The revolution in the streets, the one propelling us to newer and greater heights, the one destined to build upon the buildings and streets so familiar to us today with the infrastructure of Tomorrowland… That revolution doesn’t succeed organically.

It takes input. It takes action. And it takes governance.

I’m reminded of this every time I put my ear to the ground, listening to people talk about the very-misunderstood concept of paid parking.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone lament, “I do anything to not pay for parking; I’ll park on the other side of town, I don’t care.”

The concept of paying to park is too-often seen as “greedy.”

But this mindset is misinformed, and a touch ironic. Because, insisting upon finding free parking (thus adding to congestion and wasting fuel) benefits only the self-interests of individuals. As a community, our residents, businesses, city and, of course, the environment can all collectively benefit from a shift in parking management.

The fact is, as cities become more dense and parking becomes more scarce a resource, local governments are feeling the pressure to explore alternatives to free street parking.

The leading alternative—a concept that’s been sitting right in front of us for decades—is demand-based paid parking. As we push towards Tomorrowland, it’s one of the most sound contributions a city can make to the health of its urban centers.

It’s not greedy at all, it’s good governance.

Demand-Based Parking

In the same way that hotel rooms and airline flights increase during popular travel times, demand-based parking (also referred to as dynamic or market-value parking) responds to the demand for stalls in specific areas. The higher the demand for parking, the higher the cost per hour. The lower the demand, the lower the cost.

Doesn’t paid parking then sound a lot like a free market? Drivers decide for themselves if a parking spot is worth its price and for how long they’re willing to pay to occupy it, which in turn raises or reduces the cost of parking in a given area.

But to be efficacious, demand-based parking stalls must be priced appropriately.

In “The High Cost of Free Parking,” renowned UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup, raises a comparison between parking and renting to underscore the value and importance of demand-based parking (often called market-value parking).

When renters find a fairly priced property in a trendy neighborhood, they apply for it right away. Deliberating leaves the door open for someone else. Similarly, market-value paid-parking in desired areas tends to fill quickly and regularly. This behavioural change moves drivers quickly from streets to stalls, helping to clear congestion.

But when the majority of stalls in an area are undervalued, it brings the collective worth of parking in the area down (in consumers’ eyes), which leads to the parking equivalent of “rent seeking.” In other words, people know (or believe) they can find a better deal if they just keep looking. When it comes to mobility, this manifests in more hours and gallons of gas wasted simply to find under-value spots

“Curb parkers spend their time and fuel in cruising,” Shoup explains, “the city loses potential rent from parking spaces, and everyone shoulders the added cost of traffic condition and air pollution. Searching for under-priced curb parking is a negative-sum game.”

Isn’t this all speculation?


Back in 2006, this study revealed that government employees with free parking are twice as likely to drive into Manhattan than commuters who have to pay for parking, adding 19,200 vehicles to the island and eliminating $46 million annually in parking revenue from the Big Apple’s coffers (not to mention the revenue that would otherwise have been earned by public trans).

Extend that study to account for free parking for all commuters and New York City is in serious mobility trouble—more so than it already is. The story reads more or less the same for cities across the country.

Just this January, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) in Washington, DC published its report on the Penn Quarter/Chinatown Parking Pricing Pilot program, which sought to discover if market-value parking relieved congestion and increased revenue in the Chinatown area.

The results raised more than just eyebrows—they raised hope in a city plagued with a parking crisis.

The goals of the program were to reduce the time it took to find parking, reduce congestion and pollution, increase safety, encourage public and mixed-use transportation, and develop cost-effective parking solutions.

Not only did the study hit all of its goals, it “also extended the length of time a vehicle could be parked in areas in less demand, which encouraged more use in those areas.” This means that demand-based parking increases pedestrianism and revenue to traditionally net-lower areas.

Environmental benefits accompanied the economic benefits of the DDOT study (which, after it’s success, is continuing in Chinatown and extending to other areas of DC). The time it took drivers to find parking dropped from an average eighteen minutes to twelve. Car to car, city to city, country to country, this is extremely necessary for reducing global carbon emissions. And it’s my guess that by the early 2020s the time it takes to find parking in most cities will drop to five minutes.

Bridging the Income Divide With Less Driving

One of the biggest arguments for free parking is that it hurts low-income commuters. It’s a claim not to be taken lightly. Afterall, access to cars (and the ability to pay for them) is one of the biggest advantages for US families—much in thanks to last century’s shift to a car-centric society. The changes that encouraged car use discouraged walking, riding bicycles, and taking public transportation. And that greatly impacted families who couldn’t afford cars.

For cities looking to solve this problem, demand-based parking could play a role in bridging the income gap widened by unfeasible commutes.

It’s quite clear that dynamic parking prices increases the demand for public transportation, inspiring cities tend to invest more in expanded routes and new modes. Currently, it’s unrealistic to think that the average low-income citizen can rely on public transit to get from one side of LA to the other in any sort of feasible time period. But with public transit more reflective of New York City or Chicago, it could one day be an easy commute between home and a higher paying job in The City of Angels.

Will robust public transportation put an end to poverty? No. But will help, and market-value pricing is one place to start.

Finding the Balance

Like anything, demand-based parking isn’t without challenges. Yes, it will rely on technology that, yes, will need to be monitored and repaired. And, yes, some will object to parking sensors as a violation of privacy. And, yes, it will take time to pinpoint the exact fair market value of an area’s parking.

But this is life. This is progress. This is how we push forward to better, safer, smarter cities, and how we win in a revolution where one of the few adversaries is wanting free parking more than parking freedom.

Final Thoughts

– “Cruising” in search of underpriced parking is considered a negative-sum game” because it reduces city income, adds to congestion, and affects the environment.

– Paying market value for parking stalls could earn cities millions each year in revenue

– Demand-based parking has proved to ease congestion, improve safety, and increase revenue in lower-demand areas

– Demand-based parking is a key component of good governance

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