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Parking Done Right
Adam Stein, 30 Oct 09

Let’s talk parking. Recently I suggested that building new parking garages isn’t an environmentally friendly thing to do, even if such garages are nicely landscaped and have energy-efficient lighting systems. The environmental impact of the structures themselves is minuscule in comparison to the impact of the transportation system they are part of, and the green flourishes do nothing to change this basic equation.

For making this fairly bland observation, I was accused of, variously: being an enemy of personal freedom, hating the poor, wanting people to live in mud huts, and obstructing environmental progress.

Fortunately, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority has my back. The agency just a few weeks ago released a data-driven study on how to address the city’s parking woes. The study’s use of detailed surveys to establish actual usage patterns on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, overlaid with data on retail spending habits, provides a groundbreaking look at how people get around in cities.

San Francisco faces the same problems that plague many cities. Streets are congested, parking is chronically in short supply, and the public transportation system, though popular and heavily used, suffers from budget deficits. San Francisco employs a conventional pricing scheme for many of its metered spots: two-hour time limit, low flat rate, free after 6PM, and free on Sundays.

Unsurprisingly, the study reveals that this price structure deeply affects driver behavior. People circle endlessly looking for cheap parking, and after 6PM drivers squat in their free spots for as long as they are able. Interestingly, the study also found that the majority of people in shopping districts don’t arrive by car. About 75% come in by public transit, on foot, or on bicycle. Based on these findings, the authors make the following recommendations:

  • Decrease the price of parking at times of day, such as mid-morning, when spots are under-utilized
  • Increase the price of parking during times of heavy use, with the goal of achieving an average occupancy rate of 85%
  • Extend the metered parking until later in the evening in certain neighborhoods to match actual traffic flow
  • Start metering on Sunday in certain neighborhoods
  • Extend the meter time limits to four hours at certain times

The plan will have the following benefits:

  • Drivers will have an easier time finding spots and will be able to park for longer
  • Bus service will become faster and more convenient, due to a reduction in traffic and unnecessary circling in congested areas
  • Retailers will benefit from increased turnover and improved access to stores
  • The additional revenue raised from meters will plug the transit authority’s budget gap and forestall a fare hike for public transit riders

If this sounds like an “everybody wins” scenario, that’s because mispricing a scarce asset results in suboptimal use of that asset. Put more plainly, underpriced parking is wack. The only people who benefit from the old system are those drivers lucky enough to snag a cheap spot. Underpriced parking is especially wack because parking carries with it negative externalities like congestion, noise, pollution, etc. The solution is not to build more underpriced parking, but to correctly price the stuff that’s there.

After you check out the study, take a look at parking guru Donald Shoup’s related commentary. Good stuff.

Car owners in love with their free parking really want to deflect this issue into an argument over the ability of the poor to have access to downtown. Populism always plays. The problem is, the poverty argument cuts the wrong way. Most people don’t drive downtown. Poor people benefit from subsidized public transit. Poor people benefit from improved bus service. And it’s very difficult to make the case that some who drives downtown to do some shopping is going to have his personal finances devastated by a small rise in parking fees.

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Comments

Actually it is very easy to solve parking issues for large cities. Put ALL free public parking outside the city and use metered electric trams or monorails on ALL inside city locations.

I really don't know why we have to bring smelly, smog producing cars and trucks into our big cities at all. Let's turn all parking garages, parking lots and even city roadways into urban farming and green spaces and place solar energy farms in their place to upgrade the quality of life within the cities. Of course the electric tram and moving sidewalk systems would need to be expanded appreciably over some of the roadways but very doable using today's technology and within walking distance of every business, retail outlet and apartment living space.

I'd love to run a year long extensive environmental & technology study and cost analysis on this idea using several model city layouts and be given a million dollar grant to prove this idea works. I believe with just this attitude change of a double or single leg commute (depending on what your local tram access point was) with total inside city wide public transportation modes, instead of the traditional park outside the office building model would save LOADS of oil, clean our air of CO2 and even offer people a little extra health benefit from walking short distances to destinations from the tram.

I saw part of this first hand two year ago while visiting my sister right outside of Frankfurt as thousands of living communities were built within walking or biking distance of the local train platforms and they all hopped a train to work each day without ever starting their car. The communities all had basic services within walking distance of each of these living communities. The car was only used for visiting people in other cities (or taking tourist relatives around) and then the train was the preferred method of transportation between cities unless absolutely undoable.

Where has this attitude of entitlement come from in America? We sure didn't get it from our European ancestors overseas.

My two cents for what it's worth!


Posted by: Robert Grothe on 30 Oct 09

Parking is a big issue. Too many cars is a bigger issue. Car sharing is one way to start to work on the problem. There is a good piece on car sharing located here: http://organize-more-stress-less.squarespace.com/home/2009/11/1/do-you-carshare.html


Posted by: Christine Simiriglia on 1 Nov 09

London's 'congestion charge' offers a potential model for large cities. The city levies a charge of £8 (about $12 give or take the exchange rate) for any vehicle that uses roads in the centre of the city. The system is enforced through the use of cameras which record every license plate which enters the designated areas, producing a system which actively encourages public transport use in the city centre.

Having siad that, the public transport system in London (and many other major cities) is excellent which makes using public transport a viable choice. The war against cars is being won in the big cities, but lost in smaller towns where public transport is often perceived as unreliable.


Posted by: James Thomson on 2 Nov 09

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