balance checking of the EZ Park card online. And allowing the ability to put any dollar amount on the card.
- If none of these are possible, at least open the administration office during lunchtime and Saturdays.
Downtown businesses and our city government need to remember that locals already have other options outside of downtown to work, play and shop. I’ve already mentioned University Village Center and Shops at Briargate, but there are many other options for Colorado Springers and tourists to visit when they’ve got money to burn. And despite how “easy” we tell them it is to buy an EZ Park card, all they’re going to remember is how much of a hassle it was last time they visited downtown, fumbling around for loose change in their car’s ashtray.
If budgets are a concern (as I imagine they would be—fixing a legacy electronic system is going to be expensive), I wonder if helping organize a “meter crew” of volunteers who can put some time together on a few Saturdays per year would solve some of the problem. If the City is willing to give the people the tools, I’m sure downtowners are willing to put those tools into action as a gesture of support and goodwill. I am one of those people. Give me the support, and I’d be happy to give my time.