Demystifying Milwaukee’s Public Parking Policies

Here’s how Milwaukee is trying to find the right balance between myriad competing interests.

Parking is about a lot more than just where everyone in a city is going to put their cars. In many ways, parking is the city.

“It’s the single biggest land use in most cities,” says Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor who’s made parking policy his primary research focus.

Despite its ubiquity, parking is a finite resource, like every other form of urban space. But the number of cars – especially in Milwaukee, where we particularly love them – is potentially overwhelming. Managing that paradox is at the root of any city’s approach to creating parking and enforcing its rules. How well it’s managed can affect everything from development and employment to retail and nightlife to where people want to live. Add about 50 inches of snow annually into the mix, and you can start to get a sense of the enormity of the challenge in Milwaukee.

The city allotted about $48 million to deal with parking this year. That includes managing and maintaining its 45 public lots, three ramps and 7,000 meters, issuing about 170,000 overnight parking permits and, of course, enforcing the rules governing it all, plus the thousands of unmetered street spaces.

Former Mayor John Norquist spent 16 years in office promoting measures aimed at using urban design and policies – including parking – to influence human behavior, enrich the urban environment and help Milwaukee thrive.

He admits he didn’t always get the balance right. At one point, “I decided we should make parking free on Saturdays Downtown, so Downtown wouldn’t look empty and it would help local retail,” Norquist recalls. “All that did was – the people who worked in those buildings on Saturdays parked there all day.”

Like freeways, parking often winds up creating its own demand. Adding freeway lanes often increases congestion rather than relieving it, Ald. Nik Kovac points out. So, too, with added parking space: The more there is, the more it fills up. Kovac believes greater Downtown Milwaukee has more than enough parking.

A new national study of public and private parking inventory in five diverse U.S. cities raises questions about whether there’s needlessly too much space. “It’s time we reclaim our cities from car storage and use the space for what we need more of, from housing and bike lanes to sidewalk cafes and parks,” urbanist Richard Florida wrote in a report on the study’s findings for

Keeping cars moving is essential to helping retail corridors thrive. “Turnover. That’s what any retailer is looking for – that the meters are turning over,” says Jim Plaisted, executive director for the Historic Third Ward Association.

In the Third Ward, says Plaisted, the city meters with two-hour limits in the heart of the district combined with longer-term public and private parking a few blocks away help balance the convenience needs of brief visitors and the neighborhood’s strategy of being a walkable community that will encourage people to take time to explore a variety of local merchants. “If you have a two- or three-block walk, you’re going to experience a fantastic neighborhood,” Plaisted says.

Shoup’s rule of thumb for the economics of street parking: The price should be set at the lowest level that ensures there are one or two open spaces on the block at any one time. “If you have more spaces [available], it means the price is too high,” Shoup explains. But if streets or other municipal parking venues are full, the price is too low. “You should charge for the current parking only when free parking would lead it all to be full.”

Want to fight the ticket?

Better have some time on your hands.

It was spring break at Mount Calvary Lutheran School on the Northwest Side, and church treasurer Michael Krainz had stopped by on a routine errand.

The sign in front forbade parking, but only when school was in session. Krainz didn’t think twice: “I knew I could park in front of our school, because there was no school.”

Someone didn’t tell the parking checker. When Krainz came out a couple of hours later, there was a $35 ticket on his windshield.

Michael Krainz in front of Mount Calvary Lutheran School. Photo by CJ Foeckler.

Krainz’s ended up being one of just a couple of thousand parking tickets that are contested each year in Milwaukee Municipal Court. Almost all of the remaining half-million-plus tickets wind up being paid eventually.

With fines ranging from $15 to $60 for all but two circumstances – you pay $110 if your car is towed, and $200 if you’re ticketed for parking in a handicap spot – there’s not a lot of incentive to do anything other than just pay it and be done.

If you do go to court, you’ll be representing yourself and are likely to find yourself in the company of people charged with any of dozens of municipal violations: marijuana possession, retail theft, building code violations, disorderly conduct.

Berna Renta was ticketed for overstaying her meter when, she says, she was only six minutes into the time she had paid for. Protesting the finding, she called city hall and was told she could appeal online, but without computer access decided to go in for the assigned court date instead. “I’m just not a technology person,” she confessed outside the courtroom of Reserve Judge Kevin Matthews on a cloudy June morning. But when courtroom personnel went to pull up the record of her ticket from the files, they found nothing. Result: case dismissed; savings, $22.

Krainz won his case that morning, too, but his path to resolution was more circuitous.

Not only was the spring break ticket unwarranted since school wasn’t in session, but it also had the wrong address listed for the violation. About a month after an online appeal was filed (by then the fine had grown to $40), an email came back: Appeal rejected.

Repeat visits to Parking Violation Bureau offices in different neighborhoods produced conflicting instructions about how to set up a court date to challenge the ticket. Finally in mid-May he was given a late-June date. On a follow-up call, he was told the ticket had already been dismissed – but he also was warned that he would have to go to court anyway to avoid an arrest warrant.

So Krainz, a retired Milwaukee police officer, did, armed with a printout showing the ticket had already been dismissed. After looking over the paperwork, Matthews took what he said was the unusual step of dismissing the case at the first hearing.

His record clear three months after his errand at the church, Krainz displayed a good-natured annoyance at the final outcome. “It seemed like a big hassle to go through for just like a parking ticket,” he says. “It probably cost me more than the $35 on the ticket.”

Milwaukee, with limited public transport as well as winter’s annual onslaught, faces its own parking challenges. Addressing those is what is behind not only the city’s current parking rules but efforts to rethink them.

The city passed its first parking rules in 1951, and today the Department of Public Works manages and enforces Milwaukee’s parking. “Before World War II, there weren’t enough cars for it to be a problem,” says Kovac. The city required a permit to park on the street overnight and on alternate sides of the street from night to night. Signs were posted where no parking was allowed. The first parking meters appeared in the late 1940s, according to a Marquette University doctoral dissertation.

The city’s rules – which become more complicated in the winter to facilitate snow removal – have evolved in the decades since.

To encourage more people to use public transportation, two years ago the city began designating certain streets as exceptions to the alternate-side rule, allowing drivers to park on both sides year-round and requiring them to move every 48 hours instead of every 24. “Forcing someone to move their car every day is inviting them to drive to work,” Kovac says. (It remains to be seen how a new transit option, the streetcar, will change the Downtown parking mix when it debuts this fall.)

Officials say compliance is the city’s main goal when it comes to enforcement. Says Kovac: “We’re trying to make things simpler.”

That just might be working, if a nearly 50 percent drop in the number of parking citations over the last decade and a half is any indication. The city wrote 1.1 million parking tickets in 2004, but the number for 2017 was just over 599,000, according to the DPW. All those tickets were projected to bring in $17.5 million last year (actual final figures haven’t been compiled yet), with $16 million in revenue budgeted for 2018. 

That money is directed to the city’s Parking Fund for parking operations, including enforcement and building and maintaining lots, meters and ramps. Last year citations were the fund’s largest revenue source, nearly 40 percent of the fund’s $44.1 million.

Parking revenue is also regularly tapped for other uses during the city’s annual budget process, to the tune of around $17 million in each of the past three years. Mayor Tom Barrett’s 2018 budget proposal called the transfer “a meaningful level of relief to property taxpayers” that does not jeopardize the long-term stability of the Parking Fund.

Shoup calls such a practice “a very bad revenue source” because “you need violations in order to get any revenue.”

The next arena for parking regulation: tying the price of parking to its demand.

Milwaukee’s current top meter rate of $1.50 an hour was fifth-cheapest of 14 Midwestern cities ranging in size from Des Moines to Chicago, according to a study by DPW in 2017. Chicago was at the top ($6.50); Detroit and Madison were both $2. Milwaukee charges its top meter rate Downtown and in the Third Ward. In college neighborhoods it’s $1 an hour, and elsewhere 50 cents. (The three city-owned parking ramps – at MacArthur Square, Second Street and Plankinton, and 1000 N. Water St. – have higher rate structures.)

Kovac and Ald. Robert Bauman have proposed raising the top rate to $2 an hour and extending metered parking to 9 p.m. and on Saturdays (in places it isn’t at those levels already). They also want to allow the DPW to begin testing new fee structures Downtown that would rise after 4 p.m. when demand for parking spaces rises as visitors stream in to patronize restaurants, theaters and other cultural features. New “smart meters” unveiled in August are modem-equipped to allow city officials to change rates remotely if the variable-rate plan goes through. That’s also possible with the multi-space kiosks already prevalent Downtown and elsewhere, says the DPW’s Tom Woznick.

“It’s not just about revenue,” Kovac said at a July meeting where he introduced the proposals. “The primary goal is to create parking availability. Because if you’re charging too little, then it’s parked up and everybody else is parking five blocks away. If you charge a little more, the people who are cost conscious – which I think is 90 percent of Milwaukee – are going to park five blocks away anyway. They’re going to say, ‘I’ll walk rather than pay an extra dollar an hour.’”

Some are worried that charging more would hurt Downtown nightlife. “I want to be sure we’re not putting systems in place that will deter people from coming Downtown” – especially low-income people, said Ald. Chantia Lewis. “I want to ensure people can come and enjoy the amenities we are building up.”

“It will certainly make it easier to park Downtown,” Kovac replied. “It will make it slightly more costly. … If you make the parking free, no one can find a spot.”

Lewis hit on one reason demand-based parking has been controversial. After all, isn’t jacking up the price of a commodity in short supply called gouging? “I totally reject that,” Kovac says in an interview. For one thing, the premium prices being contemplated aren’t that much more – perhaps a quarter or 50 cents an hour. For another, the increases would be in relatively small zones, with less expensive parking remaining available a few blocks farther away. Private lots already charge more based on time of day (think “early-bird” discounts). And finally, the entire scale would be clear and consistent.

“It’s only gouging if it’s not transparent,” Kovac says. The overall concept is still quite young but, says Shoup, “it’s exactly in the right direction.”

Hey Milwaukee, want to cut in half your number of parking tickets?

Just pay attention to the city’s night parking rules.

Just over 50 percent of the nearly 600,000 parking citations issued in 2017 here were to drivers who violated one of two provisions in the city parking codes dealing with the prohibitions on street parking from 2 to 6 a.m.

Milwaukee charges city residents $55 a year to park on the street overnight – a little more than $1 a week. More than a third of the roughly 600,000 parking tickets issued in 2016 and again in 2017 were for parking at night without a permit. Another roughly 88,000 were issued to parkers who were on the wrong side on streets where alternate-side parking rules are in force. 

Those numbers come from a group of massive spreadsheets that Milwaukee Magazine obtained through an open-records request at the city Department of Public Works for data going back to 2012.

If you want to know where you’re most at risk for a ticket, the answer turns out to be fairly obvious: It’s where the cars are. The most tickets are written on the busiest thoroughfares.

North Farwell Avenue was No. 1 in both 2016 and 2017, with just under 1.7 percent of the total tickets issued last year. West Wisconsin Avenue was second both years, and the shorter but nightlife-rich Water Street was No. 3 last year.

Parking Citations:
The Top 10 in 2017

Another menace to parking enforcers nationwide is chronic parking-ticket scofflaws.

Milwaukee’s backlog of unpaid tickets had a cumulative value of about $35 million, roughly $26 million of which was at least a year past due, according to DPW. Unpaid tickets are written off the books after six years. The 25 vehicles with the most unpaid tickets have accumulated 43 to 109 outstanding citations each, according to DPW data.

But even when they’re paid, Shoup says, repeated parking tickets actually illustrate another flaw with many parking-ticket regimes.

There’s an equity issue when parking violation fines are high across the board, he notes. Some tickets could be as much as a day’s income for a member of the working poor – “a terrific burden on low-income people,” he says. Conversely, well-to-do scofflaws may see tickets as simply a routine expense.

To defeat this kind of “taking advantage of the system,” Shoup recommends that cities institute relatively inexpensive penalties for fist-time tickets, or even allow fine-free warnings, then steeply escalate fines for second, third and subsequent parking offenses. That way, he says, “People who just occasionally make a mistake are not paying a high price. And the people who now think of tickets as a cost of doing business and are repeat violators – they will pay attention.”

“The Parking Puzzle” appears in the September 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning September 3, or buy a copy at

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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.