Parking Pricing more important than Road Pricing

Last year, TIME printed a very readable explanation of why parking pricing is likely more important than congestion pricing for battling urban congestion. Here is the full article (The New Science of Parking, Ceri Au, 2007-07-09):

If you live in a city and drive a car, chances are you know the hassles of looking for a place to park. Studies of traffic congestion in New York and Los Angeles have found that cruising for parking is, in fact, a major source of gridlock. In a 2006 study undertaken in a Brooklyn neighborhood by Transportation Alternatives, a New York-based advocacy group, 45% of drivers interviewed admitted they were simply looking for a parking spot. A more rigorous analysis was conducted in Los Angeles by Dr. Donald Shoup, an urban planning professor at UCLA and one of the nation's top parking gurus. Over the course of a year, he and his students found, the search for curb parking in a 15-block business district "created about 950,000 excess vehicle miles of travel — equivalent to 38 trips around the earth, or four trips to the moon," which consumes "47,000 gallons of gas and produces 730 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide."

Urban planners and economists have been trying for years to find solutions to the plethora of traffic problems that afflict urban communities. Now a growing number of cities are turning to the relatively new science of parking theory and the technologies it has spawned for help — to improve their neighborhoods, reduce pollution and kick-start economic growth.

Shoup's solution to reducing congestion due to cruising — which he chronicles in his book The High Cost of Free Parking — begins by raising the cost of street parking to market value. That requires the installation of meters where none currently exist and the setting of rates for metered spots that is proportional to the prices charged in off-street lots. Such market-value parking is not simply a cash-grab; it is about obtaining an optimal balance between occupancy and vacancy. "Ensuring 85% occupancy means that the curb spaces will be well used," says Shoup, "and the 15% vacancy means that they will be readily available."

The idea of market-value pricing to reduce congestion has been around at least since 1952, when economist William Vickery floated the idea to relieve congestion in New York City. But it was not until 1996, when Vickery received a Nobel Prize in economics, that his work, and the idea of congestion pricing, began attracting attention. The lack of early support for market-pricing, says Patrick Siegman, a principal transit consultant with Nelson/Nygaard, was mostly rooted in an inability to measure results. "New technologies are making it much easier to implement ideas that economists have been suggesting for a long time," he says, "and that is leading to some remarkable changes in parking policy."

A San Francisco-based company called Streetline, for example, offers what CEO Tod Dykstra calls a "congestion management system," which includes parking sensors and wireless networked meters. The sensors, engineered using the same principles that make a compass operate, create a unique parking signature for each vehicle, which can determine, based on variations in parking angles and size of vehicles, when a parking space is filled, when a vehicle departs and when a new vehicle replaces it. Wireless networked meters enable parking officials to instantly determine not only who pays up and who doesn't, but also the total revenue for parking by meter, by street and by district based on time of day or day of the week.

So far, Streetline has completed pilot projects and studies for Los Angeles and San Francisco. The L.A. project determined that despite two-hour time limits, the average driver stays parked for four hours. If a city wants to balance the occupancy and vacancy rates to ensure drivers can easily find a spot, they need to understand parking behavior and determine whether drivers obey the rules, and adjust those rules accordingly. Since the technology services offered by companies like Streetline are no more expensive, and often cheaper, than the upkeep of old-fashioned coin meters, smart parking management is starting to catch on.

One city that has fully instituted Shoup's market-pricing plan for street parking is Redwood City, Calif. In 2005 the city council unanimously voted to remove time limits for parking in the downtown core. Additionally, they tasked the city's Parking Manager with ensuring that Shoup's 85/15 formula was maintained throughout the designated zone by adjusting prices based on occupancy. Though rate hikes at parking meters may sound more like political suicide than popular public policy, the move drew wide support, because all revenue generated was returned to the metered zone community, either through direct services or through infrastructure development.

Advocates of the Redwood City plan pointed to the success in the early '90s of a similar program in Pasadena, Calif., which implemented metered parking in a skid row neighborhood called Old Town. Local businesses at first feared that metered parking would drive away existing customers. But when revenue was returned to the district in the form of graffiti removal and new light fixtures on the streets, business actually improved. More than a decade later, Old Town Pasadena is a thriving community known for fine dining and shopping. With parking revenue in excess of $1 million a year, its streets receive biweekly steam-cleaning.

Shoup claims that such success stories are propelling grassroots support for increasing parking fees. "Once you get an alliance between green groups interested in environmental issues and public welfare, combined with business interests keen to improve profit margins, you produce a very powerful lobbying force," he says.

But will larger cities pick up on the idea? A 2006 congestion study undertaken by Partnership for New York, a nonprofit organization comprising 200 of the city's top CEOs, reported that traffic congestion costs New York City $13 billion in lost revenue and 50, 000 jobs annually. Among the study's recommendations for further consideration was increasing the price of curb parking. "In a city where garage parking spots are sold for the price of a new car and where garage parking fees can be as high as $15 to $20 for the first hour," the study noted, "on-street parking, the most convenient and most sought after by drivers, costs about $2 to $3 in Manhattan."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with the support of 130 advocacy groups, has proposed a different type of congestion-pricing for dealing with traffic: instituting a toll on drivers who enter Manhattan from the outer boroughs. But Shoup is skeptical that such a toll will significantly reduce congestion. [here, too]

"Much of the traffic in Manhattan is caused by drivers who are searching for a free curb parking space," he says. "It doesn't make sense to charge cars to enter Manhattan without also charging to park on the streets. You have to charge to manage. You can't manage parking if you can't charge for it." And American drivers have clearly demonstrated that if there is a bargain to be had, they will circle the block for a parking space — and keep circling until they find it.

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