Pay to Play (are fees really the answer?)

Earlier this month–January 10th, to be exact–Washington Park officially became a pay-to-park destination. The Rose Garden, Japanese Garden, Children’s Museum, Oregon Zoo, the huge playground and the archery range: all of those have parking spaces that fall under Portland Parks and Rec jurisdiction, and now they all cost money.

Washington Park pay to park meters(a new addition to Washington Park parking)

At first, I thought it was a good idea. If you drive to the Washington Park, why not pay for it? It seems like a good way to incentivize transit use or alternative transportation, and the money collected gets reinvested into improvements for the park. It’s not that different from parking meters downtown: if you bring a car, expect to pay for the space it takes up.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it’s setting a bad precedent.

First of all, this seems somewhat akin to saying “hey, if you have disposable income you’re welcome to use Washington Park; if not, go play somewhere else.” There are some transit options, of course. The MAX has one stop that serves the Oregon Zoo and Children’s Museum, though from there it’s quite a hike to other Washington Park attractions. And the 63 bus runs through the park, but only every hour, and only on weekdays between 7am and 5pm (i.e. not when many people are likely to have free time to go to the park). Until transit throughout the park is a viable option, I’m not convinced that this isn’t a somewhat classist (even if inadvertently so) policy.

But other than that, it just seems like the wrong message to send: Washington Park improvements and upkeep will be paid for by the people who drive there and use it. That is, the responsibility of the upkeep falls to the users–sort of like saying that if you have a kid in school, you should pay for school, but if you don’t there’s no reason to put your money toward something you don’t use, right? It seems like more and more things in Portland are funded this way, where one specific fee goes toward one specific thing, and we’ve lost track of the idea that some things might be public services that everyone has a part to uphold. Maybe parks aren’t one of those things, but I wish that would be the conversation.

I’m all for paying for parking. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that there are meters in Portland and I think it’s reasonable to expect that you might pay to use space. But I guess I’m a little worried that it seems there’s no coherent whole about how money gets apportioned, and I don’t like the super-individualistic idea that you only pay for what you use, everyone else be damned. Certainly there are things that we, as a civilized society, have decided are for the common good, and those things should be paid for by everyone via taxes, not user fees. Again, maybe parks and greenspaces aren’t one of those things–and maybe I just don’t understand how this works (the city’s finances are definitely not my forte)–but this strikes me as a step in the wrong direction.

Push me on this. Any thoughts?


  1. I do like that you’re thinking about access for all. It makes sense that the parks be available to people that want a low cost entertainment option.

    But have you ever tried to park there? When we’ve had parents in town, the Rose garden is a popular destination. And since our parents couldn’t make the trek up the hill easily, it’s the only time we’ve ever tried to drive up there. But finding a parking spot during summer, spring or even fall is a terrific undertaking. It usually took no less than 1/2 an hour to find a spot, if ANY can be found at all. We often have to drop off our guests, park on a residental street, and then just run back to our guests. Parking up there is REALLY limited (save the zoo). And all the car traffic really does degrade the experience, especially when cars are backed up and idling waiting for a spot.

    I think making those that need to drive up pay a nominal fee to park will help with some of the parking and car congestion that inevitably happens. But i do get the access issues you mention. I think generally, the vast majority of people that park up there are tourist, and when you’re a tourist, you should help negate the cost of the parking spot you’re occupying, the roads you’re traveling on, and the cost of the beautiful park you’re visiting. Maybe they could add some free handicap spots to negate the issues with those that are less mobile but still want to go to the park….?

  2. Are fees the answer? Yes. Free parking is the worst, full stop. The endgame of free parking is highway 99 in Tigard, or 82nd Ave: acres of parking lots are distinctly not pedestrian friendly, and reinforce auto dependency. Furthermore, you are not only allocating scarce public right of way to the free storage of private property, but cars choke up the actual lanes, circling and looking for a free spot — studies have shown that 30% of traffic is just people looking for a place to park! You either pay money or you pay with your time, and if you’re driving around looking for a spot, you’re more likely to hit someone and you’ll pollute more.

  3. Paying for parking from the perspective of managing a scarce resource is perfectly valid, and when the park is congested, metering makes sense. However, in the park lots, this occurs less than 1/3 of the time and then mostly due to weekday zoo visits. So aside from times like these (as well as those that Deborah refers to) meters are for revenue creation. Of course, the city claims for road and park maintenance, etc. Yet the city acknowledges that metered parking does not even break even. Furthermore, if you look at the budget for this meter program in the park, fully 1/2 of funds go to support staffing (plus they have made ridiculous assumptions of how much revenue will actually be generated). So I’m not following the logic, especially when you consider that the entire park is now metered. (I have NEVER seen the archery spaces event 1/2 full and now they’re metered).

    That’s my logical response; what saddens me though is that this is yet one more sign of the trend to view “public” resources as simply monetizable assets. You want to use it, you pay for it. So anything just outside the boundaries of your back yard should be paid for? And if you don’t use it you don’t have to pay for it (ie police, fire, school)? and if it is monetizable, then it should be (ie mining, logging on public lands)?

  4. Thanks for the thoughts, all. I totally hear you both on paying for the privilege of storing your private property on public space and on managing a scarce resource. But I think you, harlan james, put it best with what you said about public resources being nothing but monetizable assets. I think that’s what bothers me, that the meters in the park are billed not as a way to control parking or traffic but as a way to raise money to pay for park improvements. Shouldn’t that be paid for from some general fund? Not just by people who drive to the park and park their vehicles there?

    It seems like maybe (?) the right decision made for entirely the wrong reasons.

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