Ending a Century of Parking Problems: Parking pricing should be linked to demand

Commentary, Municipal Government, Stuart Donovan


The famous entertainer Will Rogers once quipped “politics ain’t worrying this country one-tenth as much as where to find a parking space.” Almost a century later, Rogers’ comment is still relevant. 
If you are frustrated by parking problems, rest assured you are not alone. Almost all of us have experienced the stress of arriving at a destination only to circle the block searching for a parking spot. Things could get much worse with Canada’s cities and towns set to grow by 12 million people in the next 40 years.
Current parking policies are a bewildering response to what is a relatively simple problem: The demand for parking sometimes exceeds what is available. So why don’t municipalities just provide more parking? Unfortunately providing more free parking is very expensive. Once we factor in the cost of urban land and construction, each bay costs between $5,000 and $40,000. And this excludes wider community costs, such as congestion, which are not paid by drivers but do affect society.
The only durable solution, it seems, is to charge drivers for the cost of providing parking. Charging ensures parking is usually available when needed. It also generates revenue that municipalities can use to fund more parking when and where it is needed. But pay parking has its own problems because we don’t charge for parking in an accurate or smart way.
Critics point out that pay parking drives people away creating situations in which parking lots stand completely empty. This is a no-win situation for drivers, businesses, and municipalities because the parking lots are being under-utilized. So what should we do? 
Well, all of us know that the demand for parking varies considerably, depending on when and where you are. So why do municipalities charge flat hourly rates for parking? Imagine if airlines charged the same price for all plane tickets no matter the destination. Some planes would fly empty while other flew full, such that customer dissatisfaction and airline bankruptcy was certain to follow.
Fixing Canada’s parking problems is as simple as recognizing that we need to change the way we set the price of parking. Put simply, the price of parking should be linked to demand; it should go up when demand is high and down when it’s low, just like airfares go up and down depending on the time of day, destination, and season.
By pricing parking along similar ‘dynamic’ principles, we present drivers with the clear choice – driving and parking in busy locations will cost more. Conversely travelling off-peak, parking further away, ride-sharing, or using public transport during peak periods will save you money. 
As a result, the price of parking can be as low as possible, while still ensuring a minimal number of vacant spaces. Parking is then both convenient and affordable.
Rapid improvements in technology are making accurate parking pricing more and more achievable. Imagine you are heading downtown for some shopping and are considering whether to drive. Now imagine being able to use your smart phone to find out about the real time costs and availability of parking in the general vicinity of your destination. 
This scenario is already a reality in San Francisco, where the metropolitan transport authority (SFPark) has accurate and smart parking prices ranging from $0.25 to $6.00 per hour. Prices are available via the internet and through a free smart phone app. Because prices change based on demand a few spots are almost always available, which in turn means that time limits can be relaxed or removed – increasing driver convenience. New parking meters also allow drivers to top up their parking meter via mobile phone, reducing instances in which people are fined because they underestimate the time they need.
San Francisco is but one example of a number of places where accurate pricing and smart technologies are being used to fix parking problems. There is a clear need for Canadian municipalities to follow this lead and change the way they manage parking. By using accurate pricing to manage demand, they can ensure convenient, affordable parking for drivers, while also supporting wider community objectives, such as managing congestion. In doing so, we can end over a century of parking problems.