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Kansas City is ending some free parking across the city, starting with River Market. Here's why

John Hooper, a parking ambassador with Kansas City, shows people how to pay for parking in the lot behind the City Market. The new paid parking changes went into effect in May.
Celisa Calacal
KCUR 89.3
John Hooper, a "parking ambassador" with Kansas City, shows people how to pay for parking in the lot behind the City Market. The new paid parking changes went into effect in May.

Free parking in Kansas City used to be the norm, not the exception. City officials are hoping to change that — starting with the City Market.

On a warm Saturday morning, streams of cars are filling the asphalt lots surrounding a bustling City Market. Signs posted at the entrance of each lot read: “$5 for 2 hours, $10 for 8 hours. Free parking located at 7th and Main.”

Watching drivers park their cars is John Hooper, a “parking ambassador” with Kansas City tasked with an important job: letting drivers know that, starting that weekend, they would have to pay to park.

“You come down here, you just wanna grab some stuff for a couple hours and leave,” Hooper said. “So $5 is always the max, $10 is to weed out the people that are parking here all day for free. … We also are promoting free parking … and that's across the highway. They can hop on the street car and come right down here and that'll avoid a lot of the congestion by offering that as well.”

The new paid parking on weekends affects the main lots surrounding the City Market, which already required parking on weekdays. Still, the change came as a surprise to some residents like Sierra Highley, a frequent City Market visitor.

“We come a lot up here on the weekends and it's always been free,” Highley said. “I just enjoyed that, (it) was something fun for me and my kids to come do, and just bring a little bit of cash. So I miss the free parking.”

Celisa Calacal
KCUR 89.3
A sign lets drivers know that they will have to pay to park in the lots surrounding the City Market. Officials hope paid parking will cut down on traffic around the River Market.

The change reflects a larger shift by city officials toward updating Kansas City’s parking policies and parking system, beginning with bustling districts like the City Market. City officials and parking experts hope instituting paid parking in high-demand areas will lead to less traffic and create more available parking spaces for those who need them.

“The main drive is to get people to enjoy their time down here instead of circling around for a half hour, trying to find a place to park,” Hooper said.

Later this month, the city will place paid parking meters along the streetcar line. The hope is to cut down on traffic congestion.

“What happens is people just circle and circle and circle, that creates congestion,” said Matthew Muckenthaler, Kansas City’s parking program manager. “And then that makes you more encouraged to find an illegal or unsafe way to get out of your vehicle because you've spent so much time and you're getting frustrated.”

Free parking isn’t free

Muckenthaler is overseeing many of the city’s parking changes. He says it’s time for the city to transition away from its antiquated parking model to a more modern approach.

“We charge a little bit when it's slow, but then it's free when it's busy,” Muckenthaler said, referring to the City Market. “So from a business, supply-demand, economics 101 (standpoint), we're upside down and backwards.”

Paying for parking is the norm in cities like St. Louis, Omaha and Oklahoma City. In Kansas City, it’s the exception.

Muckenthaler often hears from Kansas Citians who say the availability of free parking is one of the city’s attractions. But he says people aren’t considering its implications.

“Then I usually respond with, ‘Oh gosh, I guess, then, that not being able to find a parking space is the best part of Kansas City or having only 25% of the Metro population pay for a broken system,’” Muckenthaler said. “Is that the best part of free parking in Kansas City?”

For Councilman Eric Bunch, whose district includes downtown and the River Market, the change to paid parking is about supply and demand. Years ago, when downtown was not as busy as it is today, charging to park wouldn’t have made sense. Now, with a vibrant downtown, it does.

“Yes, there may be people who decide not to come down to the market because they have to pay for it,” he said. “But it's equally true that people are choosing not to go down there because they can't find a parking space.”

And giving parking away has come at a substantial cost.

“The cost of that is $16.5 million a year in general fund support for the parking program,” Muckenthaler said. “So a lot of that is debt service, right? A lot of that is the big parking garages that we've built and we don't charge for parking in. It's very expensive to build parking.”

Poor parking compliance

As the city requires more paid parking in its commercial areas, it’s also contending with poor parking compliance. Ideally, Muckenthaler says two-thirds of parking revenue should come from paid parking and one-third from citations for failure to pay for parking, parking in handicapped spots, parking for more than the allotted time and the like. But that’s not the case in Kansas City.

“Two-thirds of the revenue are coming in because of slaps on the wrist,” Muckenthaler said, referring to parking citations. “And only one-third is coming in from payment compliance. So that's a problem, right? And it's not because KCPD is out there writing too many tickets. It's because our enforcement program isn't achieving the right compliance goals.”

The Kansas City Council voted to decriminalize parking citations in 2020 and create an administrative court to oversee parking tickets and other non-moving violations. Still, Muckenthaler says issuing citations won’t improve the city’s poor compliance.

“We do that with the lightest hand that we can, and offering far more carrots than we ever have to bring in sticks,” he said. “This is about creating a parking program for everyone. And if most people are non-compliant, then most people can't use the system.”

Using other transportation

River Market residents like Matt Staub, a member of Kansas City’s Parking and Transportation Commission, hope the parking changes will make the dense, walkable neighborhood more usable. A River Market resident since 2005, Staub knows how busy the City Market gets on weekends.

“Unfortunately it's one of the most charming times to be here, but the experience is completely overwhelmed with vehicles,” Staub said.

Josh Boehm, a member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, says he hopes the new parking policy will encourage more drivers to seek out other modes of transportation.

“People might be trying other ways of getting around Kansas City for the first time and find that it's possible and actually kind of enjoyable,” he said.

City officials likewise hope the new policy will encourage drivers to use other forms of transportation like the streetcar and the bus system, or even consider walking to the City Market.

Parking lots at 7th and Main streets are still free. On this particular Saturday, Kansas City resident Bethany Benham took advantage of the free parking and rode the streetcar to the City Market with her daughter.

“Because of the time that we're coming, I knew that it would be quick and easy,” she said. “And I have my 11-year-old with me. What 11-year-old doesn't wanna ride the streetcar?”

The City Market was as busy as ever that Saturday morning, an indication the new parking policy hadn't deterred visitors. City officials are hoping more and more residents will come to recognize the benefits of the parking changes and, like Benham, forgo – at least during their trips to the City Market – their love affair with the automobile.

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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