The C is for Crank

Why We Need More (and More Expensive) Paid Parking

By Erica C. Barnett August 27, 2010

In a thinly disguised front-page editorial against paid parking today (which isn't, strangely, written by the paper's excellent and even-keeled transportation reporter, Mike Lindblom), the Seattle Times takes on city parking enforcement. From the screaming headline---"Parking violations bring in big bucks for the city of Seattle"---to the story's consistent presumption that the reader drives a car and hates paying for parking, the article consists of an argument that parking should be free. "Parking enforcement is the scourge of all dense urban areas," the story says, "and it's about to get worse."

But there's a strong case to be made that we should pay for parking---and pay more than we're paying now. Allow me to quote myself:
According to Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, the total subsidy for off-street parking alone was between $127 and $374 billion in 2002. We all pay for that parking, whether we drive or not, in the form of higher rents, more expensive dining and entertainment, and higher home-ownership costs. Moreover, more parking leads to more driving (supply, meet demand), which leads to more sprawl, more congestion, more accidents, and more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Those costs are borne by everyone, not just people those who drive. Your “free” parking is your neighbor’s kid’s asthma.

If anything, then, parking should be more expensive, and certainly never free.

In the case of Seattle, though, most parking is already free. According to the city, there are 13,500 paid parking spots in Seattle. According to the US Census Bureau, there are (at least) 400,000 cars in Seattle. No, it's not an exact correlation---people often park for short periods and drive away, and Seattle has plenty of heavily used private parking lots---but the fact that there are more than 29 cars for every paid parking space suggests an imbalance.

And the city isn't actually "rak[ing] in the money," as the story puts it. After enforcement costs, the city makes about $9 million on parking a year. Meanwhile, as Seattle Weekly points out, parking scofflaws currently owe $52 million to the city---a figure that dwarfs parking-fine revenues.

And on-street parking in Seattle is cheap---just $2 an hour, compared to $10 or more in private downtown lots. If anything, the city should increase the cost of parking to keep up with the private market.

Finally, the Times writes about paid parking as if it was a nefarious social-engineering experiment designed to get people out of their cars ("New parking laws and stiffer penalties are supposed to make driving less attractive.") And while there may be some truth to that---the story quotes Department of Planning and Development spokesman Bryan Stevens saying "People will change their patterns as it becomes more difficult to drive and park"---it's also true that parking is remarkably insensitive to price: When the city raised the commercial parking tax to 10 percent, people kept parking, and revenues from parking taxes, which pay for local transportation infrastructure, saw a corresponding spike, city officials say. That suggests that people who want convenient parking are willing to pay for it. If that brings in revenues that help fix our crumbling road infrastructure, then as far as I'm concerned, the more paid parking the better.
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