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April 12, 2012

There's No Such Thing as Free Parking


What does parking have to do with our addiction to oil? Quite a bit, it seems, once you dig into the issue. 

Americans are said to love their cars, and along with that is a love, or really, an expectation of parking - whether that’s free or cheap parking - it's a lot of parking.  And so we have policies in place that encourage parking. Take for example current federal tax policy allows commuters to deduct $240 a month from pre-tax income to pay for parking for your commute, but only $120 per month for using transit.
The parking issue is hot in Seattle where Mayor Mike McGinn proposed to let developers who are building housing within 1300 feet of transit decide how much parking to provide for residents. The Seattle Times was appalled - calling it "utopian" to think residents will drop the car.  Streetsblog notes that "[m]inimum parking requirements are, essentially, a tax on development meant to encourage driving."

Parking is a frequent issue among Sierra Club transportation activists, most recently in our own debate over the New York Times invitation to readers to respond to a letter posted by Randy Salzman on the need to change our car culture.

It so happens that Sierra Club's San Diego Chapter transportation chair Mike Bullock is a parking expert, so I asked him a few questions about how changing parking policies can help reduce driving and our addiction to oil.

How does so called "free" parking feed our addiction to oil?
Well, of course it’s never free. It’s very expensive to provide parking. And we pay those costs, as employees, as residents, and as consumers. The "addiction feeding" comes from hiding those costs and making them essentially mandatory. If we had the free choice to not drive, once in a while, and save some of the money we are losing because of "free" parking, we would in fact drive less.

We often think of parking spaces - surrounding big box stores, in our downtowns, or near housing - as free.  How much does it cost to build a parking spot?
In many locations, it comes down to the cost of land. An acre of land only parks around 120 cars. So, where an acre is worth $1.2 million, the cost of the land is $10,000 per space. Parking garages would seem to be a smart choice where land is expensive, because the cars are being stacked. However the construction is expensive and the higher up you go, the larger the steel members have to be.

Construction costs are typically between$20,000 and $40,000 per space. Of course the prettiest parking is underground, because it is invisible to the urban landscape. However this is the most expensive parking. Developers have told me that this parking is around $100,000 per space. So the simple answer is that parking costs a lot.

What are some ways parking could be addressed to help cut our addiction to oil?
Except where parking is being operated to provide a legitimate profit for investors, the best way would be to unbundle the cost of the parking. This means that the cost is made visible and optional. There are several ways to do this. I have written a paper that described one way and it is a way that would always work. Using this method, any bundled cost could be unbundled. To those that are losing money due to the parking, the system would feel like getting paid to not drive.

Are there some examples where pricing parking has cut driving?
My paper on parking has a table with 10 cases of locations where parking became priced. These cases are put into three groups: those having poor transit, those having fair transit, and those having good transit. The overall average decrease in driving was 23%. The smallest change was 15%. Obviously, I wish we had more data.

If you want to learn more about parking and unbundling its costs, you can download Mike's short paper here (PDF).

-- Ann Mesnikoff, Director of the Sierra Club Green Transportation Campaign

Photo from City of Huntington Beach, CA, Government.


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