This guest post is by my friend and colleague Stuart Donovan, with whom I've worked on a range of excellent transit planning projects over the years. Stuart is the head of the New Zealand office of MRCagney consultants, a credentialed engineer, and the manager of numerous successful transit and transport policy research projects around New Zealand and beyond.
For me parking is like sex, money, and religion – it’s one of those things you avoid bringing up in polite conversation. The reason is that most cities have an over-supply of under-priced parking, yet most inhabitants of those cities believe exactly the opposite; that there is never enough parking.
Changing this belief is tough work. A large part of it seems to reflect a common assumption that even as cities grow they will be able to continue to provide similar levels of parking as they have had in the past. Deeper analysis suggests this assumption is invalid.
It’s invalid because economic and geometric realities prevent cities from expanding their parking at the same rate as they grow. In terms of off-street parking, higher land values tend to squeeze out space-intensive activities. In terms of on-street parking, limited kerb space and a range of competing uses, such as bus stops, constrains the degree to which more on-street parking can be provided.
For these two reasons, the supply of off- and on-street parking will always struggle to keep pace with the rate that cities grow. And of course combining constrained supply with growing demand will almost inexorably lead to higher prices. This economic relationship is the main reason why larger cities tend to command higher parking prices, other factors remaining equal.
During the 1950s many cities tried to subvert this economic equation. They implemented regulations that required new developments to provide large amounts of off-street parking. But minimum parking requirements simply meant that the cost of parking was paid for by developers, instead of users. The cost of parking was quite simply subsumed elsewhere in the economy.
Minimum parking requirements had a number of unintended impacts. Their primary impact was to create an over-supply of parking and lower the direct cost of parking for drivers. In this way, minimum parking requirements actually made a difficult problem even more challenging, because – over several decades – they have reinforced people’s cultural expectation for cheap parking.
Transport planners recognise that parking is a key influence on the travel decisions that people make. Aside from access to a vehicle, the price and availability of parking is probably the single most important determinant of whether people choose to drive.
So people who are passionate advocates for more efficient passenger transit, such as most readers of this blog, should also be passionate about addressing our parking issues. It’s hard to avoid the fact that abundant parking and efficient passenger transit are mutually exclusive outcomes.
But what can we do to address parking issues?
The solution to off-street parking supply seems quite clear: Cities should remove minimum parking requirements and allow developers to determine how much off-street parking they need for their development. This will usually be less than what minimum parking requirements currently stipulate.
Progress towards the removal of minimum parking requirements has already occurred in a number of cities around the world. My home city of Auckland, New Zealand (population circa 1.5 million) removed minimum parking requirements in the city centre in 1996 and has not looked back: More people now use passenger transit to access the city centre in peak hour than use private vehicles.
Fewer cities have made progress, however, with the way they manage on-street parking. Most still rely on time-limits (e.g. one hour) overlaid with paid parking. The combination of time-limits and paid parking creates an inconvenient situation, e.g. when your visit to the dentist takes 2 hours instead of 45 minutes you may return to your car to find that in addition to having holes where you wisdom teeth used to be your wallet has been further emptied by a parking infringement.
Reforming on-street parking policies often become bogged down in comments from residents and businesses about parking being “too expensive.” And when confronted with such questions many parking reform proposals die an unnatural death. But most discussions of cost focus only on the hourly rate, rather than the cost of infringements. I would argue that the latter needs to be included in discussions of cost, because it drastically changes the nature of the conversation.
Until recently San Francisco was the only city that had really forged ahead with major on-street parking reforms, under the measured encouragement of Donald Shoup and aided by a federal transport research grant. San Francisco’s approach to on-street parking reforms is brilliant in its simplicity: They recognised that time-limits were a relatively inefficient way of managing demand, especially in areas where pay parking also applied.
In most locations with pay parking, San Francisco has sought to remove time-limits. In these areas they now rely almost solely on prices to manage demand: If demand goes up then hourly rates also go up, and vice versa. If you’re interested you can (and should!) read more about San Francisco’s trail-blazing approach to on-street parking policy on the SFpark website. The most interesting result is that revenue from meters went up, but revenue from infringements went down.
So San Francisco had effectively substituted meter revenue for infringement revenue; and while many people hate paying for parking, in my experience they have an even deeper hatred towards parking tickets, primarily because it makes them feel “unlucky”. Until recently SFpark was a lone super nova in an otherwise cold and dark parking universe.
Until yesterday when my home city of Auckland, New Zealand announced that it was applying to join San Francisco’s elite parking club. Auckland has followed a similar line to San Francisco, by removing all time-limits from on-street car-parks the city centre and instead relying on prices to manage demand. They point to the following advantages of this approach:
- Easier to understand – so long as you’re paid up you’re good to go. No need to search for a car-park that allows you to park for as long as you need.
- Simpler to enforce – parking wardens only have to check that the ticket is valid, which greatly expedites the enforcement process.
- Reduced street clutter – a consistent approach to on-street parking means that only a few “Pay and display” signs are required, rather than a forest of confusing restrictions.
One of Auckland’s interesting tweaks is the implementation of a free 15 minute grace period, which is intended to replace the need for so many dedicated taxi and loading zones (drop off/pick up). Basically, with this grace period every space in the city becomes a potential drop off / pick up space, so long as you don’t park for longer than 15 minutes, which results in more efficient utilisation.
Overall, Auckland expects that the changes will be broadly revenue neutral. But this hides a very significant shift in where revenue comes from. Whereas in the current situation a large proportion of revenue is derived from those unlucky people visiting the dentist (i.e. through infringements), in the future revenue from parking infringements is expect to decline, whereas meter revenue increases.
One of the less obvious benefits of the approach taken by Auckland and San Francisco, however, is that they’ve set out an agreed policy process for setting parking prices. That is, they have developed a transparent formula through which parking prices are adjusted in response to demand. This greatly reduces opportunities for public/political interference in the setting of parking prices.
It’s now not so easy for individual residents or businesses to demand lower prices on their particular street, because the prices are determined by the policy. While people can seek to change the policy itself (indeed that is their democratic right) in doing so they are at least required to engage with broader questions such as: How would this impact parking across the entire city centre?
The most telling sign of the broad-based stakeholder support for Auckland’s proposed changes is the comes from the Chief Executive of Heart of the City (business association) Alex Swney, who said:
“For many years parking has been seen as a major reason not to come into the city. We see today’s announcement as a significant change in approach to parking in the city. It recognises the ‘moving feast’ of parking demands of our businesses and their customers. It’s a major step forward and we are sure we will be looking back in a year and see significant improvement as a result.”
As one of the people that contributed to the development of this policy I’m quite biased in its favour. I can’t help but sense that this represents a big step in the direction of more transparent and sustainable on-street parking policy in Auckland.As someone who regularly visits cities overseas it also makes me ask: Which city will be next?