The perilous politics of parking

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

by: Sacha Oerlemans

The average car moves just 5% of the time. To improve cities, focus on the other 95%.

A public resource is being allocated highly inefficiently.

In Ireland people ask St Anthony to help them find parking spaces. In Chicago, if you shovel the snow from a space, it belongs to you. In Shanghai people beg their parents to reserve spaces by sitting in them. Everywhere parking is a big reason law-abiding people pay fines to the government and a cause of screaming rows between strangers. More important, it profoundly shapes cities—usually for the worse.

Parking spaces seem innocuous, just a couple of lines painted on asphalt. Multiplied and mismanaged, though, they can create traffic jams, worsen air pollution and force cities to sprawl. The cost and availability of parking affects people’s commuting habits more than the rapid buses and light-rail lines that cities are so keen to build. Next to other worthy policies like congestion-charging and road-tolling, parking is also easy to change.

In many cities people can park on the street for nothing, or a pittance. Because the number of people who would take advantage of such terrific deals, rather than pay a market rate to park in a garage, exceeds supply, motorists end up circling the block. Researchers have found that much traffic consists of motorists looking for spaces.

Having concluded that the chaos on their streets is the result of a shortage of parking spaces, many cities have set about creating more. Because of their requirements in many office developments and shopping centres, more space is given over to cars than to people.

Europeans take a different approach

Europeans often take a different approach to scarce parking, by reserving many spaces for residents who pay almost nothing. Around the Economist tower in London, parking costs £4.90 ($6.10) an hour—with the result that most of us cycle or join the public-transport crush. Locals, who are not obviously in need of charity, pay just £145 a year to park in the same streets. A public resource is being allocated highly inefficiently.

That everybody is used to these arrangements does not mean they make sense. Flooding cities with parking works, in that finding a space becomes easier. But the overall cost is enormous. Because parking is so plentiful, it is free, and because it is free, people invariably overuse it. One study of Washington, DC, found that the availability of free parking is associated with a 97% chance somebody will drive to work alone. Generous parking requirements create asphalt deserts, sapping cities of vigour and beauty. The money and land wasted on car parks make life costlier for everyone, even those who do not drive. Parking adds 67% to the cost of building a shopping centre in Los Angeles—and a lot more if the spaces are underground.

Stop rigging the market in favour of homeowners

Cities should stop trying to increase the supply of parking and rigging the market in favour of homeowners. Instead, they should raise prices until the streets and the car parks are nearly, but not quite, full—and charge everybody. Residents will complain about the loss of their privileges. But if they live in an area of high demand, the revenues from the streets will be enormous. Local governments could spend the money on whatever they like, from beautiful gardens to security guards.

Cities should be for people, not for stationary metal boxes.

An extract from The Economist.

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