Medford needs a reason for people to park

Medford has a parking problem. But it's not what you're probably thinking.

In Ashland, planning commissioners approved putting a big new restaurant across from Lithia Park with no new parking. I suggested last week that the commission was ignoring a major parking problem, but the commission's Pam Marsh told me this week that the decision was routine, since the zoning doesn't require the addition of new parking, for which, thank you, Pam.

Everybody agrees that parking places in downtown Ashland are pretty scarce.

But Medford? Not so much.

Part of the problem is money. Medford's parking fund is about $60,000 short of breaking even. To cover the gap the City Council has increased parking fines from $15 to $25 but agreed to let people swap their tickets for vouchers to park in the Middleford or Evergreen parking garages downtown.

You can park in those garages for three hours for free. Or all month for $25, or $10 on the roof. The last time I was in Seattle it cost more than that to park for two hours.

If the goal is to move cars into the garages, the council's logic is downright Spockian. It makes the garages more attractive and the street riskier and less attractive. If people responded rationally, you'd expect more people to park in the garages and leave more spaces on the street for people running quick errands.

That's not happening. Why? I spent a couple of hours this week walking the downtown core, and the results suggest that Medford is trying to solve the wrong problem.

I left the Mail Tribune a little before 3 p.m. Wednesday and walked through the lot behind the MT where parking is free for three hours. It was mostly empty. On Sixth street between Grape and Fir, only two parking spaces were occupied. Between Sixth and Main there was one parked car. There were 17 empty spaces.

Of the 13 spaces on Main Street between Fir and Front streets, one was occupied. In the free, three-hour lot behind Scan Design were two cars. Fourteen of 17 Main Street spaces between Front and Central were taken, and six of 12 between Central and Barnett. There were three empty spaces on Bartlett just up from Rogue Community College, two more on Eighth Street between Bartlett and Central and nine more on Eighth Street between Central and Front.

That brought me to the Evergreen parking structure. It was mostly empty, a few dozen cars on the ground and basement levels, nine on the second floor, two on the third and seven on the roof.

From the Trib to RCC and back there were more empty parking spaces than parked cars. There wasn't a single block without vacant parking spaces. Was I overlooking something? Maybe mornings were worse. Or maybe I didn't focus enough on the area around RCC. I returned Thursday morning before 9 a.m.

I parked in front of RCC, taking my pick of the empty parking spots on the street, 10 of them on Central Avenue between Eighth and Ninth streets. To the right, half-empty parking lots stretched two blocks to the south. There were 12 cars in the first 36 spaces of the lot, where parking is free for two hours. Eve Bennett, of Medford, an RCC employee, had just parked in one.

"It's easy in the morning," Bennett said. "Afternoons it's a little tougher."

Bennett sometimes moves her car to the free, three-hour lot just to the south, or to a four-hour lot by the bus station one block away.

There were four cars and eight empty spaces on Ninth Street between Front and Central. In the short block in front of RCC's bookstore there was an open space, and two more on Central in front of the library. The half-empty lot there was offering free parking for three hours or all day for $2.

I headed up Bartlett past five empty parking spots. There were five cars in 11 spaces on Main Street between Riverside and Bartlett and three cars in the block between Bartlett and Central. There were five cars and eight empty spaces on Central between Sixth and Main streets.

The first two levels of the Middleford parking garage at Riverside and Sixth were half empty, the roof 95 percent empty. From there to the MT there were 26 empty parking places and nine parked cars. There were 13 cars and 50 empty spaces in the free city lot behind the MT.

What's going on here?

For one thing, people are afraid of the parking garages.

"They're creepy," a friend said.

"Well, that's not what our numbers show," Medford Police Lt. Bob Hansen told a reporter.

There have been zero serious crimes in those garages in three years.

But what about all those empty spaces on the street? Here's a radical suggestion. The underlying reason people aren't responding to the city's incentives as we might expect is basic economics: There are too few people competing for parking spaces that are too abundant and too cheap.

It's easy to park for free within a block or so of where you're going, move your car if you need to and not walk an extra block or two from a parking garage. If parking were scarce and precious, people would be all over those garages. Drivers are behaving rationally. In effect they are saying to those empty garages (with apologies to the late, great Townes Van Zandt), "You are not needed now."

Show me a town with a real parking problem and I'll show you a town where people want to be. The real problem is that downtown Medford, despite its efforts, is just not a happening place. Look at Ashland, or even relatively vibrant Grants Pass.

Marsh, who lives in Ashland and works in Medford and thinks about such matters, may have put it best.

"Downtown Medford," she told me over coffee, "is evidence that parking alone won't compel visitors to come and stay. There's no build-it-and-they-will-come quality attached to a parking garage."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to

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