Pricing Out Parking

Television advertisements for cars never
show drivers pulling in or out of a parking space, or trawling around the block
looking for a spot. In fact, most ads
show car and driver all alone on a scenic, recently resurfaced stretch of mountain
road. If only the financial picture of
managing car parking was so seemingly idyllic!

Lexington_ballpark_1925
Cities struggle with parking for a host of reasons: In an aesthetic sense, it’s nondescript. Poor visibility, access, and lighting can
create safety issues. Excess parking is
also a very costly way to employ urban land. Instead of a structure that could be used to generate jobs, commercial
activity and hence tax base (or, alternatively, an open space that bears
related benefits to adjacent property and broader health and social benefits),
excess parking represents a spoiler on the economy and treasury of a community. For one, Donald
Shoup
of UCLA has raised the profile of issues around how to manage and
price parking (and how to use parking revenues to leverage strength in local
economies); read
his most recent New York Times editorial here
, or look at
his 2005 book on the same subject here
.

The continuing dominance of the car is unlikely to fade in
the near future, and cities and urban merchants recognize that providing
parking capacity is important for commercial viability. Michael Monte, Director of the Community and Economic Development Office
in Burlington, Vermont
, noted during a meeting Friday that the Burlington
Downtown Improvement District (a small, dynamic business improvement district)
funds two hours of free parking downtown in order to strengthen its hand
against suburban strip retail not far down the road. While at first blush this appears to be in
conflict with Shoup’s ideas, the free parking complements a range of
transportation demand management (TDM) measures including aggressive metering
(I have a parking ticket to prove it), shuttling and park-and-rides, prominent
bicycle storage facilities, and transit provided through a five-city
transportation partnership. And the free
parking is an incentive for customers to shop on foot in the area surrounding
the Church Street pedestrian mall in downtown Burlington.

Near Macalester College,
a group of retailers in Saint Paul, Minnesota
formed an association to lease space for parking from a nearby church. Each retailer pays for their customers’ use
of the space based on the distance from their front door to the small parking
facility. In operation since 1994, the
arrangement is a flexible, relatively inexpensive (annual budget is roughly
$18,000) way to provide fifty parking stalls in an urban area characterized by
a mix of residential and retail uses.

Of course, no parking is truly free: There are significant direct costs associated
with building and maintaining parking surfaces or ramps. There are also indirect costs including congestion,
the cost of increasing water runoff from the impervious surface, and the
foregone cost of using the land in a more productive fashion. A great challenge for cities in coming
decades will be recognizing and paying for these costs in ways that support the
efforts of customers and employers in our cities.

Photo:  Opening Day, Lexington ball park, Saint Paul, 1929.  Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

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