The public parking lot at 604 W Rosemary Street literally sits on the border between the Town of Carrboro and the Town of Chapel Hill. In fact, the parking lot itself is jointly owned by both towns, with one side operated by the Town of Chapel Hill and the other side operated by the Town of Carrboro. 

The town line runs right through the middle of the Rosemary Street Lot

If you’ve ever driven a car into these two downtowns you will know that the Town of Chapel Hill charges and enforces parking, while the Town of Carrboro has “free” parking and no enforcement of time limits. (Parking is only “free” in Carrboro to people who drive — everyone else in town pays for it as part of our tax bill. If only school lunches worked this way!) It’s a very unusual arrangement, to have two starkly contrasting parking policies in the same parking lot, and this is why the Rosemary Street Lot is Donald Shoup’s Parking Lab.

Donald Shoup, photo from the Daily Bruin

“Who the heck is Donald Shoup?” you might wonder. Donald Shoup, known affectionately by his urbansit fans as Shoup Dogg, is a recently retired professor of urban planning at UCLA whose 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking, lays out all the problems that unmanaged and unpriced parking can cause towns and cities.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking past the Rosemary Street Lot and noticed something right away: the Carrboro “Feel Free!” side had zero vacancy and the paid parking Chapel Hill side had plenty of vacancy. If I had been driving to this lot in order to park, I would have been able to find a spot because Chapel Hill is pricing parking spots in order to ensure that there are spots available, and this is exactly what Shoup has demonstrated in his research. 

The Rosemary Street Lot is full on Carrboro side and empty on the Chapel Hill side

Carrboro has been hovering around the idea of charging for parking, and even just enforcing 2-hour time limits, for many years now. I remember attending a community outreach event when the town was conducting its first parking study back in 2016. (For more info about the first parking study, check out Patrick McDonough’s excellent summary of its findings.) The findings from that study showed Carrboro has A LOT of parking, especially private parking. Case in point is the absurdly huge Carr Mill Mall employee parking lot, which occupies 2.1 acres of prime real estate in downtown Carrboro and sits mostly empty, day and night.

Carr Mill Mall employee parking, enough for a three shifts of mill workers

The second Carrboro parking study was completed a year ago in March 2022. This study focused more on specific zones, which added granularity to the analysis that some folks felt was missing from the 2017 study. Unsurprisingly, the second parking study confirmed all of the findings and recommendations as the first study. For example, the 2017 study urged the town to implement a unified parking wayfinding strategy, which was never implemented, and so it is also recommended in the 2022 plan. 

The 2022 study found that occupancy peaks in public lots at about 80% on weekend nights as folks come to Cat’s Cradle or downtown for dinner. The public lots around the Farmer’s Market are of course at capacity on Saturday mornings, as expected. But generally, parking occupancy hovers at around 50% during the day in Carrboro despite the lack of enforcement.

Most parking lots in Carrboro post a 2-hour time limit, but the study found (and Carrboro staff confirmed with their own data collection) that 69% of cars in public lots are staying well past the 2-hour limit on weekdays. The not-so-secret reason why is that a good number of people know that Carrboro is Sucka City and that they can park in these spots as long as they wish and then hop a bus to UNC or stroll Franklin Street in neighboring Chapel Hill. 

A sign of the times in Carrboro

At their most recent work session on March 14th, the Carrboro Town Council set itself the goal of deciding how to direct staff to implement the recommendations in the 2022 parking study, which included:

  • Downtown parking enforcement
  • Implementing paid parking
  • Implementing unified wayfinding
  • Delegating an advisory committee to evaluate ongoing efforts related to downtown access 
  • Explore public-private shared parking agreements

The council’s discussion is available on the town’s YouTube channel but I’ll give you the TL/DR.

First, there was a lot of interest in hiring a full-time staff position to enforce (gently, it is Carrboro after all) the existing 2-hour limit and create more turnover by kicking out those all-day parking scofflaws. It will be interesting to see exactly how much more parking is freed up when enforcement begins, and it sounds like the place to start piloting enforcement is our favorite Rosemary Street Lot.

The second thing to come out of the meeting is a shared acknowledgement that paid parking is an inevitability and now is the time to put a system in place that will be ready when the new library and its structured parking deck come online. The town will be seeking options for dynamic pricing, which is a variable price that corresponds to a specific parking lot’s demand. For example, the parking lot on Laurel Street may not need pricing to ensure vacancy during on weekdays, but Saturday morning Farmer’s Market is primetime for that parking lot.

There was also interest from council members in using parking technology, like Park Mobile used by Chapel Hill, to allow private parking lot owners to add their underutilized parking capacity to the available public pool. I’ve seen an example of this recently in Chapel Hill at the Passport Motors lot on Franklin St. This arrangement allows a private property owner, or an entire business district, to share in the parking revenue by becoming a paid zone in the town’s parking map.

The Passport Motors lot is now available to the public

Another interesting outcome from the meeting was the contrasting recommendations sent to council from the town’s advisory boards. The Climate Action Taskforce recommended paid parking be implemented with revenues being invested back into the parking system, whereas the Racial Equity Commission recommended against paid parking for residents with revenue being used towards racial disparities. Council Member Randee Haven-O’Donnell noted in the meeting that climate action and racial equity form the two pillars of the town’s comprehensive plan and there was interest in bringing these two groups together to discuss their ideas about downtown access. A notable endorsement for the parking study’s recommendations comes from the Carrboro Business Alliance, which lists parking availability as their top priority for downtown businesses.

Parking is serious business in Carrboro

It is safe to say that the days of free parking in Carrboro are drawing to a close. The good news is that, because there is already so much parking in Carrboro, that price might very well be $0 for folks conducting business downtown during the day. Additionally, parking enforcement in Carrboro will mean more spots are available downtown when you need them. And I predict that the Donald Shoup Parking Lab is going to demonstrate exactly how pricing and enforcement open up supply on the Feel Free! side of things.

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.

Ryan Byars writes about transportation infrastructure, greenways, and how to get around with your kids safely on a bike. He lives in Carrboro with his wife and three young children.