A new study of Evanston’s parking system recommends that officials consider raising their $2 per-hour off-street parking rate downtown and hike rates in other areas of the system too, generating revenue to bolster aging infrastructure.

The study also addressed parking around Northwestern University’s Ryan Field during special events and football games, maintaining that the city doesn’t have a problem on game days, a view already being challenged.

Downtown parking in Evanston Credit: Bob Seidenberg

Council members approved the study at their Sept. 27 meeting but didn’t take any action on its recommendations, placing it on file until another report they commissioned is ready.

That study, under the title of “Evanston Thrives,” is expected to be ready early next year. The consultants are conducting extensive surveys of business district users to develop strategies the city can take to reactivate its business areas.

City officials engaged WGI Parking Solutions earlier this year to conduct the study on various aspects of the city’s parking system.

The study was set to begin in 2020 but was pushed back to 2022 due to COVID-19.

The firm was given a broad subject – parking – one that has stirred up strong differences of opinion over the years concerning the city’s approach.

More recently, some members of the business district have maintained that the city’s strong enforcement practices have caused visitors to go to nearby communities like Wilmette, rather than receive a ticket while out for a meal.

In a summary of the study’s findings, WGI authors noted “the pride city staff takes in the fact that its facilities have no deferred maintenance.

“To maintain this practice and address problems as the city’s infrastructure ages,” they said in the study, “rates must increase to follow market trends.

What other communities are doing

Tickets issued annually Credit: Bob Seidenberg

“Chicago should ultimately be used as the metric by which the adequacy of the city’s parking policies is measured,” the study’s authors asserted, “but other comparable cities such as those included in the study’s peer review – that is, Portsmouth, NH; Boulder, Colo.; Pasadena, Calif.; Madison, Wisc.; Cincinnati, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minn., and Columbus, Ohio – provide valuable data to support these findings.”

Size, climate, extent of city parking management (outsourced or in-house) and even the existence of “transit-oriented development” parking policies were factors taken into consideration.

“While none of the cities chosen are perfectly comparable to Evanston in all respects, they all are similar in one or more area,” the study read. “Ultimately, the goal of this peer-city review was to provide Evanston with a comprehensive picture of what other progressive, forward-thinking cities are doing so that they could pick and choose what was relevant and helpful to their operation.”

The firm’s findings grew out of the results of the firm’s peer review, assessment of policies to encourage transit oriented development – a longtime priority of the city as one of the only towns in Cook County with both el and Metra lines – and evaluation of the city’s parking assets when dealing with Northwestern special events.

WGI’s Ashley Orr and Benjamin Sands reviewed some of the firm’s findings at the Sept. 27 City Council meeting.

Recommendations

On the peer review side, the study recommended:

  • “Evanston should consider raising their $2 per-hour parking rate for on-street parking downtown to a rate that is comparable to that of their peers.”
  • Currently, “both the average and the maximum and minimum rates for the city of Evanston fall on the lower end of the spectrum.”
On-street parking rates Credit: Bob Seidenberg

The recommendations, including raising the $2 rate, “would achieve the desired 10% to 20% vacancy ratio per block. We didn’t want to provide a uniform rate strategy for all blocks because all blocks are not the same. Individual blocks that experience higher rates of occupancy and demand should be priced accordingly.”

  • “Evanston should move from $0.50 per hour to a flat dollar within the 12-hour parking zones.”
  • “Evanston should focus on promoting the ParkEvanston app to increase efficiencies in staffing, maintenance and financing.”
  • “Evanston should consider raising their residential permit rates in higher-demand neighborhoods, akin to the demand-based pricing used in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, and instituting a yearly rate increase like Boulder to ensure that the city is planning for future on-street demand.”

Sands observed that “our recommendation is that the permit fees for Evanston need to be adapted to a demand-based model essentially where the areas that experience higher occupancy and higher demand for space.

  • “Evanston’s maximum daily garage rate could be increased through a variety of methods, whether through restructuring the schedule from rate bands to a consistent hourly rate of $2 per hour after the first hour (which would yield a much more drastic increase), or by simply raising the hourly rate in the last two rate bands from $0.50 per hour to $0.75 per hour.”
  • “Evanston should consider raising its monthly permit rates for covered garage parking to better compare to that of Portsmouth, Minneapolis, Boulder, and Madison. Chicago’s private garages in its downtown, as well as the private garages in downtown Evanston, should also be a metric for determining whether Evanston’s monthly permit rates are matching local market trends.”
  • “Evanston should consider a dynamic parking pricing program like Portsmouth’s that raises rates after a certain time threshold on key downtown streets to further encourage turnover of spaces in high-demand areas. Furthermore, like in Cincinnati, Evanston could consider keeping reduced evening and weekend rates in underutilized locations to induce demand.”
  • “Evanston should not adopt an on-street employee permit program within residential permit zones without active management and review of the program to understand the effects on the residential community, and without committing to a robust and restrictive permitting process for businesses – both in number of permits issued per business and by proper pricing.”
  • “Evanston’s penalties and fines should be evaluated and increased to better reflect the lost revenues from non-payment for parking, the expense to issue the tickets and the fines used by their peers.”

“I would say that having a suppressed enforcement rate or parking fines scenario does typically encourage that type of cat-and-mouse behavior between the parking users and the enforcement staff, where they essentially like to test the boundaries and controls that the city sets with parking enforcement,” Sands said, “and increasing that fine amount does typically increase compliance with rules.”

● On transit-oriented development:

“Evanston needs to enforce the TOD parking policies it has instated and take proactive measures in place to ensure the equitable allocation of these public resources to all types of developments now and in the future. It is recommended that Evanston perform a parking occupancy and demand study to visualize the rate at which public parking resources are being depleted and understand the effectiveness of TOD policies and their effect on the public parking supply.”

● On Northwestern special events, WGI’s Orr told City Council members that WGI’s findings were based on observations made at two highly attended events – the Northwestern vs. Iowa football game on Nov. 6 of last year and the Northwestern vs. Indiana men’s basketball game on Feb. 8 this year.

Among the group’s observations: 

  • “Evanston sees a high demand for on-street spaces on its neighborhood streets during football games. However, no unsafe or inaccessible on-street conditions, in which emergency vehicles cannot traverse narrow streets due to illegal parking, were observed within the study area.” 
  • “Evanston does not experience rampant illegal parking on lawns and private property. However, a small group of residents is taking advantage of the opportunity to advertise and sell parking space on their lawns and driveways during football games. Consistent enforcement of City Code by police is necessary to curbing this illegal behavior.”
  • “Evanston residents can park for free in municipal lot No. 54 with a paid wheel tax. Evanston should consider charging a flat rate for all parkers regardless of residency status to accrue additional revenue and ensure that residents are not taking advantage of the opportunity to relocate their personal vehicles to sell space on their lawns and driveways.”
  • “Northwestern’s parking lots (Lot 101 and Lot 102) are only open to season ticket-holders during football games. Evanston could explore opportunities for collaboration with Northwestern University to determine whether space may be available within Northwestern lots for some public gameday parking.”
  • “Evanston does not have a gameday parking problem. Observations before the basketball game reinforced the fact that issues are more closely tied to traffic congestion and circulation, especially at the ticketed entrances to the Northwestern Lots 101 and 102. Evanston must work with Northwestern University to establish better entry and exit procedures that do not clog Central Street and Isabella Street.”
  • “Residential permit District 6, which surrounds the stadium and arena, is an easy candidate for instating more restrictive permit regulations encompassing Northwestern game-days and events.”

Summing up, Orr noted that the recommendations in the study aren’t “all encompassing and should not be viewed as an ultimate solution to all of the parking problems in the city of Evanston.”

Orr said that “ultimately, Evanston’s parking assets are the first and last impressions that visitors have of your city and they must be managed in a way that is efficient, adaptable, equitable and accessible for all of your residents, business owners and visitors.”

Mixed response from council members

Council members showed mixed reaction in their brief discussion of the study’s findings following the presentation.

Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, spoke in support of the study’s recommendations to bring increased parking revenue to the city.

“I think it’s fair to categorize free parking or underpriced parking as a subsidy because we as the city, the taxpayers, have to maintain the infrastructure,” he said, “and if we’re not collecting the proper revenue to maintain that infrastructure, that is almost the definition of a subsidy. You are giving it away below value. And so this will help bring us in line.”

He asked whether equity is taken into consideration in connection with permit fees, expressing hope it could be worked into the study’s proposals in the future.

Of the extra revenue the parking changes would generate, “I’m sure this body needs no reminding,” Reid told council members, “that we have a $100 million unfunded infrastructure liability, and by appropriately capturing revenue for parking that can be a substantial boost to helping us winnow down that unfunded liability to make sure that we’re providing some of the best infrastructure for residents.”

Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, acknowledged the points made by Reid about the potential impact.

“I think if our downtown district were flooded with customers, those arguments would carry a lot of weight with me,” he said. “We’re not in that condition right now. Until we recover from the pandemic, and until our downtown business district is once again thriving and bustling and things are at capacity, I would be very reluctant to raise meter rates downtown.”

To Nieuwsma’s concerns, Lukasz Tatara, the city’s interim parking manager, stressed that the study should be viewed  “as a baseline,” and it was up to the City Council whether to raise or lower rates.

“There are a lot of different opinions about this,” he said, “but it seems we are under, not over,” referring to the comparison with other cities in the study.

At the same time, he reminded council members that “we just approved $1 million this year” for concrete repairs to the parking garages.

Somehow, he said, “we have to recover that investment,” he said, as well as the investment in other areas, such as equipment and licensing, part of the parking activities.

Council Member Thomas Suffredin (6th Ward), asked staff members how officials planned to reconcile the study with the coming business district study expected in January.

“Are we going to merge these?” he asked, “because very likely the opinions expressed about parking in that study will be different than these.”

And Council Member Eleanor Revelle, whose 7th Ward includes Ryan Field, echoed the remarks of a resident who resides in the stadium area earlier in the evening that the basketball games “have a huge impact.”

“The residents come home after work and then can’t find a place to park, so we do have a parking problem on game days around the campus,” she said, adding that involving the business community in discussing the findings from the study will be an important next step.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. i do not support this increase in parking rates. i believe we should be in line with our northshore neighbors and have free street parking.
    personally i am tired of feeding the meter and do everything to avoid the pesky charges.

    if the city needs parking revenue sell an annual pass similar
    to the wheel tax.

    very respectfully
    manon kavesky

  2. I no longer drive. I have caregivers and friends take me places. We avoid Evanston because the parking system is too confusing and expensive.

  3. So just as our merchants are getting back on
    their feet after COVID 19 the city council is going to raise parking rates. Are you kidding?

  4. As a resident of Evanston for over 40 years I asserted years ago never to go anywhere in Evanston that requires the use of a parking meter. It’s as simple as if I don’t like what’s on the channel, change it.

  5. Raising the parking rates may very well act as disincentive to our business districts. Where is the competition for our shoppers and restaurant visitors ? It is the surrounding communities, not California, Ohio, & Madison.

    The report says “Evanston should consider raising their $2 per-hour parking rate for on-street parking downtown to a rate that is comparable to that of their peers.” Our peers are Skokie, Wilmette, Winnetka, Glencoe, Glenview, Highland Park all which have free parking and downtowns that are thriving. Evanston is known for aggressive ticketing. Is the money they make in ticketing keeping visitors from choosing Evanston as the place to enjoy their time?

    Evanston needs to focus on fiscal restraint, financial accountability and making our city a welcoming place to visit so that people will want to come here and spend their dollars. We can, and need to reduce the huge debt by not spending millions of dollars on projects that we don’t need, quit hiring so many high cost consultants, and getting better bids of the projects we do need. Budget season is approaching everyone needs to pay attention, ask questions and talk to your elected officials how to create long term budget plans and spending more wisely.

  6. I had the same reaction that reader, Pat Lucas, wrote about: that Evanston’s parking concerns should not be compared to Columbus, OH, or Portsmouth, NH. Evanston exists within the North Shore and we compete with surrounding towns for business. Wilmette has seen great increases in outdoor dining after 6 pm after they revamped their downtown streetscape, including the continuation of free parking. Winnetka did the same. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be a serious resurgence in Evanston’s outdoor dining at night. And during the day, parking places in our downtown are often available outside of local businesses like LeMoi Hardware, for example, when it used to be saturated. Many businesses closed as a result of COVID and there are still many storefront vacancies. Did the study look at these kinds of short-term issues that may actually turn into long-term problems? I am not sure. Obviously, Evanston is a larger city than municipalities to the north and west, but we are competing with surrounding towns and retail center with free parking. If we are looking to highlight our downtown as well as other retail areas to increase revenue through sales tax, the continued use of parking boxes, increased rates and ticketing seems counterproductive to retail expansion. Skokie, Niles, Wilmette, etc., seem to understand this. They do have time limits but forgiving enforcement. Finally, the study’s assessment of policies to encourage transit oriented development seem off the point and dated. People live, work and recreate all around us, mostly through the use of autos. The presence and use of public transit is not going to be Evanston’s salvation. We want people (often from out of town) to come to visit during special events like NU home games or festivals and it is a fact of life that most people are going to choose to use their own vehicle to arrive here. Metra or CTA are not an option. And finally, when did it become illegal to sell homeowner spaces to visitors looking for parking during NU home games? Is it also illegal for District 65 parents to hold up home-made signs to park at Haven or Orrington School during these events? That is an unfriendly ordinance with the wrong focus. These “illegal” activities generate home-town spirit. If residents and parents make a few coins for themselves or their schools, so be it. Enforce something more serious.

  7. Parking rates in Evanston should not be compared with far away cities just because those cities are of comparable size. The comparison should be made with nearby communities – Skokie, Wilmette, Morton Grove… I don’t go into downtown Evanston anymore because of the cost and the hassle with digital machines rather than a coin drop parking meter. (I am 79 yrs old and the new machines confuse me.) There is nothing unique drawing me there. I go instead to the other communities or the free lots at the shopping centers near McCormick Blvd. If parking were free on weekdays, I would come and explore the shops. I grew up near downtown Evanston and knew all the stores and worked in some. Free parking would draw more people to the stores, restaurants and theaters. I live in a senior community and many people feel like I do.