Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Congestion-based parking?

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article recently on "The Parking Fix" (seven-day free link, subscriber permalink), including a concept I hadn't seen before: congestion-based parking, i.e. parking rates change dynamically with demand to keep up turnover and insure spaces are available. Excerpts:

As anyone who has ever circled the block for a marginally better spot knows, parking is an American obsession. It occasionally boils over into rage, or worse. Since the parking meter was first introduced 70 years ago, in Oklahoma City, the field has been dominated by two simple maxims: Cities can never have too much parking, and it can never be cheap enough.

Now a small but vocal band of economists, city planners and entrepreneurs is shaking that up, promoting ideas like free-market pricing at meters and letting developers, rather than the cities, dictate the supply of off-street parking. Seattle is doing away with free street parking in a neighborhood just north of downtown. London has meters that go as high as $10 an hour, while San Francisco has been trying out a system that monitors usage in real time, allowing the city to price spots to match demand. (A recent tally there showed that one meter near AT&T Park brings in around $4,500 a year, while another meter about a mile away takes in less than $10.)...

Economists have long made the case that the solution to the parking crunch many cities face lies not in more free or cheap parking but in higher prices. The idea is that higher prices result in a greater churn -- and get more people on buses and subways -- which leads to more open spaces. But this notion has often run up against city planners and retailers arguing that cheap and plentiful parking results in more commerce and, thus, higher sales taxes and a vibrant economy.
Mr. Shoup has popularized what might be called the "85% rule": Cities, he says, should charge whatever rates lead to about 85% of the spots being filled up at any given time, moving rates up or down as demand fluctuates.
The new market-based approach to parking isn't being rolled out everywhere. Many towns and cities still have lower-density development, and parking in those places is likely to remain free until there's a shortage. Also, the most dramatic parking changes are largely confined to commercial areas -- in residential neighborhoods, parking continues to be mostly free and unrestricted.

But the idea has plenty of detractors, starting with those who say the price increases fall disproportionately on people for whom they are a hardship. Also, many market-based plans eliminate minimum parking requirements for developers, which critics say gives developers a profit boost and creates a parking crunch down the line. And, some merchants remain convinced that free or subsidized parking is a necessary ingredient to a thriving shopping district. And, of course, people at any income level rarely welcome paying for something they're used to getting for nothing.
San Francisco, perhaps more than any other city, shows how radically some cities are rethinking their parking. The city is one of the toughest places to find a meter spot in all of America, and there have been a spate of attacks by angry drivers, against parking enforcement officers. One block near the popular Fisherman's Wharf has average stays of four hours -- even though there's a two-hour time limit -- and some spots are filled for days at a time.

Recently, the city hired a company to lay hundreds of 4-inch-by-4-inch sensors along the streets in some areas. The sensors, which resemble reflectors, have recorded some 250,000 "parking events" across 200 parking spots. City planners can now tell you which spots are occupied the longest and how traffic flow affects parking supplies.

If the sensors get a wider rollout, the city has floated a number of ideas. When there's a Giants baseball game at AT&T Park, the city could temporarily charge about the same as private lots near the stadium. The ground sensors are also connected to the Internet wirelessly, which creates the possibility that parking enforcement officers equipped with PDAs could get real-time information on parking violations beamed to them. It also means consumers could get information on which parking spots are open.

About a month ago, the city also installed new kiosks that take credit cards as well as quarters, and boosted prices from a flat rate of $2 per hour to a four-hour rolling rate that starts at $3 and rises to $5, for a total of $15 for four hours. That's more than the day rate at many privately owned parking garages in the area. "We're pricing to match demand," says Tod Dykstra, chief executive of Streetline Networks, which installed the sensors.

I think one of the unappreciated features of Houston is the abundant free parking. I know it's not always attractive looking, but from my limited experiences in Boston, NYC, DC, Chicago, and San Francisco, it really sucks to have to contemplate before every car trip:
  • Will I be able to find parking anywhere near my destination?
  • After how much searching and at what cost?
  • And will I be able to find street parking anywhere near my home when I return?
  • Is this trip really important enough to give up my primo street space near home? Maybe I should just order-in and watch a DVD?...
I have to say, parking hassles are definitely a drag on my definition of "quality of life."

Update: after reading some comments, just to be clear, I think congestion-priced parking is a great idea, I'm just glad Houston doesn't have the same parking hassles as a lot of cities.


At 12:44 AM, March 07, 2007, Blogger Phlip said...

I recently moved back to Houston after living next to Fenway Park for four years. Your list of questions to consider before driving anywhere is exactly what went through my mind when contemplating each trip in my Jeep. However, I didn't really consider it such a "hassle."

It all depends on your expectations. I learned the traffic patterns (always had a copy of the Red Sox schedule in my wallet) and adjusted my behavior accordingly. I only really used the Jeep for heavy shopping and trips out of town. When it was inconvenient to drive due to parking or traffic, I walked and/or took public transportation like everybody else in the Fens. I would often go a week without driving. I *liked* that neighborhood and that lifestyle.

People who get really annoyed at the lack of unlimited free parking wouldn't live there in the first place. Although they didn't seem to have a problem illegally parking in our resident spots along the street, which is another issue . . . . Now I find myself back in Houston driving some trips I would have walked in Boston.

I think the dynamic parking price system sounds cool.

At 7:10 AM, March 07, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree, when you're lucky enough to live in a neighborhood that has access to good transit and walking options, obviously car trips are much less of an issue. But again, based on my limited experiences in those cities with friends living there, destinations suprisingly often required the car, because transit and walking were so out of the way (or the weather was so bad).

I also agree the dynamic parking seems cool, although of limited use in Houston. Maybe parts of downtown?

At 9:58 PM, March 07, 2007, Blogger Phlip said...

Yeah, Boston is so compact geographically and well-covered by the T (subways/trolleys) and buses it's probably an exceptional case. I certainly would miss having a vehicle more here than there!

And I agree this dynamic parking thing may not be relevant to Houston, at least not now.

At 11:23 PM, March 07, 2007, Blogger John said...

Have you ever lived in one of those congested cities? I have (17 years in Boston and DC). It's realy not a big hassle.

No, you can't always take your car (like an earlier commenter, I lived in the Fenway for a while - oy!)

You walk (which is more pleasant usually). You take the train. Or you take a taxi, which are pretty easy to get in both Boston and DC.

Maybe your friends just haven't quite gotten the hang of it yet.

The hassle involved is no more than, say, needing to go somewhere in Houston at a time when you know traffic will be awful. It's part of living in a big city, and the details may be different in other places, but the overall difficulty just isn't all that different. And the upside of those places is the many, many times, you don't have to drive. For example, when i used to talk or take the T to my grad school in Boston and was walking faster than the cars on the crowded street next to me.

If parking is a scarce resource, it should cost. There's no inherent right to bring a car-sized object to a convenient place and leave it on a public street. Congestion parking encourages better use of that resource. For example, when I lived in Boston's South End, parking was awful at night - but during the day, the streets sat empty (because of resident parking). In Boston, I always thought the city should make some cash by selling daytime-only permits for the resident spots (in a limited number), and letting the market set the price - you could walk to the Hancock Tower and Prudential Center in 10 minutes from my street, so there was certainly a market for those spots.

At 11:26 PM, March 07, 2007, Blogger John said...

Oh, and all that said - I do appreciate the easy parking in downtown Houston. But at the same time, it seems like a sign of an underutilized neighborhood to me - maybe that's just my northeastern roots showing, but it makes me think, "Gee, nobody really wants to be here, do they?"

At 7:17 AM, March 08, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I added an update at the end of the post, to clarify my position a bit in case there was confusion.


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