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Parking done right

Let’s talk parking. Recently I suggested that building new parking garages isn’t an environmentally friendly thing to do, even if such garages are nicely landscaped and have energy-efficient lighting systems. The environmental impact of the structures themselves is minuscule in comparison to the impact of the transportation system they are part of, and the green flourishes do nothing to change this basic equation.

For making this fairly bland observation, I was accused of, variously: being an enemy of personal freedom, hating the poor, wanting people to live in mud huts, and obstructing environmental progress.

Fortunately, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority has my back. The agency just a few weeks ago released a data-driven study on how to address the city’s parking woes. The study’s use of detailed surveys to establish actual usage patterns on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, overlaid with data on retail spending habits, provides a groundbreaking look at how people get around in cities.

San Francisco faces the same problems that plague many cities. Streets are congested, parking is chronically in short supply, and the public transportation system, though popular and heavily used, suffers from budget deficits. San Francisco employs a conventional pricing scheme for many of its metered spots: two-hour time limit, low flat rate, free after 6PM, and free on Sundays.

Unsurprisingly, the study reveals that this price structure deeply affects driver behavior. People circle endlessly looking for cheap parking, and after 6PM drivers squat in their free spots for as long as they are able. Interestingly, the study also found that the majority of people in shopping districts don’t arrive by car. About 75% come in by public transit, on foot, or on bicycle. Based on these findings, the authors make the following recommendations:

* Decrease the price of parking at times of day, such as mid-morning, when spots are under-utilized
* Increase the price of parking during times of heavy use, with the goal of achieving an average occupancy rate of 85%
* Extend the metered parking until later in the evening in certain neighborhoods to match actual traffic flow
* Start metering on Sunday in certain neighborhoods
* Extend the meter time limits to four hours at certain times

The plan will have the following benefits:

* Drivers will have an easier time finding spots and will be able to park for longer
* Bus service will become faster and more convenient, due to a reduction in traffic and unnecessary circling in congested areas
* Retailers will benefit from increased turnover and improved access to stores
* The additional revenue raised from meters will plug the transit authority’s budget gap and forestall a fare hike for public transit riders

If this sounds like an “everybody wins” scenario, that’s because mispricing a scarce asset results in suboptimal use of that asset. Put more plainly, underpriced parking is wack. The only people who benefit from the old system are those drivers lucky enough to snag a cheap spot. Underpriced parking is especially wack because parking carries with it negative externalities like congestion, noise, pollution, etc. The solution is not to build more underpriced parking, but to correctly price the stuff that’s there.

After you check out the study, take a look at parking guru Donald Shoup’s related commentary. Good stuff.

Car owners in love with their free parking really want to deflect this issue into an argument over the ability of the poor to have access to downtown. Populism always plays. The problem is, the poverty argument cuts the wrong way. Most people don’t drive downtown. Poor people benefit from subsidized public transit. Poor people benefit from improved bus service. And it’s very difficult to make the case that some who drives downtown to do some shopping is going to have his personal finances devastated by a small rise in parking fees.

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