As new residents, students and visitors arrive in Charleston, they soon discover something many of us know well:
Downtown is known for its history, walkability and architectural beauty — but not for cheap, available parking.
The start of each school year marks the busy season for downtown parking as returning college and medical students help fill everything from metered parking places to neighborhood streets to city garages, Robert Somerville, interim director of the city’s Traffic and Transportation Department, said.
And competition for those spaces has grown. Last year, the city issued 12,670 residential parking permits — up 20 percent from 2011, though there aren’t many — if any — more spaces on the streets. There’s a waiting list for those wanting to lease a space in a city-owned garage.
The city’s larger parking goal revolves around ensuring downtown’s economic vitality and its quality of life, not around building up its reserve fund. That said, those who make mistakes will pay and probably more than they would like. And everyone can expect to pay at some point: The city issues almost 400 parking tickets a day.
The following tips, culled from years of trials and tickets, are designed to provide a crash course (no pun intended) to make parking in Charleston as painless as possible:
1. Park before you get there. If you see an empty on-street space a block or two before you’ve reached your destination, claim it. Sure, you might find a closer space, but you also might kick yourself for passing it up.
2. Along those lines, consider parking on a street a few blocks away and walk. Each year millions of people spend thousands of dollars to explore this city’s streets. There are worse things than spending some time on foot here.
3. If you do get a ticket, pay on time. Missing the city’s deadline adds between $9 and $20 to the fine.
4. You can appeal. Those who feel they were ticketed unfairly, or who simply hope for a mulligan, can seek a hearing at the city’s offices at 180 Lockwood Blvd. Even if the ticket is dismissed, however, there’s an associated cost; it often takes 15-30 minutes or more to wait for a hearing.
5. Mind the markings. A yellow-painted curb means parking is a no-no there, and cars parked outside the painted parking lines also may face a $10 ticket — the cheapest ticket the city issues, but still.
6. Mind the signs. Residential streets offer a longer-term parking option than metered spaces, but signs will explain whether the limit for parking there (without a residential sticker or guest permit) is 1, 2 or 4 hours.
7. If parking in a one-hour neighborhood zone, you probably have 90 minutes. If the restriction is for 2 hours, you’re probably fine for 2½ hours. Parking enforcement officers are diligent, but they are not able to track the exact time you park on a neighborhood street. Consider the limit a suggestion, not a hard deadline. But know the more you push it, the more you risk a ticket.
8. Mind street-sweeping signs. Currently, several neighborhoods west of King Street, between Broad Street and Hampton Park, prohibit on-street parking on certain dates for cleaning. It’s tricky because the prohibition applies only once a month, at different times in different neighborhoods, and because these streets are largely empty on those days (and therefore a tempting place to park). But such tickets cost $45.
9. Don’t block the sidewalk. Even if you have a homeowner’s permission to block their driveway, you run the risk of a $45 ticket if you block the sidewalk. Instead, consider parallel parking on the street in front of the driveway, while leaving the sidewalk clear. Cars parked that way won’t be ticketed or towed unless the homeowner complains.
10. Don’t ignore parking tickets. It might have been possible in earlier times not to pay, but the city will boot cars or trucks if they have accumulated $200 or more in unpaid tickets.
11. There’s a Sunday exemption for some. To help downtown religious institutions, whose congregations often include many members who live off the peninsula, the city allows some free parking Sunday mornings inside certain garages. Parishioners can ask their church leaders for details about this.
12. Don’t feed the meter. The whole idea behind parking meters is to generate turnover in front of businesses, and enforcement officers keep track.
13. If you’re parking in a neighborhood, you can move your car from one space to another to avoid a ticket for staying there longer than the one-, two- or four-hour limit. Enforcement officers don’t use chalk to mark tires there. Instead, they track a vehicle’s license plate and the relative position of the valve stems on its tires.
14. Disabled people should make sure they’re in a city lot. State law allows those with a handicap placard to park for free at any time on city streets and in its lots and garages, but this doesn’t apply to privately owned lots (such as the two surface lots off King Street, just south of Calhoun, that used to be managed by the city but now are managed privately).
15. Consider getting a SmartCard. City parking meters take nickels, dimes and quarters, and a growing number accept credit cards as well. But they also accept SmartCards (and have sold 11,000 of them at 180 Lockwood Blvd. and 375 Meeting St.). The advantage of SmartCards? Unlike the other pay methods, you get a refund for time you don’t use.
16. Don’t park the wrong way. All cars parked on city streets must face the direction of traffic, per state law. Those parked in the wrong direction risk a $22 ticket (even though their car is taking up the same amount of space as one parked in the correct direction).
17. Everyone faces a limit. Even if you have a residential parking sticker and are parking in front of your house or apartment, the city considers a car abandoned if it hasn’t moved in seven days. Downtown residents going on a long vacation may notify the Charleston Police Department to let them know.
18. Look for commercial loading zones in the evening. These are on-street spaces restricted only to vehicles loading and unloading, usually between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. (check the sign). Outside that time, they’re fair game for the rest of us.
19. Consider parking in a city garage. Most have available spaces most of the time, and the city keeps their rates well below those of some privately owned parking lots. Cars also will be protected there from any flooding and the hot sun. (And there are flat $5 deals after 5 p.m. at the Visitor Center and 93 Queen St. garages).
20. There are rules for bikes, too. It used to be OK to lock your bike to a King Street parking meter, but that’s now a no-no since the city provided on-street corrals for bikes there.
Diane Knich contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at (843) 937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.