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Urban Planning Tue Mar 09 2010

Why Shouldn't You Pay for Parking?

I've spent the last couple days reading studies and articles on the changing attitudes towards parking policies and zoning regulations, in favor of encouraging sustainability, walkability, and public transit. The case is made over and over again that parking is artificially cheap in big cities--particularly in Chicago--because of the way zoning regulations are written requiring parking be allocated as a ratio to square footage, and the general nature of parking meter costs (i.e., they aren't priced by market forces).

The idea is parking should be more expensive to make it more available (i.e., it'll be easier to find a spot), and to encourage people to make "active transportation" choices. Ideally, the increased revenues generated would be put directly into promoting bikeability and walkability as well as public transportation. This would need to be matched with zoning regulations that take away the incentive to build parking structures that encourage sprawl.

So my question to you all is: should the City of Chicago pursue a policy of making parking prohibitively expensive for most people in order to encourage "better" behavior? Should we encourage "the market" to determine parking costs?

Or would that just piss you off?

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RAStewart / March 9, 2010 4:00 PM

It would probably just piss me off, even though I really am all for sustainability, walkability, and public transit.

One reason is personal: My wife and I have raised kids in Chicago and know how much it multiplies the hassle and wasted time when you are trying to navigate public transit--especially our marginal public transit--with small children. Or, for that matter, with bags of groceries and other household necessities. And we're still taking care of a severely disabled family member--and trying to get that loved one *anywhere* on the CTA? Forget it. And forget that joke of a paratransit system too--we tried it years ago.

Besides these private matters, which I don't expect anyone else to care about, there is the other side of the coin, which I've alluded to elsewhere, and which you mention here:

"Ideally, the increased revenues generated would be put directly into promoting bikeability and walkability as well as public transportation. This would need to be matched with zoning regulations that take away the incentive to build parking structures that encourage sprawl."

Ideally, sure. But in Illinois? In Chicago? Do you think you would find five people in the city who really believe such a thing would happen?

All the things you've written about here do need to happen. But ordinary people in Chicago are not going to trust the process until the city and state--and I'm afraid that means a different set of people than are presently in charge, at some time in the future--do a lot of work to win back that trust.

Erin / March 9, 2010 4:22 PM

Teach me a lesson by pricing parking out of my reach? Are you kidding me?

Here's my answer: Bye Bye Chicago. There are better places to live and park.

Is it 1984 yet? / March 9, 2010 4:28 PM

Well, if you tax something, you are going to get less of it. You might think that you are taxing parking, but you are raising the cost of the activity that the parking spot facilitates, which equals a tax on businesses in the area, visiting friends and family, etc... No one parks their car for the sake of parking their car, it is a component of another activity.

You might think that you are making more parking available by pricing certain people out of that market (who's right do you have to do this? Are you against the poor?), and that at a higher price, you'd get more revenue. In reality, you would be artificially reducing the supply of customers for the parking spot. Now when you artificially reduce supply, there is a lack of support for that price and naturally, you would get less revenue. (With that smaller revenue, you'd have to run a defecit for the promotional campaign, as you'd be shocked, shocked, that people didn't see the beauty of the plan and buy in with their own money, but you'd have commited funds already) Not exactly sustainable in the economic sense.

Of course, in all of this, you are assuming that the demand for parking is inelastic (because you isolate parking from its utility) and that there are no alternatives. In the real world, there are many, many alternatives and demand is quite elastic. Would a portion of that go into public transit? Maybe. Is it worth the economic cost, both to the consumer and to the business, to find out? Not unless you think this economic downturn is really fun and should be the new normal.

Follow up question: Who gets to choose what "better" behavior gets modified next?

Ramsin / March 9, 2010 5:55 PM

First of all, I wasn't proposing anything, just relaying what current trends in thought are.

Secondly, this is not a tax, but rather allowing market forces to determine prices; I'm sure you'll change your tune instantly and suddenly your concern about the ability of the poor to park will evaporate when it is "the market" and not the big bad lib'rul guvernament doing the pricing-out. The fact is that right now government subsidizes parking with their development regulations (and non-parkers subsidize parkers, meaning that the less affluent are already being expected to subsidize the behavior of the better off).

Finally, we as a society are constantly trying to encourage "better" behavior: with mortgage tax credits, by outlawing narcotics, etc.; so my answer to your last question is: the public will through their elected representatives,as they always have.

Think of a typical Chicago neighborhood and how quickly you've seen them change. Wicker Park was pretty dinghy not 10 years ago, and lots of it was pretty run-down looking even six years ago. It has transformed immensely in a pretty short period of time; the idea is that with a comprehensive approach (parking policy + changes in zoning regulations) the neighborhoods would transform such that they would become more walkable and bikeable and transit would be more comprehensive exactly because the high cost of parking would spur demand for these things and developers would be forced to adjust to the change in the nature of demand.

Lee / March 9, 2010 6:06 PM

I would say yes, the city should let the market deal with parking supply and remove minimum parking requirements in the zoning code. But I think you're asking the wrong question. The real question is: should the City of Chicago continue its policy of subsidizing parking and encouraging driving by making it artificially cheaper and easier? And should poorer people who don't drive have to subsidize wealthier people who do drive?

I realize there's a sense of entitlement among drivers that the government and other people *owe* them cheap parking. It's like wellfare, only with no moral grounding and for wealthy people. There is absolutely no reasonable justification for requiring developers to provide an oversupply of cheap/free parking. What if the city instead forced developers to pay to support public transit instead of paying for ridiculous parking garages? Many people's arguments about how cars are a necessity so we can't charge the real costs of driving would become moot.

Developers and business owners should charge market rates for parking and pass on better prices on housing and goods to less-wealthy and more efficient people who don't drive. Instead of forcing someone to pay for a parking space with their apartment rent, let them leave out the parking if they don't want it and pay less rent (and rent the parking space separately). Instead of charing higher prices for groceries in order to be able to provide free parking for customers, charge for the parking and pass on the savings to everyone, so people who walk to the store don't have to pay for other people's parking. This is really common sense stuff.

Ramsin / March 9, 2010 6:11 PM

Lee- This was just some out-loud thoughts as I work on this longer piece, but see my comment above for the issues you touched on. I think I may agree with you generally--but want to read more.

Joker / March 9, 2010 8:17 PM

Right, the gentrification of Wicker Park was due to parking policy and zoning changes. Some would say low interest rates and abundance of easy credit, but no matter.

All hail the city planner, deliverer of prosperity.

Ramsin / March 9, 2010 8:40 PM

If that was how it sounded, it wasn't my intent to say that it was city planners who caused gentrification, just that neighborhoods can change very quickly through a combination of public and private activities. You can believe that the gentrification owed a lot to rezonings to allow more density in some places and less in others, TIFs, and special planning districts. To that extent, planners do guide how a neighborhood changes.

In other words, when thinking about parking policy, I don't think its helpful to just imagine more expensive parking in a static city. The city would change--and rapidly--over time to adjust to the policies, and those changes could end up making things more walkable, bikeable, etc. Again, this seems to be the thinking.

Lee / March 9, 2010 9:28 PM

Ramsin -- Yes, reading your comment, it sounds like we see the issue similarly.

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