Why Parking in Cities Should Be Way More Expensive

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Here’s an idea that’ll probably be about as popular with drivers as 20 blocks of gridlock traffic.

For obvious reasons, city drivers love parking that’s free or cheap. The problem is that too many drivers love it too much. The price difference between on-the-street parking and putting a car in the downtown garage is so big — perhaps a couple of bucks per hour vs. $10 or $15 per hour — that hunting for one of the precious few available spots can seem like a (somewhat) sensible use of time. Or at least not a total waste of time.

Some would argue that the situation described above is, however, an enormous waste of resources. In a new op-ed in the Boston Globe, Edward L. Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, writes that on-street parking in popular, traffic-clogged U.S. cities should be much more expensive — perhaps even pricier than the rates charged in private parking garages. What about the idea that streets are communal, publicly funded spaces that should be readily available to the public at little to no cost? Glaeser’s not buying it:

Just because something is publicly provided doesn’t mean that it should be free, or only $1.25 per hour. If a commodity is as scarce as land in Boston, we need a fair way of allocating it.

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To Glaeser, a better and fairer use of on-street-parking spaces would be to price them at or near the fees charged in off-street lots and garages:

Drivers like me shouldn’t be bribed with more taxpayer-funded highways or underpriced on-street parking; we should be charged for the congestion we impose and the pollution we create. If drivers are unwilling to cover the cost of what the city gives up by maintaining valuable space as on-street parking, then the space should be used for something else.

Boston magazine published a story last fall that similarly makes the case that on-street-parking rates should be jacked up dramatically, at least during peak times on the most popular streets. Craziest of all, according to critics of free or cheap parking, is that residents with permits park in tens of thousands of spaces without paying a dime:

“You have some of the most valuable land on earth, and you’re giving it away for free to cars,” says Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking. “It’s preposterous.”

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The let’s-hike-parking-meter-prices discussion is hardly limited to Boston. It’s being played out in San Francisco, where meter prices soared to upwards of $4.50 per hour last year and may hit $6 per hour in the near future. As the New York Times reported, the goal is to price parking so high that there would always be at least one spot open on every block. Rather than having set prices, rates shift according to supply and demand, increasing during peak-demand periods and plummeting during the lulls on quiet, out-of-the-way streets. The Times also quoted Shoup, who has become the godfather of the pricier-city-parking movement:

“I think the basic idea is that we will see a lot of benefits if we get the price of curbside parking right, which is the lowest price a city can charge and still have one or two vacant spaces available on every block.”

It’s not just meters that should get a price hike. Many argue that tax-paying residents should be paying far more for monthly parking permits, which allow them to leave cars sitting unused for days, if not weeks. A San Francisco Bay Guardian editorial from last summer targeted neighborhood parking fees as much “too low”:

The neighborhood parking permits in effect give a piece of the city’s streets — public property — to some residents for $8.60 a month, or about 28 cents a day. At a time when Muni can’t afford to keep its buses rolling, that’s ridiculous.

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Meanwhile, the U.S. title for Priciest Downtown Parking Meters doesn’t belong to Boston, San Francisco or even New York City. As of the new year, Chicago has the nation’s most expensive meters, charging $6.50 per hour.

While few drivers welcome higher parking prices, what would you think if higher fees were combined with the possibility that parking tickets would disappear entirely? That’s what Anam Ardeshiri, a doctoral candidate in transportation and urban-infrastructure studies at Morgan State University, says should happen if the system were fair. The Atlantic Cities blog summed up the concept this way:

Cities could still recoup the same revenue, Ardeshiri has calculated, if they charged parked cars — at a much higher rate than they currently are — for their precise usage rather than by prebilling drivers and sticking it to those who stay too long.

From the driver’s perspective, Ardeshiri’s offer is this: Wouldn’t you be willing to pay more per hour to park if it meant you’d never get a ticket?