Impact of Parking Fees on Santa Teresa Park Usage
by Ronald Horii
What's with the parking fee machine, and what has it done to the park?
October 13, 2001 was a clear sunny day, ideal for picnicking. In years past, Santa Teresa Park would be filled with people coming out for picnics, and for short hikes up the trails. Today, it was almost empty. Only one picnic table was being used. Of the two vehicles in the picture above, the one on the left was a Sheriff's car. Later, when a park maintenance truck showed up, the population of the park doubled. Unfortunately, this emptiness is all-too-common in the park. It has been like this for more than a year. Where have all the people gone and why? The answer lies in that machine on the right side of the picture. It's a parking fee collection machine. Since April, 2000, a $4 daily fee has been charged for parking in the Pueblo Day Use Area of the park. Since then, park usage has dropped dramatically. This page discusses the impact of the fees on park usage.
Santa Teresa Park and Parking Fees
Antenna tower on top of Coyote Peak
Santa Teresa County Park is a large park, covering 1,688 acres. Even before the parking fees were imposed, the park was and still is a lucrative money generator for the county. The park includes the Santa Teresa Golf Club, which is run by a concessionaire and is a large source of income for the county. On top of Coyote Peak is a large commercial broadcasting antenna. The county receives lease payments for the use of the land for the antenna. While not an income-generator, Santa Teresa Park is also the home of the Muriel Wright Correctional Center. While Santa Teresa is already one of the county's top money-makers, the County still felt they needed to squeeze more money out of it by charging parking fees.
In May 1999, the County Board of Supervisors approved a fee policy allowing the collection of fees at all county parks. The purpose was to help fund capital improvements in the parks. However, parking fees were not imposed in all county parks. Parks that were primarily trail entrances did not have fees imposed. Parks that had developed facilities were considered "destinations" and qualified for having fees charged. Santa Teresa's facilities were sufficient to categorize it as a destination. In April 2000, two parking fee collection machines were installed in Santa Teresa County Park at the nearest and farthest parking lots in the Pueblo Area. The machines cost around $65K each. The parking fee is split evenly between the County Parks and the parking machine vendor. The second machine at the far parking lot was eventually removed, leaving only the machine seen above.
There is a big difference between a free park and one where a fee is charged. A free park is looked upon as part of the community. It is part of the public space, and people come and go there freely, sometimes on a daily basis. Charging fees changes the whole character of the park. The park ceases to become a community asset and becomes more like a business. Imposing fees on a park can have two effects: generating income and/or reducing usage. It is like charging money for a product. It can either generate revenues from sales or reduce the number of people using it, depending on what alternatives are available. For instance, if Microsoft decided they needed more money and started charging for Internet Explorer, most users would likely switch to free Netscape Navigator. If Netscape also began to impose fees, then users would flock to the product that offers the most value for the money. Once fees are charged for a park, park users become customers. While $4 does not seem like a lot of money, people still do not like to waste their money. They make decisions based on the value received for their money. Thus, they comparison-shop. They compare Santa Teresa Park with other recreational alternatives. Other parks become competitors. Unfortunately, Santa Teresa Park has suffered from that competition.
Park Usage ProfileFor decades, the Pueblo Area of Santa Teresa Park used to be a popular destination, but mostly for short-term use. It is a good place for a picnic and a short hike. Average usage was probably around 1 hour. This means that with the $4 parking fee, users are expected to pay $4 an hour. This puts it in a cost per hour bracket of a theme park, like Great America. In order to justify the cost, it has to offer similar recreational value, which it does not. If users stay for only an hour, the parking fee is comparable to downtown parking, which is exorbitant for a sparsely-developed park. Other parks that charge a fee often have facilities like fishing and boating lakes, playgrounds, irrigated lawns, interpretive centers, and shaded picnic areas. These can provide a full day's worth of recreation, making the fee very reasonable from a cost per hour basis.
Pueblo Area Facilities
These are some of the picnic tables in the Pueblo Area. In the back
is the group picnic area. The group area must be reserved and requires
a separate fee ($240). The individual picnic tables are distributed around
the Pueblo area. There is only scattered shade and no irrigated lawns.
There are no comfortable places to lie down and rest and few activities
to occupy people at the Pueblo area for more than an hour. Summer days
can be hot and dry here. At this time, running water is only available
next to the group picnic area. The only recreational facilities are
a volleyball court and horseshoe pits.
Hiking in the Park
Besides picnicking, the park's other main attractions are its 14 miles
of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. Santa Teresa Park is a great
place for short hikes. Most of the trails in the upper parts of
the park that are reachable from the Pueblo Area have little or no shade,
so they are not suitable for long hikes, particularly on hot days. The
shady trails are on the lower eastern slopes, where they are easily accessed
from free parking areas outside the park. The most popular destination
is Coyote Peak, the high point of the park at 1155 feet. It offers one
of the most spectacular views in the Bay Area. It is most easily reached
from the Pueblo area. The trip from the parking lot to the peak and back
is a great 1-hour hiking trip. It used to be a very popular evening hike
for families and for workers looking to get in some exercise after work.
question now is whether it's worth $4 for a 1-hour hike. For many people,
the answer appears to be no. The picture above is of the deserted Hidden
Springs Trail to Coyote Peak. This trail used to be full of hikers walking
up from the Pueblo Area parking lot. With few people parking there now,
the trail is less used, except by mountain bikers and equestrians who ride
in from outside the park. Coyote Peak can also be reached by many trails
from outside the park, so for those who just want to hike in the park,
they can park outside it and hike in for free. What is happening now is
that many people who used to hike the upper parts of the park in the evening
are now walking up busy and dangerous Bernal Road, sharing it with cars
and bikes hurtling down the steep winding road. For those who want to take
long hikes, they do not need to start at the Pueblo Area. They can start
from outside the park and hike in.
Side Effects of Lower Park Usage
One side effect of the lack of people at the Pueblo area is the increasing boldness of the deer there, who often out-number the people. Santa Teresa Park is becoming more like a wildlife refuge or an open space preserve than a county park. That is fine, but it is contradictory to its charter as a county park, which is to provide recreation for all county residents. The lack of people also makes the park's trails great for solo hikers, but this means that county taxpayers are subsidizing a small minority and are not getting their money's worth.
Illegal Use of the ParkA negative side effect of the lack of park users is the potential for it to become a hang-out for troublemakers. Once they realize that adults are not frequenting the park, youths will find it a convenient place for drinking and drug use. It will attract youthful smokers whose careless use of cigarettes can result in wildfires in the tinder-dry hills. Of course, these users will not pay the park fee. It is easy to see when the ranger's truck enters the park, so they will leave as soon as they see it. The presence of these illegal park users can scare away legitimate users, which can lead to a worsening spiral of illegal park use, thus further reducing parking fee income and increasing law enforcement and maintenance costs. This kind of illegal use can have repercussions that can spread into the surrounding neighborhoods like a virus, particularly concerning drug use.
Affect on VolunteerismCounty parks depend heavily on community volunteers for support. Last year, volunteers contributed some 30,000 hours to the County Parks system. People will volunteer to help out the park if they use it and enjoy it. If the community is not using the park or begin viewing it as a nuisance, they will not support it. They will assume that the park fees are being used to maintain the park, so why should they volunteer?
Other Local Parks:The following are parks near Santa Teresa Park and are free. Their presence is one of the main reasons that people are not choosing to pay the fees at Santa Teresa.
Almaden Quicksilver County Park is located just west of Santa Teresa Park on the opposite side of the Almaden Valley. It provides a free alternative to Santa Teresa for those who want to go hiking. It's a larger park at 3,977 acres. It is mostly undeveloped; however there is a restroom, paved parking lot, horseshoe pits, and picnic tables at the Mockingbird Lane entrance. This is very similar to the facilities at Santa Teresa Park's Pueblo Area. Almaden Quicksilver gets heavy usage from hikers and equestrians. It has 29 miles of trails. The McAbee entrance is the most popular, since it is located in a heavily-populated suburban neighborhood. The Hacienda Entrance at New Almaden is the only one that allows mountain bikes, so is a popular entrance for both mountain bikes and equestrians. Charging parking fees at Almaden Quicksilver would be futile, since it would just drive users to park along the nearby neighborhood streets. People come to Almaden Quicksilver to travel for miles along the trails. Traveling an extra block or so to the entrances would be nothing.
Los Paseos Park is located at Santa Teresa Blvd. and Avenida Espana, a few blocks from Santa Teresa Park. It is a 10.8-acre city park with lawns, shade, playing fields, playgrounds, a restroom, and picnic areas. This picture, taken shortly after the picture of Santa Teresa at the top of the page, shows the park jammed with picnickers. The parking was over-flowing. The playing fields are popular locations for soccer leagues.
George Page Park is a new 6.5-acre San Jose city park at Santa Teresa Blvd. and Miyuki Drive. It has tennis courts, shaded picnic tables, a playground, and playing fields.
La Colina Park is a 10-acre city park at Los Pinos and Ansdell in the shadow of the Santa Teresa Hills, with a new playground, a small hill for hiking, picnic tables, a new restroom, and large playing fields.
A miniature version of Santa Teresa Park, Guadalupe Oak Grove Park
is a 10-acre city park in the Almaden Valley at McAbee and Thorntree. The
park protects a grove of ancient oak trees, grassy meadows, and rocky hills.
It has hiking trails through the sandstone hills, providing views of the
Almaden Valley and the Santa Teresa Hills. Next to it is a long green parkway
with playgrounds, playing fields, and paved trails.
Free Regional Parks:
Shoreline at Mountain View is a large 700-acre park located near
San Francisco Bay. Its centerpiece is Shoreline Lake, a popular place for
boating and wind-surfing. The lawns around the lake are popular places
for picnicking. The park has trails up artificial hills. The park also
contains the Bay Trail, which runs along sloughs and salt ponds. Next door
is the Palo Alto Baylands, which is also free.
Other South Bay parklands that do not charge entry or parking fees:
Local Parks With Fees:These local parks charge fees, just like Santa Teresa, so they are direct competitors for park-goers' dollars. The difference in the facilities at these parks vs. Santa Teresa is the main reason they are much more popular. They have facilities that offer all-day recreation, so the $4 entry fee gives a much smaller cost per hour than Santa Teresa.
Coyote Hellyer County Park is a very popular urban park, with 223 acres located at Hellyer Avenue by Hwy 101. Its centerpiece is Cottonwood Lake, which is a stocked fishing lake. The park also has individual and group picnic areas, lawns, a playground, a bicycle velodrome, and trails along Coyote Creek. The park is often crowded, even with the parking fee, as it was on the day this picture was taken, the same day as the pictures of Santa Teresa above. Hellyer is an example of an ideal park for imposing fees. It offers enough facilities to provide all-day recreation. If fees were not imposed, it would be over-crowded.
Almaden Lake Park, a San Jose regional park, is located on Alamitos Creek at Coleman and Almaden Expressway, at the end of the Santa Teresa Hills. The lake is one of the few places in the South Bay that allows swimming. The lake also is popular for fishing and boating. There is a playground and several picnic areas, with lawns. The Alamitos Creek Trail runs through the park. After 5:00 pm, parking is free.
Vasona Lake County Park in Los Gatos is only 151 acres, but it is the jewel of the County Parks system. It is another urban park with a lake. Los Gatos Creek flows into and out of Vasona Lake. The lake is used for boating and fishing. It has shady picnic areas, broad lawns, a playground, and a youth science center. Adjacent Oak Meadow Park has a playground, more lawns and fields, a carousel, snack bar, and a miniature train ride that runs through Vasona. The Los Gatos Creek Trail runs through the park and connects it with Lexington Reservoir, Los Gatos Creek County Park, and Campbell Park. Vasona is another example of a park that would be over-crowded if fees were not imposed.
Los Gatos Creek Park has several ponds, casting ponds, lawns,
and picnic tables. One pond is used for RC boat racing. The largest pond
is stocked with trout in the winter and is very popular when the trout
are biting. The park charges parking fees, but the parking lot is rarely
full, even though this is a popular park. This is because the park is easily
reached from the Los Gatos Creek Trail and from free parking outside the
park. It is also close to Vasona Lake Park, which it competes with for
park user dollars. It shows that even having developed facilities is no
guarantee that people will be willing to pay the parking fees if there
are free alternatives.
Developing Santa Teresa ParkIf the problem with the reduced usage of Santa Teresa Park is due to its insufficient facilities, is the solution to develop the park's facilities to attract more users? Would it help to plant lawns, gardens, and shade trees, install playgrounds and playing fields, put in a fishing lake, and build a nature center in the upper park. It might, but there are problems. Santa Teresa is fundamentally a wildland park. It is a sensitive environment and the home of endangered species. Any attempts to turn the Pueblo Area into a fully-developed park like Vasona or Hellyer to try to attract more fee-paying visitors would disrupt the environment and destroy the wilderness atmosphere of the park. Also, these developments are expensive capital improvements that the parking fees are intended to help fund. There is no guarantee that they would attract more visitors, so they might end up being a net loss.
The most developed part of the park is the golf course. Entry and parking are free, but fees are charged to golfers by the concessionaire. Lakes are a common feature in many of the parks that charge a fee. Ironically, the only permanent lakes or ponds in Santa Teresa Park, besides Santa Teresa Springs, are in the golf course and are only accessible to golfers. The largest pond used to be a popular fishing spot, and it was next to a heavily-used group picnic area. The picnic area is now gone, and the large pond is off-limits.
Boy Scouts camping at Santa Teresa Park, 5/6/00
The reason for imposing the parking fees in Santa Teresa and other county parks is to raise money for capital improvements in the parks. This is a valid and critical need. The question is whether parking fees are the best way to raise funds for this purpose. In the case of Santa Teresa Park, it does not appear to be the case. It is not a valid assumption that people will automatically be willing to pay fees, especially for something that has historically been free. The County should look at alternative ways of raising funds in lieu of the parking fees. Some ideas are:
Santa Teresa neighborhood from the Coyote Peak Trail
Santa Teresa Park is a wildland open space park. This makes it a priceless asset in an area subjected to increasing urban pressures. Surrounded by suburban neighborhoods and industrial parks, it can be a welcome oasis for harried urban dwellers who can find a peaceful escape to nature here. Workers from the nearby high-tech industries used to flock to this park at lunchtime and after work as a short respite from their daily grind and hike or run the trails as means of exercise to maintain their health and fitness. Couples of all ages would come here in the evenings for a short walk to enjoy the park's trails and each other's company. Families would come so children could experience nature and parents could bond with their children. For these users, the park was a valuable community asset and a vital part of their lives. What the parking fee has done is to nearly eliminate this class of park user. They have sought free alternatives elsewhere or just ceased these types of activities. The park's role in providing recreation to the county's residents has been greatly reduced. Judging by the park usage, the parking fee at Santa Teresa Park has not been successful as an income generator. Worse, it has been counter-productive and potentially damaging to the long-term health of the park and neighborhood and should be dropped. It is true that the County Parks need money, but better ways should be sought to raise it.
The opinions expressed above are my own.
Created 10/20/2001 by Ronald
Horii, secretary of the Friends of Santa Teresa Park