Back-Seat Driver

If you’re parking in downtown Sacramento this fall, better bring a calculator

A UFO? No, it’s one of Sacramento’s smart meters. You can add more money using a cellphone app.
A UFO? No, it’s one of Sacramento’s smart meters. You can add more money using a cellphone app.

Parking at night in Sacramento is about to be more costly and, for many, pretty confusing.

The city will extend street meter hours to 10 p.m. downtown and 8 p.m. in a slice of midtown on Sept. 1, although there will be a one-month grace period before ticketing starts in October.

How complicated will it get? Let’s just drive to midtown for dinner, say to Firestone Public House at 16th and L streets, and find out.

I pick Firestone because it’s on what will be the dividing line between two metering zones. Meters will run to 10 p.m. in downtown up to the west side of 16th Street. The 8 p.m. meter zone is on the east side of 16th Street and runs to 19th Street. (Those boundaries were negotiated between the city and business groups. That’s another story.)

Let’s say we arrive for dinner at 7 p.m. because, you know, we’re fashionable. We’ll try to park at a meter across 16th Street from the restaurant in the 8 p.m. zone. That way, no matter how many hours we stay at the restaurant, we’ll only have to pay for that first hour, $1.75.

But, those meters may all be taken. So we could try to grab a parking spot on the west side of 16th, the same side as our restaurant. Those meters, though, run to 10 p.m., and they have a two-hour time limit.

If we eat our dinner in two hours, that means we’ll pay $3.50 at the meter. But what if we want to linger at the restaurant? The city now has a program that allows us to stay longer at that two-hour meter by paying a premium $3 for the third hour. We have the city’s new ParkMobile app on our iPhone, so we can pay for that extra hour while sitting at our table.

Nevertheless, that brings our parking total to $6.50, a lot more than the $1.75 paid by the lucky diners who parked just across the street.

What about avoiding the meters completely by parking a few blocks away in a residential area? That strategy is about to become less effective. As of Oct. 1, the city will enforce parking time limits in central city residential areas in the evening, like they now do during the day. If there is a sign on the block saying it’s a two-hour limit, we can park, but we better make sure we can walk to the restaurant, eat, drink and get back in less than two hours.


We have others options, though. More downtown and midtown restaurants offer valet parking now. At Firestone, the valet price is $5 if you show up before 9 p.m. Hmm, that’s looking more attractive.

But wait. Perhaps the best bet of all – at least in this part of midtown – we can park after 4 p.m. in the state’s East End garage for just $2 all evening. (It’s $5 on Second Saturday.) The East End garage entrance is on 17th Street between L and Capitol Avenue.

The city also has five midtown and downtown garages where parking costs $3 for an hour, or $5 for the whole night.

Meters in midtown east of 19th Street are not part of the new evening hours. They will continue to shut down at 6 p.m.

Why is the city making these changes? It makes money. More importantly, officials say, as downtown nightlife grows, it’s become very hard to find a parking spot on most streets. Drivers are circling blocks vainly looking for a spot. Meanwhile, downtown garages sit empty at night. Even the $2 East End garage has plenty of availability at night.

The city wants more longer-term visitors to park in garages, leaving more meter spots open for short-term parking. Officials also want to push downtown restaurant and retail workers to park in city garages at night – at discount rates – instead of using up valuable street parking spots in front of restaurants.

The city likely will up the ante when the downtown arena opens Oct. 4. The tentative plan is to increase parking meter rates on event nights near the arena, pushing more arenagoers to park in the garages, or encouraging them to take light rail, or Uber, or to bike. There is no plan, at the moment, to increase garage rates, they say.

It’s definitely a work in progress. There probably will be adjustments. Keep that calculator handy.

The city's new parking meter app lets you pay for more time on meters using your smart phone. Previous time limits will no longer apply at a select group of meters around the Crocker Art Museum. The zone for extended time meters will be phased in