By Eric Jaffe, April 2, 2014
Costanza's universal theory of parking states that drivers should never
pay for a spot because, if they apply themselves, they'll get it for
free. Most U.S. cities do everything they can to abide the theory. They
undervalue the price of street spaces. They keep parking so cheap it encourages driving
(and thus undermines their own transit investments, leading to more
driving). And they require a minimum number of parking spaces for new
developments whether residents need them or not.
These policies conspire to create a situation in which even someone as
lazy as George Costanza can eventually find a free — or, at least, very
cheap — parking space in the city. But what's thrilling for Georgie Boy
(assuming no one steals his space by pulling in head first)
is bad for the city as a whole. Three recent studies highlight big
benefits to setting the right price for city parking: less traffic, more
transit use, and greater tax revenue.
First comes a close evaluation of SFpark, San Francisco's world-class effort to match the price of parking with real-time demand. SFpark changes
the cost of street spaces in commercial areas to maintain an average
occupancy of 60 to 80 percent. By making sure the streets are never
completely full, the program hopes to reduce circling and thus
congestion on city streets.
The new study (here, in full), led by Adam Millard-Ball of UC-Santa Cruz, analyzed hourly parking data to determine that SFpark has
indeed achieved this target occupancy rate through demand-responsive
parking prices. As a result, the researchers conclude, SFpark was
responsible for a 50 percent drop in cruising for spots. Millard-Ball
calls the finding evidence "of the benefits of meters more generally,"
and says even cities without sophisticated programs like SFpark can benefit from responsive pricing.
"People might not like new meters or an extension of meter hours, but
certainly our data suggests that they're very effective in reducing the
amount of traffic cruising for parking," he says.
If anything, says Millard-Ball, the rate changes imposed by SFpark weren't drastic enough. Bay Area drivers were actually slow to respond to the price changes, perhaps because SFpark only
raises meters a quarter at a time. But the impact of any parking price
on cruising came through most clearly in the traffic spikes that
occurred right after the meters turned off (below, circling in the
Marina neighborhood surges in red at 6 p.m. / 1800 hours) — another
reason to extend pricing into nights and weekends, and onto residential streets:
"I think the broad lessons are, firstly and most simply, that charging
for parking works," says Millard-Ball. "We see this most dramatically in
our data around the time the meters get switched off. Cruising spikes,
and it's much more difficult to find a space."
Higher transit use
Another new study, this one led by Amy Auchincloss of Drexel,
surveyed public parking costs from 2009 in 107 U.S. cities. The
researchers found a significant association between these parking prices
and public transit use during the same period. In larger cities —
defined as those with more than 6,700 people per square mile — transit
passenger miles increased 2.3 fold with higher parking costs, even
adjusting for the economics of a given city. (Note though that the
researchers found no such link in smaller cities.)
The upshot is that cheap parking encourages people to drive into a big
city. Put another way, public transit investments alone aren't enough to
attract riders. Cities must consider raising the cost of driving and parking, too.
More tax revenue
The third study in Costanza's ménage a parking
focuses on the effects that parking can have on a city's bottom line.
Researchers at the University of Connecticut and the State Smart
Transportation Initiative found that land devoted to street and garage
parking generates less tax revenue for a city than other types of
development do. This is especially bad news for cities with minimum
parking requirements — policies that compel developers to provide a
certain number of spots regardless of market demand. (That includes most
U.S. cities at the moment, though a trend toward parking maximums has started in some places.)
In Hartford, this lost tax revenue amounts to roughly $1,200 per year per parking spot (below, Hartford parking
in 1960 and in 2000). That amounts to $50 million a year for a city in
which all downtown real estate pays $75 million in annual taxes. "If the
city can find new uses for these parking lots, then this means that it
can bring a lot of revenue," study co-author Norman Garrick told WNPR in Connecticut.
To be sure, there are equity challenges that go along with raising
parking prices on city streets. But cheap parking is already
compromising fairness in many city neighborhoods — hurting traffic,
transit, and taxes for the many while helping Costanza's theory for the
few. A better theory of parking would hold that drivers should never pay
less for a spot than it's truly worth.