It’s a new fiscal year, a time of rebirth for the Chapel Hill government. And, for those who live in and near downtown Chapel Hill, it’s time to renew your street parking permit. 

Before the pandemic, getting a parking permit was an exercise in frustration. First, you had to gather a series of documents–leases, tax statements, car registration, utility bills, driver’s license, and possibly other documentation—that proved you lived at your current address. The addresses had to match, so an out-of-date license or a utility bill in a roommate’s name could thwart your efforts to get a permit. In addition, if you had an unpaid parking ticket, you’d have to settle it before they would give you a permit.

Once you assembled these documents, you had to visit the police station during its office hours (Mondays-Fridays, 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, not including lunch breaks). The parking office only took cash or checks, so if you didn’t have either form of payment you would have to come back.. 

And, for homeowners and renters alike, you had to complete all of these steps every year, even if nothing had changed about your living situation.

To make matters worse, once you completed all this paperwork to get a legal permit, you soon realized that its value was limited because street parking was barely enforced in Chapel Hill. With each legal permit came several one-day guest permits, which could in practice be used for weeks at a time without anyone noticing. For several hours of your time, and $25, you reduced your odds of getting a $50 ticket from 1 in 50 to zero. It was worth it to get a permit, but if you were a risk-taker you’d probably be fine.

When I completed the permit process in the summer of 2019, I suggested to the clerk that this process should be moved online. She laughed in response, and said that it would never happen. 

And, then, I read last week’s town newsletter, and saw that they’re making many of the changes I (and maybe others?) have asked for. Here’s what’s new:

You can apply for a parking permit online

During the pandemic, the town set up a temporary process to allow for one to apply for parking without visiting the police station, but it still involved calling the town and emailing them the required paperwork. Now, it’s as simple as filling out a form. You still have to apply every year, and assemble a lot of documents, but it doesn’t require a visit to the police station. Starting in 2023, you’ll even be able to pay online. (Last year, the town’s economic development office took over parking management from the police. The town’s new parking services manager, Michael Carew, and Arthur Schechter, the parking services coordinator, have done a terrific job).

Goodbye to parking stickers, hello to enforcement by license plate.

Before this year, all permits came in the form of a sticker you had to carefully apply to the rear window of your car. The stickers changed colors each year, but they were hard to see from the street, which led to parking rules being underenforced.

Under the new system, you won’t need a sticker, as the town will use your license plate to make sure your permit is active. UNC has used this system for years.  The town will likely use License Plate Recognition (LPR) technology to enforce parking rules, which is faster and more efficient than checking stickers.

Guest permits are no longer free, and you only get one.

Under the old system, you received a parking permit and up to two guest passes for $25/year. Now, you can just get one guest permit, and you’ll have to pay $25. Guest permits are only valid for 24 hours, and the town promises to penalize those who abuse the permits. For those who need permits for caregivers, it’s still just $10/year.

Why does parking matter?

For the uninitiated, celebrating parking enforcement seems akin to wishing illness on one’s loved ones. But, those who’ve thought about the detrimental environmental, economic, and social costs of “free” parking realize that parking reform helps us achieve a lot of our other goals.

At present, the Town of Chapel Hill spends millions of dollars a year to subsidize parking downtown, millions that could be better spent on ending homelessness, supporting affordable housing, building a splash pad, completing a greenway, funding more bus service, or a dozen other things.

Instead of raising residential parking permit rates, the Town Of Chapel Hill is streamlining the application process, and, most likely, stepping up enforcement so we all pay our fair share for parking.

What could we do next?

While this new system is a vast improvement, there’s a few things we’d still like to see.

Consider equity. We already provide free passes to people over 65. Let’s also give passes to people who work full-time jobs for low and moderate pay. 

At present, people over the age of 65 are given free permit parking. (That’s 11% of town residents.) While this is admirable (though a lot of our seniors are well off), the town should explore ways to help people who work full time and make less than $30,000 per year. While $25/year is a modest expenditure, building in support for people who earn modest incomes would make it easier to raise rates in the future. 

Convert some streets to hourly parking, particularly during peak demand. 

When parking is in high demand, like during athletic events, the town should convert some of its residential zones to hourly parking. The town has plenty of street parking capacity in the neighborhoods around downtown, and asking people who live off Rosemary, Franklin, and Columbia, to move their cars three or four blocks away on a few Saturdays a year would help out. We could allow people to pay by the hour to park on Kenan, S. Roberson, S. Graham, and possibly other streets, during peak times. We don’t need to add meters. Just put up signs and allow people to pay by phone. 

Make it easier for people to store cars on the edges of town.

Many of the people who live near downtown work or attend school at UNC. They might drive their car once a week to get groceries, or maybe once a month to visit friends and family. We should give them the option to store their car at a park-and-ride lot, or somewhere else far from town, for free and give them a guest pass in exchange. Many people oppose new housing downtown because of fears about parking, and creating this option would allow people to have access to their cars without taking up valuable parking spaces in our neighborhoods.

Let’s set a goal of eliminating parking tickets, and ending predatory towing.

While we need to price parking in order to manage demand, we don’t have to do so with parking tickets. Right now, we place limits on where and how long someone can park, and charge violators $50 (and up) tickets that are adjudicated through the court system. This creates additional costs for the town, and sends the wrong message to people visiting our community. 

Instead, we should just charge people the actual costs of parking. For metered spaces, that would just mean charging people for the length of time they’re parked. (If people leave their cars downtown for too long, we can introduce variable rates that will raise the hourly charge for parking at peak hours). 

 Since we give residents dibs on the non-metered neighborhood parking spaces near downtown, we could just charge overnight visitors (who don’t have a guest pass) a reasonable rate—let’s say $25/day—that produces revenue for the town and reduces the frustration that comes with getting a ticket. We already have bill-by-mail as an option for the toll lanes on I-540. Why not bring the same concept to Chapel Hill? 

The town should also work with the owners of private lots to reduce the use of predatory towing downtown (Colorado just passed a number of reforms that we could consider implementing here). In the short term, we can encourage private lot owners to join in the public parking system, giving them more parking revenue in exchange for not towing violators. Ideally, a properly managed public parking supply—including street parking—would reduce the income for these predatory towing companies, and the surface lots can be used to build more housing and office space downtown. 

Parking can be reformed

Some see parking as akin to the weather, something that we can complain about, but can’t meaningfully reform. But, just like climate change can be addressed through concrete actions, we can create stronger and more resilient communities by reforming our parking policies. Chapel Hill is taking a small, but important step forward with these reforms to its residential parking permit system. Let’s hope that they continue to make progress.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...