City's plan to combat congestion draws mixed reviews

The city's announcement yesterday that it will combat congestion with faster buses and more expensive downtown parking is drawing mixed reviews.

The federal government is picking up the $153 million tab for the program - one of a handful of grant-funded demonstration projects around the country aimed at unclogging city streets.

Some of the funds will go toward constructing 10.2 miles of rapid bus routes in what will eventually be a 100-mile network. Features of the rapid routes include dedicated lanes, prepaid and rear-door boarding and traffic lights that adjust to speed the passage of buses. Key corridors for the network have yet to be announced.

The second part of the plan - raising prices for metered parking and off-street lots and garages in the central business district during peak usage periods - is sure to generate more controversy (video).

The plan is developed around the theory that a significant amount of traffic is caused by drivers circling in search of parking spaces.

A more strategic pricing policy would stem the flow of drivers seeking out downtown spaces and leave an optimal 15 percent of spaces available, says Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA. Shoup is an advocate of what he calls "performance pricing."

Payton Chung, research coordinator at the Congress for New Urbanism, a global association of architects and urban planners in Chicago, says the program looks promising.

Transportation advocacy groups who've studied street parking in Chicago say it's priced well below what the market will bear, says Chung.

"There's an opportunity to raise revenue as well as create a more reliable supply for those who really need to have that parking," says Chung. "People circle around looking for parking, which wastes a lot of gas and time."

Chung says Chicago's downtown is one of the locations best-served by transit in the entire country, and this bodes well for the new program.

"CTA has done surveys that show that the cost of parking downtown now is the number one reason why people ride CTA," says Chung. "Creating more available street parking will allow those who absolutely have to be downtown for a short amount of time to find a space with a minimum of fuss."

The key to so-called "congestion pricing," theorists say, is to set prices in a way that customers are not driven away from the downtown economy.

Justin DeJong, spokesman for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber would be looking closely at the program in the coming months.

"We've expressed concern about past proposals from congestion pricing," says DeJong. "They can have a significant impact on businesses, as well as their customers and their employees."

Beth Mosher, spokeswoman for the AAA-Chicago, says the plan represents an innovative effort to ease gridlock.

"Dedicated bus routes will go a long way toward helping Chicago implement what we call a 'complete streets' program; one where the streets are user-friendly for all modes of transportation," says Mosher.

"Our one concern is that some of the money collected from the increased parking fees goes back to fund transportation-related projects, such as fixing the roads, safety education programs and helping out the infrastructure," says Mosher.

The city has not released such details as the amount of price increases or where the resulting additional revenue will be spent.

Planners in San Francisco, which will begin testing its own strategic pricing program in September, envision a range of high-tech innovations to manage it. Ideas include paying for parking with prepaid debit cards and by cell phone, as well as allowing drivers to purchase more time remotely after being notified by text message that a meter is set to expire.