Monday, April 13, 2009

Meter Objectives

On Wednesday, the Board of Aldermen is taking up the subject of parking meters. Specifically, they will consider whether to increase the number of meters, increase the hours they are effective, increase the rates, and make meters effective on Saturdays. All good stuff, but the answers require a more fundamental look at what the city can and should accomplish with meters.

Obviously, meters are a revenue source for the city. But, they do more than just provide revenue. They are a mechanism that allows the city to shape traffic patterns and travel behaviors in our commercial centers.

Meters exist -- and the potential for meters to exist -- because the city has an asset -- a 175 sq.ft. or so plot of public land -- that it can charge a fee to occupy. The first thing to recognize is that any publicly available asset that is underpriced is inevitably going to be poorly utilized. In the case of parking, poor utilization because parking is too cheap means a few things:

  • People are not discouraged from driving
  • Spaces are not used to maximize commercial activity
  • Spaces are not exploited for their revenue potential

This site has long argued that transportation, land-use, and other policy should -- where relevant -- seek to impose on drivers the cost of driving. If the city owns and maintains parking spaces and provides them at a below-market rate, it is providing a subsidy to drivers. There is no way, in this day and age, to justify a subsidy for automobile use.

As dedicated Shoupistas, we have argued that below market-rate parking has the perverse (and generally unexpected) effect of discouraging commercial activity. The world is divided into people who are more or less urgent in their need to spend money in our local retail establishments. Low meter rates (or no meter rates) mean that prime parking spaces get taken by those on the low end of the urgency scale, to the inconvenience of the more urgent shoppers.

And, the city can always use more money. More importantly, meter revenue could -- and should -- be used to finance improvements in the very districts where it is collected. (The city currently allocates meter revenue across the city, regardless of where collected.)

So, what would a good meter policy look like? It would have the following five rules as the foundation:

  • Meters on any publicly owned parking space used by people to shop or to work/commute. 
  • A minimum 50-cent rate per half hour
  • Market-based rates on any one-block (or equivalent) stretch that has 100% occupancy at any time during the day
  • A substantial portion of meter revenue spent on improvements right where the revenue is collected
  • Strictly enforced resident parking beyond the scope of metered parking

 The first point is an easy one. We should capture a fee that reflects the value of the space provided. There is no public policy reason to give it away. One good example: Braeland Road behind the Newton Centre T station. Why do 20 (?) or so people merit a special, free handout from the city?

The second point seems pretty easy, too. A dollar an hour to park seems perfectly consistent with the other costs to own and operate a car. And, it could be a significant source of revenue.

The third point is the toughest, and the most interesting. There are plenty of previous posts that go into more detail. The summary is this. If meter rates are so low that there are periods of 100% occupancy -- think Langley Road in Newton Centre -- then people drive around hunting for free spaces, creating congestion and pollution. And, it's bad for near-by businesses. Spaces don't turn over, denying the businesses fresh waves of customers. Customers who might be willing to pay a market rate -- likely the businesses best prospects -- don't have spaces readily available. From a shop-owner's perspective, a customer with an itch to spend should always find an open space within a block of the shop door.

A well-set market rate would result in 85% occupancy on the block or blocks it applies to. Eighty-five percent occupancy means that the parking is well-used, but that there is enough turnover to ensure that there is always a space or two available for people who really want the convenience and are willing to pay for it: likely people ready to patronize local businesses. 

Market rates should be applied very site-specifically. There may be 100% occupancy on Langley Road, but 50% occupancy on Centre Street just north of Langley. Rates should be higher on Langley. A difference in meter rates block-by-block means that people who would rather not pay for convenience don't bother with the high-demand spaces and don't contribute to congestion. In this example, if you set the same rates on Centre and Langley, you don't give those who want to pay less an alternative, so they might as well park on Langley, and will likely troll the block to find a closer space. 

The fourth point reinforces a market-rate scheme. If the city is going to collect higher meter revenue in an area, it ought to dedicate a portion of that revenue to improvements right next to those meters. If peak-time rates went up to $2-4 per hour on Langley Road, then a dollar or so of the haul ought to be used to improve the sidewalk, install more benches, &c. on the very same block.

The last point limits the creep of parkers looking to avoid meters. If you are going to drive to shop or work in or commute from our commercial centers, you're going to pay a modest charge for the right to park. 

The last point shouldn't, however, mean that residential areas should necessarily be meter-free. If a street is currently used by shoppers, workers, or commuters, there ought to be either meters or residential parking restrictions. The city should either charge for parking or restrict it. Again, there is no public policy reason to give it away. 

For example, a longstanding point of contention has been the parking on Walnut Street north of Forest Street. Bike advocates want a parking ban, which would allow for on-street bike accommodations. The area businesses and residents say the on-street parking is necessary to avoid a parking shortage in the Newton Highlands commercial area. But, they claim that meters would be inconsistent with the residential character of the neighborhood.

Parking not-related to residential use is what dictates the character of the neighborhood. If that parking is acceptable, then it should be acceptable to have meters. More importantly, and this brings us back to the fourth point, some substantial portion of the meter revenue should be used right where it is collected, on improvements to the neighborhood.

We'll hold off for another day the discussion of long-term parking in the village centers to accommodate T commuters, but here's the conclusion: we should not be providing valuable parking spaces to the MBTA and its customers over potential patrons of local businesses.


Anonymous said...

Wow, fuzzy logic.

> And, the city can always use more money...
The more you give them, the more they will take.

>...impose on drivers the cost of driving.
Those costs are already being imposed.

> If the city owns and maintains parking spaces and provides them at a below-market rate, it is providing a subsidy to drivers.
So if the parking rates are increased, they will lower the property tax? How much does it cost to "maintain" a parking space (i.e. repave it every 20 years). All of the spaces were obtained 40-100+ years ago.

> Shoupista
You are using a term but not defining it. Is it a Sandinista who likes to shop? I guess only special people should know what you are talking about. After a google search, I find it is a follower of Prof Donald Shoup. But still no definition. What a waste of time this is.

> A substantial portion of meter revenue spent on improvements right where the revenue is collected
Money will go into the general fund and will go to paying "curriculum coordinators" and assistants for the mayor.

>finance improvements in the very districts where it is collected....right where it is collected
I don't see any "improvements" being made anywhere in the city in the last 30 years. By improvements I mean park benches, shade trees, bike racks, more parking spaces. You can't make more space, and the city isn't buying space, only selling it for below market price to developers.

> Strictly enforced resident parking beyond the scope of metered parking
I am a resident of Newton. I should be able to park in any "resident parking" spot. That's not how it works? Resident parking is a disaster. It seems to only be needed where there is public transportation. Talk about perverse side effects.

>If meter rates are so low that there are periods of 100% occupancy...Spaces don't turn over...a customer with an itch to spend should always find an open space within a block of the shop door.
This is the only point in your post that I agree with. But the solution should involve not just increasing the price of parking, but increasing the amount of parking or reducing the density of demand by allowing fewer businesses when there is insufficient parking.

> we should not be providing valuable parking spaces to the MBTA and its customers over potential patrons of local businesses.
The MBTA, just like any other business, should provide adequate parking for its customers. Or they should provide service near where people live. The fares should be increased so that fewer parking spaces are required.

Steve Runge said...


1. If you're not willing to attach your name to your post, I'm not sure I'm willing to listen. But I'll make an exception.

2. How are the costs of driving imposed on the drivers, when parking and road use is free? Yes, you pay property taxes, but that's the point here: let's make the fees make sense. Will it lower the property tax burden? If we're vocal enough and vote people out of office who don't do our bidding, yes.

3. Shoupista. Obviously, this posting was written for an audience of like-minded people. If you don't understand it, you're not in the intended audience. Welcome to read, but understand that there will be some unexplained terms. When I browse the New England Journal of Medicine, I don't expect to understand everything.

4. The blogger agrees with you about spending revenue locally: this is what he wants to happen. It isn't happening right now. You're right, you don't see any local improvements. This is what we want. We want a way to keep the income earmarked for local improvements.

5. In Boston, residents of the South End can't park wherever they want. They can park in the South End. Just because you live in Newton, driving capital of the metro area, doesn't mean you should have a free pass to park anywhere. I'm a resident of Newton, too. Does that mean I should be able to take up parking in front of your house, wherever you live? Residential parking means parking near your own residence.

I agree with you about the parking for T stops; there needs to be some creative thinking there. Telling the MBTA to provide parking ("like any other business"... do all businesses provide parking? No.) doesn't solve the problem. Will they buy land at market value in Newton? If they do, expect to pay huge sums for parking, unless it's subsidized. (Hah. By whose money?) And what you say about increasing T fares: let me get this right: you want to increase public transportation fares so that more people will drive, necessitating more parking spaces...

6. If you want to disallow business in Newton (wherever there is "insufficient parking") and further erode the business tax base, thus increasing the property tax burden, be my guest. I'm a renter. The effects of property tax on me are indirect. In other words, I won't feel your pain on this one. So, go right ahead, knock yourself out: tell everyone in Newton you want less business here.

Basically, what you don't seem to understand is that parking demand isn't a fixed number. It doesn't just go up or down depending on the number of residents and businesses. It responds to market variables (like pricing) just like any other commodity. If you increase the cost, even modestly (we're not talking about $20 parking spaces), the demand falls, and turnover rises, because people can make decisions about how they arrive somewhere and how long they stay. With parking just a little more expensive, just enough people might decide not to linger for an hour over coffee, they might walk or bike, they might, instead of parking every day for an hour to run an errand, combine some errands into one day, they might coordinate with a friend or neighbor and carpool...

What this blog tries to get across is that parking demand is a little counter-intuitive, but when you figure in these other variables, it begins to make sense. Not enough parking? Don't just build more spaces, which just increases the cycle (they'll all fill up, too, because they're an underpriced commodity): make the existing spaces serve more people.