Two Sensible Parking Reforms (One of Which Will Never Happen)

Blog, Commentary, Local Government, Steve Lafleur, Transportation

The most recent edition of Access (the University of California Transportation Centre’s quarterly journal) ran two thought provoking pieces on parking policy. One was a piece on how to optimally allocate parking in urban neighbourhoods, written by economist turned parking guru Donald Shoup. For those familiar with his work, this piece holds up to his usual standard of excellence. The more controversial piece was written by Michael Manville, Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, and Jonathan Williams, a Transportation Planner in Seattle. They argue that cities should eliminate free parking for disabled people. While this one will no doubt spark outrage (hence, will never happen), it is an equally sensible proposal.

Donald Shoup is famous for arguing that markets, not regulations, should govern parking. He has pointed out in several studies that free or under-priced urban parking leads to artificial shortages. These shortages contribute to traffic congestion by causing drivers to “cruise for parking.” Moreover, when street parking is in a state of anarchy, rather than being rationed by markets, private developers and governments build more off-street parking than would be required if street parking were priced accordingly (cities exacerbate this by requiring developers to provide minimum parking levels for new developments, which are often above what the market would demand). This latter problem is the subject of his article in this quarter’s edition of Access.

Parking requirements aren’t so much about serving future residents and customers, as ensuring that existing residents have access to convenient, free parking. For this reason, there is immense political pressure from existing residents to build as much parking as possible into new apartment and condo buildings to prevent spillover of new residents parking in their neighbourhoods. However, Shoup points out that if existing neighbourhood parking spaces were more heavily used at night, there would be less need for additional parking construction.

Shoup’s solution is two-fold. First, cities can require landlords to provide free transit passes to tenants. This sounds heavy handed, but it can be a reasonable trade-0ff for lower parking requirements. After all, a transit pass can be less expensive than a parking space. According to the Victoria Policy Institute, the monthly cost of providing off-street urban parking ranges from roughly $172-$334. Giving landlords the flexibility to provide a certain number of parking passes in lieu of parking would be a win-win situation.

Second, Shoup argues that cities allow residents of any block to create “overnight permit districts.” These districts prevent non-residents from parking overnight on the street. That simplifies the problem of spillover, and can reduce enforcement costs. But Shoup points out that cities can follow Boulder, Colorado’s approach, and sell off a certain number of spots to non-residents at market prices. He points out that if residents choose to allow some non resident parking, “a block that allows overnight parking by four nonresidents at $50 a month will raise $2,400 a year for public services such as repairing sidewalks or undergrounding the overhead utility wires.” That is another win-win solution (something Mr. Shoup has a knack for).

Manville and Williams extend Shoup’s insights about the hidden costs of free parking to the issue of free parking for disabled people. At first glance, taking away free parking from the disabled seems cruel. However, according to their research in Los Angeles, 27 percent of parked cars observed had disabled placards. Most disabled people are not poor (though some certainly are), and qualification for disabled placards is getting less and less stringent (and many people use them illegally). Moreover, people with the most severe disabilities are unlikely to drive.

The growth of free parking exacerbates the very parking troubles that Shoup has long pointed out. Manville and Williams argue that governments would be better off eliminating free parking, and use some of the increased revenue to provide more paratransit and fix sidewalks. This strikes me as a sensible alternative. And, frankly, if disabled people are too poor to park, the poverty issue should be addressed more directly through income supports, rather than free parking.

Unfortunately, as more and more relatively able bodied non-low income people exploit disabled placards to get free parking, it will become harder and harder to change course, since no one wants to give up a free parking space. The challenge is to convey the direct and indirect costs to their wallets and time from “free parking.” I’m not holding my breath for the end of free parking.

For more on parking policy:

Donald Shoup. The High Cost of Free Parking.

Douglas Kolozsvari and Donald Shoup. Turning Small Change Into Big Changes.

Stuart Donovan. Convenient, Affordable Parking When and Where You Need It.