September 25, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The hunt for parking in downtown Omaha often results in drivers using a rainbow of words not normally stated in polite company before causing themselves whiplash in an effort to squeeze into “the only spot available.” Omaha City Parking Manager Ken Smith, also known as the parking czar, hears those complaints frequently.

Those people are misinformed. “Omaha has a parking perception issue,” Smith says. “Not a problem.”

Smith proclaims downtown parking stalls are actually underused. Even at peak hours, approximately 55 percent of the spaces downtown (defined as the riverfront to 24th Street and Cuming to Leavenworth Streets) are full. Part of Smith’s work is to change that misperception.

Smith came to Omaha in 2012 after the city conducted a study and decided to consolidate parking operations, creating one division under a central manager.

“I was in Lincoln and had consolidated that program into a parking division. Having the division under a single professional helps the big goal,” Smith says.

Without a doubt, one of Smith’s greatest impacts has been turning the parking division from a city subsidized program into a money maker. The program transitioned from receiving $1.5 million in city subsidies to achieving a half a million surplus. Smith says this is the result of bringing Omaha’s parking infrastructure into the 21st century with technology like credit card readers on parking meters and a smartphone app.

“Additional payment options help with compliance,” Smith says. Put simply, if you give parkers ways to pay aside from hauling around a pocket full of coins, they’re more likely to do so. Smith says that since implementing more options in 2013, parking citations have reduced by 17,000 to 18,000 annually.

Smith studied aviation in college, then earned a graduate degree in architectural engineering.

“You never go to college thinking you’re going to be a parking professional,” he laughs.

After a stint with the parking division at the City of Lincoln, Smith says he kind of fell into the role of parking guru. He became the go-to guy with parking knowledge, which turned into a career he finds greatly rewarding.

“I can’t imagine going back to planning,” he says. “I’m kind of a jack of all trades. I get to run a department, manage a budget, be a business planner. There’s never a dull moment.”

What does the future hold for Omaha’s parking division? Smith says the department plans to continue using technology to advance their goals. Also a high priority is updating the downtown area garage parking infrastructure, which is more than 30 years old. The city is also working with private parking operators to market themselves better and change the misperception about parking availability in downtown.

Smith says it has not been decided at this time if rates will increase or hours will be extended. (Editor’s note: This info was correct at the time of publication.  The city has now decided to increase rates and extend hours.)

“The (2011 parking study) goals will be accomplished by a balanced approach between on-street parking and off-street parking to change behavior and improve perceptions that there is no parking,” Smith says.

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