Parking Policy in the Smartphone City

Parking_meter_pd_medDriving in large cities is rarely pleasant. Roads can be so congested that traveling a single block takes several minutes and, after enduring all the other difficulties, finding a convenient parking spot is tough.

In the past few months, two teams of entrepreneurs have released smartphone apps that they claim will make this process easier, at least for those who are willing to pay. These apps allow, in essence, an auction for parking spots. Drivers can sell the use of spots they currently occupy but are about to leave up to the highest bidder. The first such app was MonkeyParking, founded by a team from the notoriously chaotic city of Rome, which expanded into San Francisco in May 2014. A copycat app, Haystack, founded by a team from Baltimore, soon followed with a controversial expansion into Boston.

Reactions was ferocious. City officials and newspaper columnists condemned the apps as a privatization of public space. Twitter users labeled them #JerkTech and wrote them off as another example of rich techies’ insensitivity to common society. San Francisco and Boston even hastily passed ordinances banning them. Critics argued that parking is a public resource, not a profit opportunity for a few private companies.

Largely overlooked in the popular media discussion, however, are the reasons why Haystack and MonkeyParking were able to make a profit in the first place. Unlike in the private sector, where prices typically settle at the market-clearing price, parking has been deliberately kept under the market-clearing price, even free, on political grounds. The results—the perceived impossibility of finding a free space in a convenient location, added congestion as drivers circle blocks finding places to park (some surveys in New York City, in which researchers approached cars at stoplights, suggest that 30% of city traffic comes from parking searches), and the growth of a black market to accomplish what the controlled market can’t—are all what anyone with a basic grounding in economics would expect from a price ceiling that encourages demand far in excess of supply.

Broadly speaking, the notion that cities should be accessible to drivers, providing ample parking and wide, fast roads, came about after World War II. Postwar urban renewal imposed suburban forms on dense cities, often with immensely destructive methods. In Boston, this manifested itself in the 1958 demolition of the West End, an immigrant neighborhood whose densely packed buildings were condemned and replaced by luxury condos widely spaced in a manicured suburban-like lawn, and the development of the Central Artery, an elevated highway dividing the North End from downtown.

These notions also brought about the policy of parking minimums. To lessen the demand for on-street parking, cities amended their zoning codes to require every new building—whether a restaurant, a retail store, or an apartment house—to provide some number of parking spaces off the street. Such policies apply today to even the densest parts of cities, and quite frequently require far more parking than already exists. In Boston’s North End, for example, two-thirds of residents do not own a car, but the zoning code requires new apartment buildings to include one parking space per apartment. If the North End were demolished and rebuilt under the zoning code that currently governs it, in fact, parking lots would cover at least a fifth of it.

Most parking is free, or at least, drastically underpriced. The root cause of this is a cultural attitude routed in an accident of history. Drivers had 20 years after the invention of the Model T to become accustomed to free parking. When the first parking meters were installed in 1928, some even sued city governments to get rid of them. This attitude has not gone away. “There is an enormous amount of political pressure to keep parking free,” said Jessica Robertson, a transportation coordinator in Boston’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council, in an interview with the HPR. “People really consider it a basic human right.”

The negative effects of parking minimums and free parking are well-established. They drive up housing costs, as every buyer or renter of an apartment, with or without a car, must pay for a parking spot as well. They require developers either to use expensive urban land on surface parking lots or to build structured garages. One contractor estimates that elevated parking garages cost $17,500 per space, and underground structures are far costlier. Not to be outdone, the MBTA built a garage at the rail station in Beverly, Massachusetts at $68,000 per space for 500 cars; if each space is used once per day, the cost per daily vehicle rivals that of the Big Dig. Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and widely regarded as the world’s expert on parking policy, estimated that in 2002, free off-street parking cost $386 billion. Beyond purely financial costs, parking minimums make urban environments worse for pedestrians, who must to walk farther between buildings separated by parking lots and who must endure noisier, more dangerous, and more polluting traffic.

But people faced with proposals to eliminate these policies—to eliminate parking minimums, or to raise parking prices—typically worry that travel in most areas in a private car is so difficult that without copious cheap parking, residents, shoppers, and tax revenue will move away. Boston Globe columnist Tom Keane, writing against a proposal for a new apartment building with few parking spaces, summarized part of this view concisely. After noting that households with children in Boston have markedly higher car ownership rates than those without, he claims, “Cars are a necessity. By making it a hassle to own one, we push families out to the suburbs.”

But these concerns are misplaced. The current system of below-market pricing already drives shoppers out of retail districts, namely, the shoppers that would have paid market rate for a vacant parking spot, but couldn’t. More subtly, retailers make their money off of fast customer turnover. When customers can come quickly, buy what they need, and then leave, they provide more revenue per hour than those who dawdle and window-shop. A study of eighty large shopping centers in the Netherlands found that raising parking prices both increased turnover in parking spots and raised revenue for the nearby stores.
As for the claim that family life in Boston (or several other large cities) requires a car: two-thirds of households in the North End, not to mention three-fifths in Beacon Hill, or three-fourths in Chinatown, already manage well without one. The reason that so many people with political power believe this also underlies a good portion of the rest of discourse about urban planning: most people without cars are politically invisible.

Car ownership is not cheap. The personal-finance website Bankrate gives the annual cost for owning a car in Massachusetts as $2,169, including repairs, gasoline, and insurance but not depreciation; the Bureau of Labor Statistics claims that in 2012, the average American household spent $51,442 of which $8,998, about 17.5%, were spent on transportation; for most households, this is mostly the cost of car ownership and occasional air travel. The financial burden proves too heavy for many poor households. “Especially in cities like Boston and Cambridge, there’s a much, much lower rate of car ownership among lower-income people, and the cost of car ownership and car use is pretty high,” Jessica Robertson said.

Yet despite this, advocates of superficially car-friendly policies often use populist rhetoric. Consider, for example, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2008 initiative to impose an $8 congestion charge on cars entering Manhattan south of 86th Street. The state government blocked it due to opposition from what the New York Times described as “a broad array of politicians from Queens, Brooklyn and New York’s suburbs, who viewed the proposed congestion fee as overwhelmingly beneficial to affluent Manhattanites.” The Times further quoted an opposed Democratic state legislator from Queens, who remarked that “the word ‘elitist’ came up a number of times” when he discussed the policy with his colleagues.

This perception, one must admit, has some truth: the wealthy residents of the Upper East Side would certainly benefit from less congested streets in their neighborhoods. But so would New York’s lower- and working-class bus riders, whose buses carrying 40 people each would no longer be tied up in traffic full of cars carrying one or two people.

This adoption of the rhetoric of populism by advocates of policies whose effects are quite unpopulist, however, persists because the lower classes—who have less money and fewer connections to political leaders and the media—are largely invisible. Daniel Kay Hertz, a master’s student in urban planning at the University of Chicago, said in an interview with the HPR that the debate over the “Ashland Bus Rapid Transit” project in Chicago, which would designate two lanes of a 16-mile stretch of major avenue as only for buses, exemplifies this dynamic. Hertz noted that a 2014 Atlantic Cities article about the project remarked that “just ten years ago, living in Chicago was considered eccentric behavior,” even though one in four Chicago households lacked a car in 2004, implying that these households were located in or very near to the city. Other newspapers often quote motorists worried about the loss of car lanes but very rarely quote bus riders. This, he says, gives the impression of “a debate between, on the one hand, neighborhood residents who drive, and on the other, government transportation planners and their transit-nerd friends.” He claims that the root of the problem is that journalists for major news outlets rarely know people who rely on the bus.

Bearing all this in mind, what can be done to fix parking shortages? We can begin by recognizing that often, the “shortage” is entirely spurious, or could be fixed with better management of existing parking. “Parking studies in towns in the Boston area tend to find a pretty consistent pattern that in a lot of places there’s a perception of a parking problem,” Jessica Robertson noted, “but really there’s available parking, it’s just a little bit further away.”

Similar patterns appear in San Francisco, which since April 2011 has rolled out an innovative market-based pricing system called SFPark, in which parking meters track how long each parking spot in San Francisco is occupied. Every month, this data is used to adjust parking prices, which vary by day of the week and by time of day, to keep each block about 85% full. Overused blocks at a particular time of day one month see their prices nudged upward by 25 cents per hour for the next month; underused blocks see their prices nudged downward, encouraging drivers to save money by parking slightly further away from their destination. The SFPark pilot covered only 8,200 parking spots in nine districts, but it reduced congestion by cutting the time drivers spend looking for parking by 50 percent. And concerns that market pricing is inequitable have proved largely misplaced. SFPark raised prices significantly in only a few high-demand blocks, while in large tracts elsewhere, including very close to downtown, prices actually fell.

Smartphone apps themselves may even be able to help. MonkeyParking and Haystack have framed themselves not merely as auction sites for parking, but also as information services that provide data about when parking spots will most likely be vacated. Paolo Dobrowolny, the founder and CEO of MonkeyParking, characterized his app as a “bottom-up,” user-driven market for parking; he also claimed that with precise information about when occupants of parking spaces plan to leave, his approach could use parking spaces even more efficiently than the 85% for which “top-down” SFPark aims, and praised San Francisco’s planning office for their interest in collaboration with parking apps.

But whether smartphone apps can lead the way to better parking policy or not, their existence shows that the current system can change, and moreover that it ought to. Banning them, as Boston has done, does not address the core issue: the standard American approach to parking policy is broken, creating false perceptions of shortages, unnecessary traffic problems, and vast amounts of economic waste. A serious political effort to address this must recognize that supply and demand applies to parking just as surely as it applies to everything else, and fix the broken rhetoric around urban policy that ignores the needs and even existence of the car-less urban class. Such a political program will be challenging, as the benefits of the status quo are obvious every time someone parks without needing to pay, whereas the manifold costs—in inflated housing prices, pollution, and congestion—are hidden. But it can, and must, be done.

Read more here:
Copyright 2018