Our Daily Bleg: Some Good Parking Solutions, Please

We like to give readers the chance to ask their own bleg — i.e., to use this blog to beg for ideas or information. Here’s an interesting one from a reader named Philip . I look forward to your input; you can send your own bleg suggestions here.

Many cities around the country have parking problems in their urban neighborhoods.

For example, the city of Baltimore is thousands of parking spaces short in its popular neighborhoods southeast of downtown. The result is that people park illegally, which leads to unsafe situations (e.g. blocking alleys or fire hydrants) and lots of parking tickets.

The city doesn’t really have a way to increase the space available for parking because, like many cities, the budget is tight and buying urban land to turn into parking lots is prohibitively expensive. The problem is only going to get worse, as many formerly run-down, empty homes are being renovated, and the new inhabitants bring cars with them.

What are some ways to fix the problem?

Reducing the need for car ownership is one possibility. Improved public transport would help this, but public transport is very expensive.

How about a tax on large cars? If all of the cars were smaller, more cars would fit in the same area. Or, even more drastic, how about a ban on SUVs and pick-up trucks? A limit of one car per household would also make a difference.

Lots of cities need ideas on how to tackle these problems. Maybe the Freakonomics.com readership could help.

Two quick things to add to Philip’s bleg: there’s a movement in the U.K. to base parking charges on the size of your car, even in your own driveway. Also, one big negative externality produced by scarce parking is congestion caused by cars circling for spots (to say nothing of the added pollution from these same cars).


Jake

There's a book called The High Cost of Free Parking by UCLA prof Donald Shoup that you might want to read. Although the book itself is expensive, at $48 from Amazon, it covers why providing parking spaces is more expensive than you might think, culturally, socially, and economically, and why free, inexpensive, and convenient parking might be more of a expense than its worth.

-Jake

jonathan

All studies of parking reveal two truths:

1. A large percentage of spaces, legal and illegal, are used by public and quasi-public employees. This was recently demonstrated again in a study of parking in lower NYC.
2. A large percentage of spaces are used by local businesses. William Whyte showed this decades ago and things have not changed. Along the avenues in NYC, as in most commercial districts, merchants and their employees took up spaces near their businesses and fed the meters for extended periods.

What does this mean? Two clear points: spaces taken up by non-public users and spaces held for extended periods. A lesson: spaces need to turn over.

My town, which is part of Boston, improved parking by requiring merchants to obtain parking stickers which are good in certain lots. This freed up a number of spaces and those spaces turn over more often which means they actually serve more people. Thus, a solution would be to identify who parks where and for how long and then move certain parkers, particularly the non-public and merchant users, to lots or garages to free up spaces that will turn over more often. Price the open spaces to encourage turnover and make parking outside certain areas more attractive by keeping the rates there low enough that the distance is worth it.

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Dan M.

I don't think anyone mentioned towing as either an alternative or complement to illegal parking fines. Towing one's car increases the cost of that illegal park, since the parker now has to spend the time and the money to retrieve his or her car.

Towing goes a long way toward deterring undesirable behavior, because going and getting that car is a pain in itself. It may not solve the parking problem itself, but it would ensure less illegal parking.

Alex

What about a market solution like an entrepreneur building a large parking garage underground or in unused areas (like under highway overpasses) and having on-demand valet service throughout a urban area for a hefty price. It could all be done via cell phone. ou call up the company 10 mins before arriving at your destination, they would meet you (maybe on a fold able bike or scooter) and wisk your car away. You would call again 10 mins before you wanted to leave and they would meet you wherever you wanted. Of course, this would be and expensive service and only directly benefit the rich, but everyone else would indirectly benefit from fewer cars to compete with for public parking.

Donald Shoup

Here is an idea adopted in Redwood City, CA (Sections 20.120 and 20.121 of the Redwood City Municipal Code)

To accomplish the goal of managing the supply of parking and to make it reasonably available when and where needed, a target occupancy rate of eighty-five percent (85%) is hereby established.

The Parking Manager shall survey the average occupancy for each parking area in the Downtown Meter Zone that has parking meters. Based on the survey results, the Parking Manager shall adjust the rates up or down in twenty-five cent ($0.25) intervals to seek to achieve the target occupancy rate.

Revenues generated from on-street and off-street parking within the Downtown Meter Zone boundaries shall be accounted for separately from other City funds and may be used only . . . within or for the benefit of the Downtown Core Meter Zone.

The goal of 85% occupancy means that the curb parking spaces will be well used but readily available. Prices achieve the 85% occupancy. The city uses the meter revenue to pay for added public services in the metered district, so the merchants strongly supported the proposal, and the City Council adopted it unanimously.

Here is the link to a post about Redwood City's free-market parking meters.

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Troy Camplin

This is an economics blog. Shouldn't the obvious answer be: use supply and demand> If there is more demand than supply, that means prices are too low. This means parking spaces should be sold or rented. You don't need taxes on larger vehicles or that sort of nonsense (honestly, my Ford Focus takes up the same parking space as an SUV). For residents, you need parking spaces that they can buy or rent; for visitors, you need higher charges on the parking meters. Any time you have a shortage of something, you can guarantee that the price of that commodity is too low -- typically artificially too low.

Travis

How about instead of providing an disincentive for owning and parking a car you provide an incentive for not owning one.

Or a combination of both. Something like having 1 parking permit available per household at a reasonable price ($100 / mo) a second parking permit at an unreasonable price ($1000/mo) and for houses with no registered vehicle a stipend of 50$/mo presumably paid for by the street parking permit fee, though this may have to be adjusted depending on the number of people who decline to register a car.

To make the neighborhood still open to local shopping and dining, allow 2 hour parking w/o a permit from say 7am to 7pm in some areas.

Turn all the residential street parking into permit parking and you have at least a start to a solution .

Colleen

I don't think people should give up their cars nor do I think we should tell people what they can and cannot drive. I have an issue w/govt. telling us how to live our life. What I would like to see done in terms of parking is simple:

1. Out of state cars cannot park on the street or restrict them parking on the streets (ie cannot park overnight). Our streets are clogged w/out of state vehicles, including the non-touristy area. Traffic agents should be allowed to ticket out of state cars, which from what I understand, they are not.

2. Start enforcing the 7 day parking rule. I am fortunate enough to live in an area where we do NOT have alternate side. Yet cars park for MONTHS and never get a ticket. I have seen some parked w/out of state plates, tags all expired and it's impossible to give out a ticket.

3. Lets start charging the out of state cars to come into NY, even if they pay a toll. Those from CT can drive here for free and park for free.

4. Carpool rules - I'm tired of sitting on my commuter bus looking at suited schmucks sitting in their chauffered town cars yet again from CT. I supposed they're too good for Metro North yet I have to sit in traffic bc of them.

5. Make public transportation work. If I took the train home and it worked the way it should, it would take me 40 minutes to the Bronx. But it doesn't and there were nights (2-3 nights a week) that took 1+ hour to get home. At least once a month it took over 2 hours. That is unacceptable in a city that prides itself on public transportation. I now spend $10 a day on an express bus that I can rely on, even if there's traffic.

Large cars & SUVs should not be taxed additionally. Furthermore, there is no way this city should regulate what one parks in the driveway of their PERSONAL HOME on the PROPERTY they pay taxes for. If my parents want to park a Hummer in the driveway of their Bronx home, that is their business, not City Hall's (of course I'd love to know where they found the money for a Hummer....). We are starting more and more to have Big Brother watch over us and middle class homeowners are bearing the brunt of this. It's not fair that some are paying $2k+ in property taxes yet you think it's ok to tax them AGAIN or tell them they can park a certain car on their property!

This city is becoming one for the poor and one for the wealthy. The middle class is being quickly forced out and stupid laws such as the kind of car one owns is just another burden the middle class would have to support.

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Dave

I am a Baltimore resident and I lived in the "fashionable" areas South-East of downtown. During that time I accumulated close to $1500 in tickets fees, and late charges. After paying those costs I never park illegally anymore. Each $18 ticket was accompanied by a $30 late fee and was reported to the State DMV which would then add an additional $30 fee and suspend the registration of the car. Eventually it gets to the point that you know longer even notice the tickets as they accumulate because they become such a regular occurrence.

Providing a clearer indication of the actual cost of a ticket might deter illegal parking although it would probably not do anything for the scarcity of spots.

Changing streets to one-way and then implementing space-saving diagonal head-in parking is a possibility.

Urbie

Here in Providence, RI, there is no overnight parking allowed on any city street, any time, anywhere. This is, effectively, a one-car-per-household limit for a lot of people, and in other cases, forces people to pave over their front yards so they can park there. No one seems to know exactly why overnight parking isn't allowed -- it's just always been that way, and every time anyone tries to change it, there's irrational opposition from a lot of people. Not sure what the solution is -- but I can state categorically that it's an economic drag on the city and its residents; my wife and I are prevented from taking jobs that would require us both to drive. If we could have another car (and park it on the street), I'm not sure we would -- but it would be nice to have that option, anyway.

kevin

I'm not sure if I understand the part about taxing my car in my own driveway.

Still, I like the tax concept, but you could adjust it by simply painting smaller parking spots, right? And then ticketing if your car isn't within the lines? Wouldn't that have the same net effect as a tax?

Shouldn't the market adjust, thought, and see vacant lots turned into parking decks if there is a demand for the spaces?

Finally, college campuses (and many cities) already have parking permits which must be purchased. That could work too.

Philip

Two additions:

There are currently no painted parking spots unless there is rare angle-in parking.

There has been some market-based response to this problem. The number of Mini Coopers has exploded in my neighborhood.

John

In "The High Cost Of Free Parking,"Donald Shoup contends this phenomenon is best addressed through pricing parking spaces at market rate. Anyone who wants a space and is willing to pay can have one. Presumably this would lead to a reduction in demand for parking, or for an increase in demand for alternatives.

Matt S.

@14:

Quite a good idea, Erika. Offering reserved spots for carpoolers (I'd say at least 3+ people in the car) would have the triple stroke of reducing congestion, lack of parking and pollution (since otherwise it would be at least 3 other cars, and 3 other parking spots). Only problem would be how to enforce.

You could also offer discounts or free parking to hybrid cars (although this is more for reducing pollution than congestion).

Philip

As the author of the bleg, I'll offer a few quick responses to comments.

I live in Fells Point/Butcher's Hill area of Baltimore. This is a heavily residential area. As such, overnight parking is what presents the problems. There are little to no problems finding parking during the day, even on weekend days.

The issue is not illegal parking. Illegal parking is an effect that is tied to the cause of insufficient parking spaces for all of the vehicles that are owned by residents of the neighborhoods.

These areas also have many "alley streets" where the street is very narrow and filled with row houses, but there is no parking allowed on either side of the street. This compounds the parking space problem because occupants of homes on alley streets must look for parking on streets that do have parking on one or both sides.

David

I live in Hoboken which has this very issue, especially on weekends, the problem, in my humble opinion is 'free' parking. The parking meters don't even charge during the weekend. And when the do run its only a dollar an hour! The parking decks charge $20 pretty much for driving in. The city could realize a revenue stream by having the meters work on weekends, and a rolling scale to decrease parking cruising on the weekends. I know I'd car pool if parking was 3,4,5 dollars an hour. I e-mailed the mayor's office, no response so far :)

NuclearMom

Just came back from a weekend in Seattle, where people were buzzing about the city's policy to redevelop properties with parking lots into properties with NO parking, in the hopes that it will move people into mass transit.

That's an interesting chicken-and-egg strategy. I've lived in Boston, where the transit is so good and the parking so bad, it was a hassle to own a car. Now I live in Southern California, where the parking is free and plentiful, the mass transit extremely limited, and I'd be severely handicapped without a car. (I telecommute, but gee whiz, I do go SOME places...)

Baltimore and Seattle may have the right idea: Make people so miserable driving that they DEMAND more mass transit, instead of turning up their noses.

oddTodd

Suggestions on pricing parking to limit demand don't really solve the problem, they merely change who gets the spots from whoever gets there first to whoever pays the most.

The solution is to live close to where you work and either walk, ride a bike, or take a bus. That is the only long-term sustainable solution. Maybe with gas over $4/gallon people might start to make more environmentally friendly decisions about where to live.

Mike B

It seems like the problem of cruising is caused by a condition of imperfect information as opposed to one of supply and demand. If a city installed "smart" parking spaces, the status of which could be checked in real time, drivers could proceed directly to un-occupied spots without having to incur searching costs. Cities could implement value added services like space reservation....for an extra fee of course.

Where parked cars exceed capacity, as in the Baltimore resident's example, this sort of system would have only limited effect. My recommendation to him would be to move to one of the less trendy neighborhoods which have more than enough parking. This would help spread the wave of gentrification to the more run down areas which often directly border the trendy ones.

DJH

Agressive law-enforcement in a downtown area (e.g. things like red-light cameras, as well as trolling lots and streets for things like expired registrations, frequent drunk-driving or seat-belt checks) -- and doing so VERY publicly -- may make a relatively small but potentially troublesome group of drivers decide not to venture downtown. For that matter, if the enfrocement is aggressive enough, it might repel conscientious drivers!

But aside from discouraging people from driving to downtown areas (which, I suspect, will NOT be a popular idea among the owners of urban businesses, who will undoubtedly be harmed by such an effort), there is a way to help the problem, at least a little, and that is to maximize the availability of parking spaces that are there.

Lots of people do things like park OVER the lines instead of BETWEEN them, or else park in such a way that an adjoining space cannot fit a vehicle. Have those cars ticketed and towed, even if they're in private garages/lots. Also, strictly enforce time limits, "compact-car only" designations, etc. ... again, even in privately-owned facilities.

To save enforcement costs, deputize some residents downtown to issue parking citations. They could be volunteers or minimal-time workers.

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