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Parking Policies Can Reduce Car Use
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by Roger Valdez

Does parking determine your transportation choices?

While putting together an analysis of gasoline consumption, I have been trying to figure out just why Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the Northwest has been dropping. Part of the challenge of explaining downward VMT is that it has typically never happened in a sustained way. But, in the last year or so it has been sustained, defying the conventional wisdom of transportation planners. One factor that comes to mind is how easy (or difficult) it is to park.

But before I talk about how parking might affect VMT I have two confessions.

First, for a few years, back in the 1990s, I used to drive to work everyday. Home was in Seattle and work was in the state capitol -- Olympia.  That was a commute of 120 miles -- a day. My car was my second home.

Second, later on in my career, while I was working at Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, I was a champion of a neighborhood parking garage in Seattle’s Admiral Neighborhood. Many people in the sustainability crowd opposed the project. I still think the project had the best intentions even though today I would likely be opposed to it too.

I’m just sayin’, we all struggle with transportation choices in our lives. We do what’s convenient. Lucky for me, I was able to get rid of my car almost four years ago. And frankly, one of the things I enjoy the most about not having a car is being free from the hassle of finding a place to park it. 

If there is one thing that motivated me to change my driving habits it was the increasing challenge of parking. I used to think that there was a conspiracy to eliminate, one by one, every last available on-street parking spot.  There actually is a plan. A major part of Seattle’s strategy to deal with parking is to reduce demand by encouraging people to choose convenient options for getting around besides cars. And beyond my intuition that it works there is some evidence to back up the idea.

According to a review of regional modeling studies done a few years ago by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute parking has a significant impact on reducing VMT.  Their review showed that land use and transit policies have very little effect on VMT by themselves unless they include complementary policies that put a price on parking. Free or cheap parking tends to support more driving.  From the review:

Increasing auto costs by 400% reduces VMT and emissions about one third. (Note that making workers pay for parking or providing cash-in-lieu-of-parking incentives in the U.S. increases “felt” travel costs by around 400%, without actually increasing costs, as the parking costs are merely being unbundled from wages.) All pricing scenarios decreased travel delays.

It’s a little like what I learned about smoking rates when I worked in public health; the one scientifically proven way to reduce smoking rates is to raise cigarette prices. Indeed if there were only one health intervention available to tackle smoking increased price would be the best bet.

Parking is the third rail of neighborhood politics in most cities in the Northwest, so it isn’t easy to increase price to reduce VMT. In the last week in Seattle there have been two stories and one in Vancouver focused on frustration about parking policies. People often feel entitled to a place to park their car. If you drive you have to park somewhere, right? But price signals combined with ample convenient alternatives for getting around help everybody spend less time in their cars – sitting in traffic, circling the block looking for parking.

Increasing the costs of parking, including reducing supply, can encourage less driving and lead to less traffic – as well as fewer times circling the block looking for a spot. I learned this the hard way. The chore of moving my car around every few days to avoid getting tickets started to take its toll on my nerves. When I got rear ended a few years ago and the car was totaled, I took the keys to the insurance agent, got my check and never looked back. But I did it for convenience, not to save the world. I am pretty sure that if I had a parking spot that was free and nearby I would still own a car.

This piece originally appeared in Sightline Institute's blog, The Daily Score.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/functoruser.

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Roger, great post. I too sold my car because it was too expensive and too inconvenient to garage, and free parking wasn’t convenient either.

Judging from the behavior in my neighborhood, however, I’m in the minority. Side-street parking is free, and so the excess demand for it is expressed in the following ways: double-parking, parking at hydrants and in no-parking zones, parking “permit” fraud, and added pollution from parking-spot seekers circling the neighborhood. Just getting rid of spaces doesn’t alleviate these nuisances.

Posted by: Jonathan on 10 Jun 09

Here in Los Angeles, I got to the point where I wasn't visiting certain neighborhoods with their great restaurants and shops because parking was such a pain. I've recently switched to biking (with its easy parking!) and discovered that these neighborhoods within a few miles of my home have suddenly become viable options to visit again.

Posted by: John on 10 Jun 09

I wish I could find it now, but I saw a study that indicated parking availability was an even more powerful motivator. People will pay outrageous sums of money for parking (or other vehicle costs) but if they will struggle to find a space, they immediately seek alternative choices.

Perhaps its the psychology of arriving at your destination and being unable to get out causing higher stress.

I know in my trips to Seattle being able to park is a huge consideration. Going to a Husky game? I drive because there is a huge parking lot. Seahawks/Sounders game? I take the train because there isn't any parking downtown.

Posted by: Derek Young on 10 Jun 09

Very informative and interesting post and I completely agree that easy access to parking makes driving the default choice. But the scary statistic there is "increasing auto costs 400%" to reduce emissions by one third. I doubt the majority of people will accept that cost-benefit. Felt or not.

More inconvenient parking combined with other transportation options is a great idea that should work, but I'm not sure how palatable it is at that price.

Posted by: Brad on 10 Jun 09

If anybody is interested in *much* more information on this topic, I highly recommend Donald Shoup's book "The High Cost of Free Parking". It's a tome, but worth the time and effort if you're interested in urban transportation policy and market distortions. For my university (Caltech in Pasadena) I did an analysis of our parking costs/subsidies, and even with a parking permit costing $40/month the institute is spending $3 million per year on parking subsidies. This is required by the City of Pasadena to prevent the campus population from seeking free parking in the surrounding neighborhoods. The result is that we have no incentive to charge the true price (roughly $100/space/month), and so end up subsidizing driving more than any other kind of transportation. Walking and biking are the least supported modes. Details available here if anyone is interested in seeing a case study.

Posted by: Zane Selvans on 11 Jun 09

I think the reason parking is a third rail politically is that it's one piece of a puzzle that we don't deal with holistically. We can't expect people to embrace higher costs / restricted supply of parking when the supply of viable alternatives to driving is lagging. These alternatives include not just ample public transit options and a comprehensive bike lane system, but also a robust supply of taxis.

Posted by: Liz Dunn on 11 Jun 09

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