More Parking!

San Francisco may have the most technologically nifty new parking system in the U.S., but Chicago wins big points for the mercenary genius of their approach: the city expects to raise over a billion dollars by auctioning a 50-year concession on their entire parking system.

Private vendors are willing to pay so much for the right to manage the city’s 36,000 parking spaces because they know the real estate is presently underpriced. The winning bidder will be required to install “state-of-the-art parking meters that monitor parking space availability and adjust rates to ensure an open space on every block.” The new system should reduce congestion, lower greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality, and generally make the city more livable. It will also mint a good deal of cash for both the vendor and the city government.

Such public-private partnerships can be controversial. Some object to the very idea of public goods in private hands. Others worry that corporations suffer from a lack of accountability to voters.

Which, in some ways, is the point. Drivers are a powerful voting bloc, and city officials have generally been unwilling to cross them. Particularly if some of that billion-dollar windfall finds its way to public transit projects, the deal will likely work out well for Chicagoans.

Originally posted at Worldchanging.

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  1. Kevin Wright - August 13, 2008

    As a Chicagoan who occasionally drives and uses public transportation often this could be a great deal. Especially if the cost of street parking were so expensive as to keep more cars off the street. Maybe a discount could be applied to companies like iGo and Zipcar sharing services to encourage the use of those services instead of people owning their own. Our “L” train system is falling apart (multiple derailments this year) even as they try desperately to fix it. Our tracks are 120 years old, our trains are up to 40 years old, and the system needs expansion desperately. I hope this money could be used to rebuild.

  2. Clem Guttata - August 13, 2008

    This is a short-sighted move.
    It’s another example of cities selling off core assets for one time financial gains without attention to long-term ramifications.
    What happens when city planners want to get rid of parking on a busy street? The parking company will cry foul on loss of revenue. Who owns the streets… no longer the citizens, instead the company they are angrily paying through the nose for parking to.
    The requirement of “always an open space” sounds great but doesn’t really make sense. Drivers want affordable parking, not just parking.
    The easiest way to be in “technical” compliance, to always have one space open, is to make one space so expense no one can afford to park in it. Price one space per block at, say, a $1000 a minute, and you’ll always have one open space per block.

  3. Adam Stein - August 13, 2008

    I don’t know the terms of the proposed deal with Chicago, but I imagine there are a large number of provisions meant to ensure service quality and provide the city with flexibility when they need to make infrastructure changes.
    And there’s always the profit motive to keep people honest. Underpricing all the spots save one, which is massively overpriced, doesn’t sound like a great deal for the company.

  4. smax - August 13, 2008

    Sounds like a horrible idea. I grew up in Chicago and I can virtually guarantee this will be sold of to some politician’s friend who will make millions more than what they pay. Chicago will lose revenue to a private company via public space.
    Can’t wait for the “high-tech” parking meters to be hacked, lawsuits over predatory towing companies and the eventual corruption charges.

  5. Will Wright - August 13, 2008

    Paraphrasing Don Shoup, a vast contributor to traffic congestion is all of those cats circling the streets constantly in search for an open meter. Now if pricing parking at a rate that reduces that unnecessary congestion, you make it more efficient to get around town – and by pricing parking at higher levels as an incentive to not drive in the first place, I can imagine that this private-public partnership will be a win-win for Chicago. Not only will they reduce traffic (and the emissions & fuel consumption associated with it) , not only will they generate $1 billion in City revenue, not only will they save probably a few billion more by not having to administer all of those meters – the City of Chicago will enhance the livability of those streets over the course of the next 50 years.
    Streets are for people. Not for automobiles.
    For inspiration visit

  6. Trace - August 13, 2008

    What happens to the current employees whose job it is to maintain the meters and issue citations?

  7. Will Wright - August 13, 2008

    Trace, wouldn’t those employees naturally be in an excellent position to be hired by the private firm? Unless it becomes entirely automated. In which case, wouldn’t those same employees eventually become designers, programmers, administrators, technicians hired to maintain the system. Or, perhaps those same parking attendants can administer bicycle parking stations instead.
    Ideally, I would imagine that as fewer and fewer parking spaces are needed, and as Cities advance beyond car-culture, that the millions of workers who are presently employed by auto-dependent professions, would naturally evolve into other professions. We will need professionals to design and maintain solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal pumps. We will need professionals to design, manufacture, market and sale more comfortable walking shoes, sexier bicycles, pogo sticks that don’t crack open chins…..
    It’s all shifting. After all, how many wheelwrights are there left in the world?

  8. Edward Mangold - August 14, 2008

    This scheme seems to be a way to implement
    two ideas to reduce auto usage and use parking spaces more efficiently. Parking rates should be determined by time of day, day of the week and location with respect to where the drivers want to go.
    Parking rates would be highest during the hours of the day when they are most in demand. Getting closer to a desirable destination would cost more. The rates are lowered over the weekend, although sports events could use the same system.
    This rate structure would favor use of public transit, and still allow people who have a need to go to a destination at a well used time to find a spot, albeit at a high price.

  9. Alex Kelley - October 20, 2008

    Like many solutions to our road congestion and vehicle pollution issues, paying more for parking will hurt initially. The truth is that we aren’t really paying all the costs now anyways. As we begin to truly pay our own way in life, many more of us will decide to walk, bike, and share rides. We will also extend the life of our roads and cut commuting times as vehicle traffic goes down.