Curb Appeal

Alan Durning is the executive director of Sightline. This post is #15 in the Sightline series, Parking? Lots!

Imagine if you could put a meter in front of your house and charge every driver who parks in “your” space. It’d be like having a cash register at the curb. Free money! How much would you collect? Hundreds of dollars a year? Thousands? How might all that lucre shift your perspective on local parking rules?

The idea of a private meter (already available on eBay) — or a variant of it that is legal and practical — is the crux of this whole series. It’s the deal with the devil that forms the pivotal second step in UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup’s three-point plan to fix parking. Why that’s true is because of politics, and those politics take some explaining. The explanation will bring us back to the buccaneer parking meter, I promise. First, though, I need to show you some other terrain.

Parking Wars

Let’s start in Seattle and Portland, where Cascadia’s two biggest recent fights over parking have unfolded. In Seattle, in early 2012, restaurant owners in Chinatown/International District mobilized against the extension of meter operations from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., arguing that metered parking was undercutting their businesses. The evidence offered little support for their position, but the city capitulated. It reverted to shutting off most of the neighborhood’s meters at 6:00 and cutting meter rates at all the others.

In Portland a few months later, the uproar was over a spate of new apartment buildingsconstructed without on-site parking, thanks to a city exemption from parking quotas for buildings near frequent transit lines. Indignant neighbors protested, intent on keeping newcomers out of “their” parking places. It was classic parking politics — intense, irrational, expressed as righteous rage at developers allegedly “dumping their problems” on the neighborhoods. In Portland, as in Seattle, the city rolled over, reimposing parking quotas on new apartments despite the damagethey cause.

These dramas from the last 18 months in the urbanist heartland of the Northwest illustrate just how far parking reform still has to go. Parking reformers have risen through the ranks in most big-city planning departments, yet performance pricing remains at best an incipient solution and parking quotas — the invisible but massive bulwark of rules that silently malform our cities, jack up rents for working families, and tilt the whole transportation field toward internal combustion—remain deeply entrenched.

The root of the problem, as I argued at the outset of this series, is that parking territoriality is more powerful than anything currently arrayed against it. The current power imbalance reminds me of the Saturday Night Live skit in which Dan Aykroyd asks, “What if Napoleon had a B-52 bomber at the battle of Waterloo?” To overcome it, we need something that can split neighborhood coalitions and thereby neutralize territoriality (and local businesses’ analogous attachment to free curb spaces on shopping streets).

Parking Derricks

The something we need is greed. If we offer neighborhoods the revenue from meters and parking permits, we can generate a powerful countervailing political force.

Austin Parking Benefit District. Photo: Donald Shoup

That’s what Houston is doing. The sprawling oil capital of North America and the biggest North American city with no land-use planning whatsoever, Houston is not where people usually look for cues to city building. But Houston is in at least one way a leader of reform. A three-mile strip of Houston’s Washington Avenue, plus a block or two on each side of it, has recently become the city’s first “parking benefit district.” Meters have sprouted along this corridor like oil derricks in the West Texas sun. They’re extracting a steady stream of dollars and cents, and the pipeline of cash flows first to the city to cover the costs of the program and then to a community chest controlled by a local board of residents and business owners. The board will spend the parking revenue — projected at $170,000 a year — on neighborhood projects of their choosing, perhaps including lighting upgrades, sidewalk repairs, and local parks. The public investments will enhance local property values even as the curb pricing will fix parking congestion.

In theory, neighbors might support pricing curb parking in order to enhance city budgets and ultimately help all city residents, including themselves. In practice, though, parking revenue going to the general fund might as well be going to Mars. It has virtually no political salience for most voters. Cities like San Francisco, where meters underwrite transit service, may make the hearts of urban planners flutter. Cities like Seattle and Portland, where meter revenue bolsters the general fund, may keep local interests such as police and fire fighter unions lined up behind charging at the curb. But in local politics, planners and public unions are no match for neighborhoods full of territorial parkers.

Rapidly expanding the domain of pay parking, especially performance pricing, beyond the 1 percent of curb spaces it currently occupies in Cascadia will require the region’s cities to emulate Houston by staking in neighborhoods. That may seem distasteful — a Faustian bargain — but it’s the only option for quickly and decisively cutting the Gordian knot of parking dysfunction.

Curb Enthusiasm

Houston didn’t invent parking benefit districts, though. If you prefer other role models, you can choose another. Here’s a quick tour. Pasadena created one in 1993 in its old commercial core. In two decades, the district turned Old Pasadena from a derelict zone to a regional shopping magnet, one where 690 meters net more than $1,700 each annually. That’s $1.2 million a year for local investments on just 22 square blocks. Unmetered blocks get no share, so property owners there have every incentive to lobby for metering, not against it. It’s also in property owners’ interest to push for running the meters more of each day and week and to oppose large quotas of off-street parking. Why mandate competition for curb spaces that are buttering your bread? (See pages 403ff and 513.)

Pasadena tree grate. Photo: Donald Shoup

San Diego followed Pasadena’s example in 1997, though its challenge was greater: it already had meters in most appropriate places, and city programs depended on the resulting revenue. The city couldn’t afford to hand over all its meter money, but it agreed to share. It would give 45 percent of the net proceeds from existing and new meters to a set of new parking benefit districts. By 2002, the districts were investing about $2.2 million a year in their neighborhoods (see page 418ff).

St. Louis, Missouri, later developed another way to navigate dependence on meter revenue: the city gave the growth in meter revenue to its districts but kept a base amount itself. Redwood City, California, and Austin, Texas, came next, in 2006, then Washington, DC, in 2008, and Ventura, California, in 2010. In 2013, as Houston was launching its program, Mexico City announced that 30 percent of its meter revenue would return to the neighborhoods from which it came, to be spent improving public spaces.

Parking benefit districts choose to spend their money in a variety of ways. The downtown Ventura district spends much of its parking cash covering the salary of a police officer dedicated to the neighborhood. It also underwrites free wifi for the zone. In the District of Columbia, one community decided to spend $75,000 on a centrally located digital kiosk that lists local theater openings, real-time bus and subway departures, and the current availability of bikes at local bikeshare stations. In Austin, meanwhile, big beneficiaries of parking revenue have been beautiful new sidewalks ($3.75 per square yard, according to Austin’s Public Works Department) and a Texas rarity: a full-fledged cycle track, plus all the accoutrements of good public spaces such as attractive yet indestructible benches ($2,200 each), street trees ($400 each), sculpted steel trash-can holders ($1,880 each), and bike racks ($345 each).

Parking Cap and Trade

Still, promising as they are, parking benefit districts are not the only option. Although they respond to territoriality by tapping into greed, the greed they tap is still attenuated. To support a parking benefit district on your block, you have to believe that fixing up sidewalks and street lights will boost your property value. You have to trust that the city won’t raid your block’s improvement fund. You have to have a relatively enlightened understanding of your self-interest.

A more radical plan appeals to a cruder form of greed. In the United Kingdom, some housing developments assign curb spaces to the adjacent homes. Curb spaces effectively become private property, and owners can rent them to others.

A more elegant and flexible way to achieve the same result would be for cities to implement markets for local parking passes—parking cap and trade. The city would annually distribute block-specific street-parking permits to property owners. The number of permits would not exceed the number of spots. Those property owners could then keep or sell the permits as they saw fit. The new generation of information tools I described previously would allow easy trade in permits and efficient enforcement by city officers.

Photo: debcha/Flickr

Parking passes would thus become private property, and the owners of the passes would push politically to limit the number of passes. They would also have a financial stake in limiting off-street parking, because it floods the parking market. Writer Matt Yglesias evensuggests distributing parking permits permanently, so that they become tradable assets, almost like stocks and bonds.

Street Price

Parking cap and trade is a bold idea, and many people — including most urban planners — would likely object to the privatization of public rights of way. A city sale or auction of street-parking permits – auctioned cap and trade – would better align with their values. It would align better with my values too. But charging people for what they are accustomed to getting for free — for “their” curb space — is a political pipe dream. The best we might hope for would be to distribute most permits for free, or for a low registration fee, for several years and then to gradually ramp up the share of permits that are auctioned. Starting in year 10, for example, perhaps one cheap permit would go to each property owner on a block and any extras would be auctioned by the city.

The reason to distribute parking passes to property owners for little or nothing is not because they deserve them. It’s that they feel they own them already, and so giving them away may be the only politically viable path to profoundly and instantly transforming parking politics. Tradable parking permits would give all property owners the equivalent of parking meters on their curbs. Parking cap and trade would swamp parking territoriality with unadulterated greed.

In Washington state, it might also sidestep a potential legal problem with parking benefit districts. Cities in Washington have no explicit authority from Olympia to charge for curb parking, so they operate under arcane legal precedents that govern the charging of fees (as opposed to taxes). The Washington legislature could speed progress by explicitly granting cities authority to create parking benefit districts. But cities could also start creating them anyway: the legislature would probably catch up when enough cities were doing it. Or Washington cities could just start distributing parking permits that are tradable, initially in a few existing resident-only parking zones or even on a few blocks as pilot projects.

Parklets and Cash?

Another objection to parking benefit districts and parking cap and trade is that they may inadvertently slow down progress on other urban sustainability fronts. If communities are making thousands of dollars a block renting out curb spaces, who will want to replace parking spaces with parklets, bike corrals, and cycle tracks? How will we narrow overly wide streets and install more p-patches, bioswales, and rain gardens?

The answer is that, in most places, the financial stakes will not be in the thousands of dollars a year. Moreover, in many cases, pricing street parking and sharing the revenue with neighbors will help to speed other green investments. For one thing, parking benefit districts could help pay for parklets and the like. For another, under performance pricing, removing some parking spaces raises the price of the remainder, so revenue need not suffer. A city block commonly has eight parking spaces on each side. Imagine that those spaces go for about $50 apiece monthly. If we remove two of those spaces, say for a parklet and a bike corral, the price of the others will rise. If it rises above $57 a month, gross receipts go up, not down.

Reading the Meter

Imagine if you could put a meter in front of your house and charge every driver who parks in “your” space. How much free money might you collect? It’s hard to say, of course. Everyone in town would suddenly have an incentive to clean out their garages and park there. Curb spaces might become less scarce. Still, in many neighborhoods, curb spaces would command a healthy price, especially if cities removed time limits. Metered spaces in downtown Seattle yield about $6,000 a year on average. Meters in Seattle’s less-urban Greenlake neighborhood still typically rake in $1,400 per space, and in Portland, average meters collect about $2,700 a year.

On my quiet Seattle street of single-family houses five miles from downtown, facing a public school and soccer field, parking is scarce six days a week. I imagine I could rent out two curb spaces in front of my house for at least $15 a month each. That’d be $360 for my bank account, almost enough to cover my annual gym membership or a new coat of house paint every few years. (Or, let’s be real, monthly payments on a home theater.) Or it could go in the community chest with my neighbors’ take. Then we could vote on whether to spend it cleaning up graffiti on the school’s retaining walls this year or save up to put the utility wires underground in a decade or so.

Such options are not the stuff of grand, trendy dreams — no ecodistricts, no passivhaus – but they are potent and promising nonetheless. Their potency comes from how widespread they might become. Their promise derives from how incremental the process of staking in neighbors can be. Indeed, a major part of the political magic of parking benefit districts and parking cap and trade is their geographic divisibility. A city can create them literally block by block, and it can let the blocks each decide for themselves whether to opt in. They can work not only in metered shopping districts but also on residential streets. And they are likely to prove contagious: each block that opts in will serve as a model for those around it.

Territoriality is the root of the problem in parking politics. Greed — activated through parking benefit districts or tradable parking permits — is the core of the solution. By offering a steady stream of money to neighborhoods, they invert the usual politics of parking. Curb parking becomes less an entitlement and more a business opportunity. Visitors become not interlopers but customers. And off-street parking quotas become no longer saviors but competitors.

That’s why the idea of the private parking meter is the key to the whole parking mess.