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.