Truth about parking: Nothing comes for free

Rahm Emanuel
REUTERS/Frank Polich
Rahm Emanuel

Last week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel got the attention of downtown workers in his city when he proposed a “congestion fee” of $2 per weekday for parking in public ramps and lots in the central business district.

This fee would come on top of the current $3-a-day city parking tax. It was billed as an attempt to reduce gridlock in the city’s Loop and encourage greater transit use.

Some urban planning experts have long complained that parking is under-priced, encouraging the use of autos rather than transit and other transportation modes.

They also say local governments have established excessive on-site parking requirements — especially for suburban developments — creating huge expanses of “free” surface parking that central cities can’t match.

In his 2005 book, “The High Price of Free Parking,” urban planning professor Donald Shoup of UCLA argues that the cost of free and subsidized parking factors into every financial transaction we make.

“Residents pay for parking through higher prices for housing. Businesses pay for parking through higher rents for their premises. Shoppers pay for parking through higher prices for everything they buy,” Shoup writes.

“We don’t pay for parking in our role as motorists, but in all our other roles — as consumers, investors, workers, residents and taxpayers — we pay a high price. Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for ‘free’ parking.”

Still, you’d have a tough time convincing most Chicagoans they aren’t paying enough to park downtown, where the going rate is $30 or more a day.

Yet, the parking rate itself doesn’t cover the costs arising from time lost by motorists circling the streets looking for parking, the congestion that results, the buses that are delayed, the motor fuel that is wasted and the pollution that is emitted.

Minneapolis, St. Paul parking
The city of Minneapolis, which owns 17 ramps and seven surface lots with more than 20,000 spaces, tries to address the parking issue through variable rates. Monthly rates for ramps in the core downtown area exceed $200 a month.

However, if commuters choose to park in the ABC ramps on the periphery of downtown, the monthly rates range from $123 to $140 — with substantial discounts for car poolers. The parking contracts also come with free access to adjacent Metro Transit buses and transits serving the downtown area.

Dan MacLaughlin, executive director of the Downtown Minneapolis Transportation Management Organization (TMO), believes current policies are working pretty well.

“I don’t think congestion in the downtown core is so serious that we would be pursuing the idea of congestion fees,” he said.

In downtown St. Paul, the current congestion problems arise primarily from light rail construction, which won’t be completed until 2014.

With more than 26,000 publicly and privately owned parking spaces in the downtown area, St. Paul may have an over-supply. Monthly parking rates range from $40 for the fringe lots to $150-$200 for ramps in the core area, according to the St. Paul TMO. Monthly contracts at the 1,550-space RiverCenter ramp go for a relatively modest $100.

Nonetheless, Adeel Lari, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, believes that the shortage of on-street parking is an issue in both downtowns.

“If you don’t have a space available, drivers will keep circling looking for a space and add to congestion, air pollution and the like,” Lari says.

Parking experiment in San Francisco
Lari and other transportation experts are eagerly watching the high-tech SFpark experiment now under way in San Francisco.

With the help of a $20 million federal grant, sensors have been embedded in 7,000 on-street parking spaces and in 15 city-owned ramps to track when and where parking is available. Sensor data is uploaded wirelessly to the SFpark data feed, making this information available to the public via this website, smartphone applications and eventually text message and 511.

The system allows SFpark to adjust meter prices based on demand to encourage drivers to make trips in off-peak hours and to use parking lots and garages. The goal of these pricing adjustments is to have at least one parking space available on every block.

In launching the project last April, Mayor Edwin Lee said, “San Francisco is the first city in the world to pursue a comprehensive parking-based approach to congestion management and greenhouse gas emission reduction that will also support local merchants and keep San Francisco moving.”

Lari and fellow researcher Lee Munnich said the Humphrey School is planning a conference for later this year to learn more about such efforts.

“We are going to learn a lot from San Francisco and other cities that are testing new approaches to parking,” Munnich says. “I think there is good reason for Minneapolis and St. Paul to reexamine their pricing policies and see what makes sense here.”

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/20/2011 - 04:46 pm.

    I spent some years as a planning commissioner, and simply want to reinforce the message here. There’s no such thing as “free” parking, and as has been pointed out, everyone pays for it in one fashion or another.

    To this newbie to the area, there doesn’t seem to be very much on-street parking in downtown Minneapolis anyway, so if I’m coming downtown, I rarely even attempt to find it. I usually just hope to locate a ramp within reasonable walking distance of my destination. To phrase it gently, I’m not impressed with Metro Transit’s bus service, but in the case of a Twins game, I take the NorthStar train, which is economical and relatively convenient at the suburban end, and couldn’t be more convenient at the Target Field end.

  2. Submitted by Gary Peterson on 10/21/2011 - 12:28 am.

    Where is the logic in the Minneapolis (and St. Paul) “event” parking fees of $9-$13 for a few hours in the evening when the downtown workforce has vacated? These rates are an abomination to the consuming public of shopping, culture, and the arts.

  3. Submitted by Patrick Phenow on 10/21/2011 - 09:59 am.

    I feel like you didn’t read the article. Contained within nearly everything we do is a hidden subsidy for parking. When you pay a $9-$13 event rate in Minneapolis you Might get close to paying for the actual value of the use of that bit of real estate for a few hours.

    On the other hand, if you’re willing to walk more than 3 or 4 blocks from your parking spot, you can usually find free, on-street parking at meter spots downtown after 6. Here, this might help:

  4. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/21/2011 - 10:49 am.

    I’m all for harnessing the power of parking. It’s probably too heavily subsidized for those that commute by those that don’t.

    The existence of those spots encourages heavy street usage (and taxes for fixing them), heavy traffic (and the cost of paying for traffic monitors), and wasted time.

    It also wastes the resources we have to reduce this problem, like light rail and busing. Ray, I feel your pain about Metro Transit. However, why bother to improve public transportation if someone’s going to simply pony up for a cheap parking spot, not only rendering broader bus and train service useless, but screwing up their schedules (oh man, do I get irritated when, in a snowstorm, my bus which is filled to capacity is nearly an hour late because some individual or 2 in their cozy cars can’t wait to get through an intersection that can’t possibly clear out before the light changes).

    So, why shouldn’t the city get more money from the commuters that use the cities amenities but pay little for them so that the city can better maintain those amenities and keep residents’ taxes lower? Feel free to keep the prices lower on weekends and evenings when the demand is low and increase them during large events when demand is high. People will pay more if they feel it’s worth it. If not, they’ll figure out alternatives, like using public transportation or telecommuting or working at alternate times. It’s not like we’ll all quit our jobs because we don’t want to pay for parking.

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