Parking can be a sensitive issue in most cities, and Oakland is no different. Seven years ago, frustrations boiled over in the “Great Parking Revolt of 2009” after Oakland extended parking meter hours to alleviate its budgetary woes. The backlash was centered in the City’s upscale business districts where some merchants (notably Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake Theater) were upset about increased meter fees, expanded hours, and more thorough enforcement. The City lacked the political will to defend its policies, and the controversial parking changes were reversed. The backlash continues to affect how Oakland approaches parking today.
Oakland’s curious practice of free Saturday parking during the holidays is one such outcome of the 2009 controversy. During this period, meters are free, though time limits are supposedly still enforced. The City claims that free parking supports local businesses, but the City’s own transportation director, supported by extensive research, admits that it actually has the opposite effect, reducing turnover and making parking scarcer for businesses.
The persistence of free parking on Saturdays contradicts Oakland’s recent progressive transportation reforms laid out in the OakDOT Strategic Plan, including changes to parking policies. The plan highlights the critical importance of equity – prioritizing underserved communities in allocating transportation resources – and data-driven parking management based on best practices. Conversely, free parking handouts are an inequitable and ineffective means of managing transportation resources. The program subsidizes those who can afford to own cars and drive without providing similar benefits (free transit, secure bike parking, etc.) to those who cannot or do not. While the City has started to implement smart parking reforms in Montclair and Downtown Oakland to enable greater turnover and level the playing field with walking, biking, and riding transit, the free holiday parking program strangely persists.
Next year, OakDOT should act in support of its equity, economic, and sustainability goals and end free holiday parking giveaways. OakDOT has initiated an educated, data-driven conversation about parking, and should not undermine its efforts with antiquated political maneuvers.