Parking - does it cause or cure congestion?

Does parking cause congestion, or can it help alleviate the problem? By John Van Horn
UTC / January 25, 2012
Parking Sign

Does parking cause congestion, or can it help alleviate the problem? By John Van Horn

It often appears that the two major players in the urban landscape work against each other. Urban Traffic Control (UTC) attempts to reduce traffic and congestion while the parking industry needs that very traffic to maintain its income and profitability. But is this really the case? Owners of off-street parking facilities, often local authorities, see low-cost kerb parking as the competitor. If it requires $3 an hour to provide parking in a car park, and it's $1 or even free to park at a meter on the street, where do people go? The answer is market-driven. People cruise around and around, looking for an inexpensive space, adding to the congestion and traffic problem. Studies done in the US and elsewhere have shown that as much as a third of all traffic on central business districts streets is looking for parking space and on average takes an additional six minutes' driving time to do so.

This additional traffic causes much of the congestion that UTC attempts to eradicate. Congestion pricing, street closures, traffic calming schemes and the like strive to keep vehicles from the central areas of towns and cities, but as a tool to reduce congestion taking a different tack with parking might be a better way to go.

Role reversal

In the example above, what would happen if the values were reversed? That is, what if it cost $2 to park in the off-street facility and $5 to park on-street? Would not most people quickly decide to drive into a car park, walk a couple of blocks, and save the difference? Those who wished to pay more for convenience could do so. Thus parking becomes a way to reduce congestion and a partner to UTC.

But this is anathema to local merchants. Charging more for parking, particularly in front of their premises is, they feel, dipping into their tills and telling their customers they should park instead outside the huge big box store on the edge of town where acres of parking are 'free'. Article after article in the mainstream press quotes merchants decrying parking controls, charges and enforcement. "Remove the meters" has become the battle cry of high street store owners.

The problem usually is that the merchants see exactly what the driving public sees. Money is charged for parking (and for citations) and it disappears into the local authority's general fund, never to be seen again. Oh, somewhere it is written that parking revenue goes for motorway construction or signage but it's impossible to see the connection, particularly when politicians state that increased parking revenue is needed to meet municipal budget shortfalls.

So we see another natural battlefield on the high street, with merchants and their customers on one side and the local authority on the other. The battle is over whether we should charge for parking or not.

The unassailable?

The basis for this goes back to ancient times where, somewhere in the scriptures, it says that parking should be free. I jest, but only a bit. Drivers do in fact feel that free parking is a fundamental right, not to be taken away. After all, what can it cost to paint a few lines on a street? The problem is that parking is a commodity like milk or flour. It costs something to provide and it must be charged based on supply and demand. The more supply and lower demand, the less it costs and vice versa. If not, all ratepayers end up subsidising drivers.

If parking were priced this way, in a way that, say, one space on-street was left open for every 10 used, then there would always be an on-street space available and drivers could park quickly and get out of traffic. If off-street pricing was based on supply (the car parks have a much larger supply) the price would be lower than on-street and folks who didn't want to pay the higher rate would quickly go and park there. The rates could change based on time of day or day of the week following supply and demand. The goal is to keep that one space open.
Longer-term parkers (merchants and their employees) would see it as being to their advantage to cut season ticket deals with the car parks and remove their cars from the on-street parking pool, thus making more space available for their customers. Everybody wins.

Of course for this to work, everyone needs to understand that parking costs something. It is not free. Just like petrol, insurance, and maintenance costs money to run a car, it also costs something to park it. Someone has to pay for that. It might be the taxpayer, or the merchant, but frankly to be fair, it should be the parker.

In many places merchants have set up schemes to validate parking and actually pay their customers' parking fees. In major shopping centres, where parking is 'free' to the parker, its cost is included in the merchant's rent and thus passed through to the customer in slightly higher costs of goods. Merchants in the high street can cover all or part of the parking costs through validation programmes that provide reduced rates in off-street car parks and potentially even a reduction in on-street costs.

In many cities where this has been proposed, it receives little acceptance. Merchants still want parking to be 'free' to their customers, period. To make the programmes more palatable, it has been suggested that the revenue generated, after costs, could be returned to the neighbourhood from which it came. New sidewalks, better streetscapes, new lighting, perhaps an additional police patrol could be provided. All this paid for by parking.

Publicity - the key

Promotion for this type of programme is important. People need to know that a certain nice street light or beautiful planter box was paid by their dollars and cents in the meter, as was the new sidewalk, or the promenade, or the new park at the end of the block. Even the buskers who add to the street scene on weekends could be funded by parking revenue.

When merchants see that the parking revenue is being ploughed right back into their streets and sidewalks and marketing programmes are being driven to attract customers to their area, objection quickly falls away.

But what of the money needed in the local authority general fund? As sales increase in local stores, taxes that are collected related to those sales increases, too. As a town's merchants increase their revenues, so does the local authority.

Drivers don't mind paying for parking, if there is a good reason for them to park. If the neighbourhood is attractive, and there are good shops, restaurants, theatres and clubs to visit, parking fees are the least of their concerns.

To quote a famous movie line, "If you build it, they will come." People come to urban centres to shop, play, eat and visit theatres. If the area is attractive, they will come. If it's not, all the free parking on the planet won't attract them.

It takes courage on the part of local politicians and merchants to attempt such a programme. But the results can be outstanding.

A living example

In 622 Santa Monica, California, six huge car parks in the downtown core sat virtually empty for years, even though they were basically free. Then a main street was closed off and four blocks were turned into a grand promenade with restaurants, shops, clubs and theatres. The neighbourhood came alive. The carparks are now used, often to capacity, and they even charge for parking. Car parks don't make the neighbourhood, the neighbourhood makes the parking.

By using parking and parking fees as a tool to help control traffic in urban areas a number of problems are solved: drivers may think twice about driving into the area and take other types of transportation, thus lowering the amount of traffic on the streets; cruising for parking space is alleviated, removing a large number of cars from the street and easing congestion; revenues generated can assist in urban renewal and the marketing of urban centres; and the unfair practice of having all ratepayers pay for parking costs for those who elect to drive is eliminated (and getting cars quickly off streets and into parking reduces emissions and is as green as green can be).

The bottom line is that the battle between UTC and parking can be changed into a partnership. Proper pricing of parking can be the driving force to change the face of the urban landscape and reduce congestion.

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