Joe Cortright had a nice piece recently where he showed that 83% of the amount of driving in cities can be explained by the cost of parking (and possibly other factors that are correlated with it). I’ve made similar connections between the lack of free parking and the “density” that so many urbanists credit with high transit use.
It’s hard to figure out causation amid several correlations. Cheap parking is also a proxy for the political strength of the motorist community in a city. How much driving is actually encouraged by the cheap parking, and how much is encouraged by free, wide roads or transit subsidy cuts demanded by those drivers?
It might be possible to disentangle these factors eventually, but it seems likely that we’ll find that cheap parking is directly responsible for at least some driving. There are several implications of this:
First, anyone who’s fighting any of the negative externalities of car use should spend some of their time fighting cheap parking. That means people fighting against pollution, carnage, resource depletion and economic insolvency.
Second, there are some people who see cheap parking as a social justice issue, viewing it through the narrow lens of poor drivers vs. rich drivers, ignoring poor non-drivers. Others see it as an economic development issue, ignoring the economic costs of cheap parking. We need to find ways to present that broader picture for these advocates in hope of bringing them over to our side of this issue.
There are several ways to fight cheap parking. The most straightforward ones are simply to institute pricing on existing free parking and raise prices on cheap parking. That means parking meters, gates on lots and garages, and permit systems. Some cities may be tempted to outsource this to a private corporation, the way Chicago did, but advocates seem to agree that this has been a disaster.
Parking prices, like most prices, are influenced by supply and demand. Another tactic is to fight the expansion of parking supply. Minimum parking requirements, subsidized government parking, zoning variances and zoning and tax policies that make it unprofitable to build anything but parking lots: all these are points where advocates can push back on parking.
Among the most important places we can have an impact, though, are projects that we support. I’ve written before about how dense housing, transit, and even bicycle and pedestrian projects are often built with obscene amounts of parking.
There are several projects that I’ve been tempted to support because they would provide alternatives to driving. But I’ve kept my mouth shut, or even argued against the projects in their current form, because they include too much parking. I’ve concluded that we would be better off without a Tappan Zee Bridge bike path, or an expansion of Metro-North to Rhinecliff, or a housing complex on a deck over the Sunnyside Yards, than with those projects and the parking that people want to build with them.
I hope you’ll do the same. If something comes along that you think would be really good, but it includes lots of parking, please ask yourselves, "Would this be worth all the parking?" And then act on that.