Mode Shift Omaha|

– Derek Babb, Board Member and Bike Team Lead

I recently attended the Benson Business Improvement District (BID) meeting where the idea of a parking benefits district was discussed. The general idea is to install parking meters on the street parking spots along Maple St. and to have a central agency that designates the alternative, free parking in off-street parking lots. Many of these parking lots are part of a private business with the exception of the city lot south of 61st and Maple. Parking meters are an important part of managing a huge portion of the way people get around Omaha – by driving. Parking meters discourage long-term use of the best parking spots and reduce the amount of time people spend searching for parking. Parking meters also provide a user-fee for parking rather than asking all of us to subsidize those who choose to drive. 

See more information about the meeting here:

The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup

Parking isn’t free. Even if we are not paying the fee as drivers, there is a cost. One cost is the lost opportunity of what else might have been there. A parking lot could have been a park, a business, a home. The street parking could have been a wider sidewalk, an outdoor dining area, benches with an area to sit. Parking is a public good and we are not managing it very well.

Benefits of a single agency overseeing the free lots

At the meeting, I heard two different approaches to how lots are managed after hours. In most cases there are signs saying “private parking, violators will be towed” but several of the owners said they did not actually tow except for extreme situations. Another owner did tow every time they saw someone parked in their lot. Unified signage for the district could alleviate these problems. You don’t need a Benson Parking Decoder-Ring to know which lots will/won’t enforce what the signs say. This will make it clear, to frequent visitors or someone here for the first time, which lots are available, and in what hours. For example, a day-time business may reserve spots for their customers only in certain hours but then open them up for all after the shop is closed for the day.

Another thing I heard both at the meeting and in chatting with people who work in Benson is their desire to park right in front of their store. One specific concern was leaving the business unattended so they could plug the meter. The perceived scarcity of parking in Benson is due to the fact that people don’t see any available spots along Maple. If people are parking in these spots long-term, for their work shift or as residents, they are occupying a space that is really designed for short-term usage. The parking meters would enforce this use. There are currently signs that say 2-hour parking only, but they are not enforced. Since it seems unlikely that the parking would be enforced without meters – and the money to pay for parking enforcement that meters bring –  if meters are not installed, the 2-hour rule signs should also be removed. The city should not make rules it does not intend to enforce. Opening up these short-term spaces would make it easier for customers to run in shops and pick up a quick gift or food to-go.

Accommodating New Apartment Developments

One problem raised by the people who ran the parking study is the incentives created around the new apartments in Benson. Each of the complexes has private parking. They charge tenants for these spots, because again… parking isn’t free. Since street parking currently is free, residents may elect to not pay for the provided parking and instead use the free street parking. Even if someone does pay for the parking, they may find it more convenient to park on the street rather than navigate the private lot each time they come and go. 

We need more housing, specifically affordable housing, both in Benson and in Omaha more generally. New development should be an asset as long as the new residents bring more to the neighborhood than they take. A neighborhood where the parking is well-managed helps support this type of in-fill development. Strong Towns describes this through a Party Analogy.

Using the Meter Money for Improvements

There are many uses for the money collected from the metered parking. I don’t know what the BID and the Benson Parking Authority would decide to do with the money but here are a few opportunities I can see:

If the meters are “smart”, they will need to connect to the internet. Why not increase the bandwidth and provide district-wide free WiFi?

Benson is a transit hub, with the 14, 4, and 8 buses all coming through the district. With the new Metro Next initiative ( there is likely to be increased frequency, making transit even more viable as a means to get to and from Benson. Meter money could be used to build sheltered bus stops with real-time arrival information like we currently see on the ORBT line.

The off-street parking lots should be well lit, with the blue emergency lights. This is especially important for the late night employees who are leaving after the bars and restaurants have closed. One of the reasons that employees park on the street is for the safety and peace of mind that comes from being near their car at the end of the night. If that is not available, it is important to ensure that their parking is safe and well maintained.

Trash cans should be more frequent on the street and more frequently maintained.

Support paid parking meters in Benson by taking the City’s survey

Creating a Better Benson

Parking is a necessary thing. In a city like Omaha, the majority of people are going to arrive by private automobile. But people don’t choose to drive to Benson for the parking, they come to Benson because it is a unique, interesting, fun destination. We have a chance to think of the public space and how we want to use that space. Rather than fighting change, we need to ask ourselves how we can make Benson better, in small ways and in big ways, to ensure that people continue to bike, walk, take the bus, and yes, drive to Benson for years to come.

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