Charleston's parking woes reach new heights
by Gavin Turschmann
With more than seven million visitors coming to Charleston every year, traffic congestion and parking issues on the old, narrow downtown streets are to be expected.
But as visitors continue to flood in and business growth on the north end booms, there just isn't enough space for all the cars needing to park.
Although city officials encourage the use of public transportation, both residents and visitors are frustrated by the lack of parking options.
"My first experience downtown was not great," said Nicholas Hazenburg, a resident of Charleston for eight years. "I had issues with trying to find parking near my job and quickly realized I couldn't use a meter unless I wanted to run out and add to it every couple of hours."
The core issue is the lack of availability in an old city with narrow streets and few built-in spaces that can be used for parking.
And while there are 14 city-owned garages scattered around downtown, they often fill up quickly during peak hours, forcing many drivers to hunt for street parking.
And that is no easy task either as it can be extremely difficult to locate an empty spot, especially one close to your destination.
City officials are aware of the problem and are exploring potential solutions.
One proposal is to expand the number of parking garages in high-traffic areas and to offer incentives for visitors to use them.
But space and funding are a problem. Charleston is already a cramped city, and adding more parking garages is no small task.
Mike Mathis, head of the Parking Operations Division in Charleston, said building parking garages is not really in the works.
“Any construction of a public garage will be in the millions just because of the manpower, supplies, and materials, and just time put into constructing them,” he said, nixing the idea of more parking garages anytime soon.
Metered parking is scattered throughout downtown and the nearby neighborhoods as well but often mixed in with spaces restricted to residents.
For tourists or locals coming into the city for the day, finding the public spots is just as difficult as locating a nearby garage.
The city's nearly 2,000 public parking meters were upgraded five years ago to allow for credit card payments, making them relatively accessible if you can find an empty one.
But finding one without a yellow bag (indicating closed for a street event) or a red bag (indicating broken), can be quite a challenge too.
In fact, when National mobility expert Gabe Klein was asked in 2014 to study Charleston's parking situation, Klein recommended raising rates on meters to encourage and help fund alternative modes of transportation.
For full-time residents, a primary problem is people illegally parking in their allotted spots.
Residents are allotted a certain number of street parking, but the space limitations cause problems for everyone.
Mathis said the city has discussed shifting some public parking spots to residents-only.
“We can shift where meter parking becomes residential and vice versa but either way you go you are going to get pushback,” Mathis said “With such a high volume of people in the city parking is always going to be an issue.”
Residents have also suggested stricter enforcement of parking regulations to discourage long-term parking in spaces intended for short visits.
“It would be nice to see the city start cracking down on parking violations and start to tow more cars and not just hand out tickets that most people don't even pay,” said Hazenburg.
Currently, more than 80,000 people have dodged paying their parking tickets, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. In total, the city has $4.4 million in unpaid fines for parking violations in three years.
While stricter enforcement might encourage people to move their cars and open up more spots, many believe people still won't care about tickets and only more money will be added to the unpaid parking fines.
“I mean it's a complete joke, it's very well known that if you don't pay the tickets nothing is going to happen so if that's the case why would anyone even pay them,” said Hazenburg.
Students at the College of Charleston feel the effects of the problem too.
With nearly 11,000 students and only 3,400 living on campus, CofC has a lot of students driving to class and needing to park.
“It adds stress with worrying if I'm going to even get a spot and then also making class on time,” said Callee Cox, a senior at the College of Charleston, speaking on how difficult it is finding a spot around campus.
The College has dealt with the parking issue by offering a total of 835 spaces each costing 550 dollars a semester. It is important to note that 300 of those spaces are not on campus and are at the Aquarium garage which is a 16-minute walk to campus.
While the College does offer its own spaces for parking, it also encourages students to use the public CARTA bus lines which run throughout the day.
For most students, these bus stops are far from where they live and make getting to school even more difficult than just trying to find a spot on campus.
“Taking the public bus lines would only be more stressful than having to just find parking on campus. If you miss a bus, you are completely out of luck,” said Cox.
Even with CARTA bus lines and paid parking spots being offered by the school many students rely on public parking to go to class, and it is not an easy task when they are competing with thousands of other students.
“Finding parking on campus was one of the biggest challenges at the College of Charleston, those premium spots were too expensive for me and it was quicker to walk to campus than have to find and take the public bus,” said Nick Hart, a former student at the College of Charleston.
Parking on campus continues to be a growing problem for students at the College of Charleston and while some students continue to deal with trying to find spots others have given up and switched to new ways of transportation.
“This semester I decided to give up on the fight with trying to find spots on campus and started to bike to class and while it takes a bit longer to get there I don't have to deal with finding any spots,” said Cox.
While some students have started to ride bikes and scooters to class so they don't have to deal with finding parking on campus, parking issues are still being felt around Charleston.
Students and residents alike are feeling the impacts of the parking issues downtown and are still choosing to use public parking since it is the best option.
“Even with the city pushing for the use of bikes and public transportation, residents and visitors are still going to choose their vehicles as modes of transportation, which only creates more issues with parking downtown,” said Mathis.