Monday, November 28, 2011

Statesman Looks at $2M+ Subsidy for Free Parking

The discussion about who bears the cost of downtown's "free" parking in yesterday's paper was great to see. Somebody pays, and the general lack of transparency is not fair to the businesses who are taxed, or to the downtown visitors who enjoy the "free" parking. Because the costs are hidden and externalized, people are not able to make appropriate decisions about time and money and the allocation of increasingly scarce resources.

Writing in Sunday's Statesman Journal, Timm Collins offers a summary of its history and present state:
About 35 years ago, business leaders got together with the city of Salem to remove the majority of metered parking downtown.

Retailers feared a new mall on Lancaster Drive with its multitude of free parking spaces would bring downtown shopping to a grinding halt.

Voters formed Salem's Downtown Parking District which this year will spend more than $2 million on maintenance, promotion, security and management of more than 3,600 city-owned parking spaces.
"Free" parking, it turns out, causes lots of problems! The free parking on Lancaster properties created a cascading effect that harmed downtown and locked it into a dysfunctional relationship with its own free parking, where it is now deemed essential to downtown vitality.

Donald Shoup has written The High Cost of Free Parking and many essays. About curb parking he writes in the NY Times,
a surprising amount of traffic isn’t caused by people who are on their way somewhere. Rather, it is caused by those who have already arrived. Streets are clogged, in part, by drivers searching for a place to park.

Several studies have found that cruising for curb parking generates about 30 percent of the traffic in central business districts.
And writing about Shoup, Tom Vanderbilt says in Slate,
minimum parking requirements warp markets and create a de facto subsidy in favor of driving. Donald Shoup, a professor of planning and author of The High Cost of Free Parking, is withering in his critique of parking minimums: "They distort transportation choices toward cars, and thus increase traffic congestion, air pollution, and energy consumption. They reduce land values and tax revenues. They damage the economy and degrade the environment. They debase architecture and urban design. They burden enterprise and prevent the reuse of older buildings. And they increase the prices for everything except parking.
Because there are alternatives to shopping downtown, alternatives that have large parking lots with free parking, downtown merchants fear eliminating free parking.

At the same time, the market failures caused by free parking exacerbate all the problems Shoup lists in the Vanderbilt piece.

In fact, we have a system premised on what is really an amazing set of subsidies and consequent market failures centered on cars. Look at again our gasoline pricing:

Free parking is a giant sugar-bomb soda: Tasty for lots of people, but not at all good for us. And like soda, while it may not have immediate effects, the cumulative effects of a generation-long habit are bad, bad, bad.

(Gasoline pricing chart from Taking the Wheel, Achieving a Competitive Transportation Sector through Mobility Choice, p.11 [24pp pdf])

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