If you drive to Portland's downtown, Hawthorne, or Northwest 23rd during this holiday season, you're likely to hit a lot of traffic and spend at least a few minutes searching for a parking place. It doesn't have to be this way.
At the same time, Portland's Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is struggling to make ends meet, stuck between long-term investments, ongoing maintenance demands, and a responsibility to build complete, safe networks that serve all Portlanders. As BikePortland reports, PBOT has set up a budget priority process, aimed at meeting the sometimes-competing goals of safety, maintenance, health, and business. As part of that work, PBOT director Tom Miller wants to consolidate the city’s parking functions.
PBOT manages about a third of all land in the city. Portland Afoot notes its portfolio includes managing nearly 4,000 lane-miles of paved streets, as well as a host of bridges, sidewalks, and other land.
We need to manage this land smartly, and one key step is charging the right price for parking.
What is that magical price? One compelling theory is the right price means most spaces are used, but there is a space available when you want it – more or less, supply and demand curves meet. UCLA professor and parking guru Donald Shoup argues for a price that ends up with about 85% of spaces full, meaning one or two open spots on each block.
Right-pricing parking cuts the need to drive around downtown (or Northwest, etc.) searching for an elusive parking spot. In some urban areas, the circling, waiting for parking spaces, and double-parking comprises 30% of all traffic, adding substantially to pollution and frustration. I haven’t found numbers for Portland, but when I drive downtown during peak times I usually drive a couple extra minutes to find parking.
San Francisco’s parking department explains the benefits of better pricing:
Convenient parking. Drivers can find and pay for parking more easily.
Improved economic vitality. Improving access to commercial areas will foster economic activity in downtown and neighborhood commercial districts.
Faster and more reliable [transit] service. [Buses and trains] can be faster and more reliable when double-parking and congestion are reduced.
Safer streets. Less circling means less traffic and fewer distracted drivers, leading to fewer car, bicycle and pedestrian collisions.
Better air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Less circling means less traffic, driving and pollution.
Right-pricing parking isn’t a new idea. Creating the right price for parking has been studied for years, and is something we advocated for when I ran the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in 2005-07. But the idea has gathered a fair amount of momentum over the past two years, including in San Francisco and Seattle.
San Francisco has opted for a high-tech version of right-pricing in eight pilot neighborhoods. They installed sensors at each parking space, providing a fabulous data set about parking availability and use (and parking violations). They also built a system to adjust pricing up or down each month, adjusting supply to demand. Finally, they added a system that tells people where parking is available, via computers or smart phones.
Early data indicate parking continues to be underpriced in the most in-demand areas. Data from a similar New York program in Park Slope show success in increasing turnover and less traffic circling to find spots, providing businesses with more customers.
Seattle is taking a more affordable, less complete, approach. They’re planning on increasing the costs of parking downtown based on surveys and data, but without individual sensors. The mayor’s office argues people would pay six or seven dollars an hour for a parking place in the right place, while the current fees are $2.40 an hour.
What about Portland, which likes to think of itself as a beacon of innovation? Portland has a limited version of smart pricing – charging higher prices near Jeld-Wen field during Timbers games, and less for meters in the Lloyd District. But that’s about it, and is likely to remain all we do for a while.
Unfortunately, the right policy is not always the right local politics. People organized and defeated a proposal to increase downtown rates in 2009, recently pushed back efforts to install meters near the Eastside streetcar, and fought against installing meter parking on Hawthorne, while an effort to have higher rates for the second and third hours of parking near PSU has been abandoned.
Portland’s smart meters can be programmed to have different rates, as they do during soccer games. But overall, our parking rates are dumb, leading to inefficiently used street parking, and all its resultant problems.
Miller and Mayor Sam Adams have long understood the benefits of right-pricing parking, having advocated for meters on Hawthorne, increased meters in Northwest Portland, and meters in the Central Eastside. They should be commended and supported, and encouraged to increase the effort to recoup some of the costs of maintaining the roads and parking spaces.
PBOT’s Dan Andersen says the City will keep working on innovation and want “A parking price that makes sense for Portlanders.” While a right-priced parking program may not plug the holes in the city’s transportation budget (meters bring in $19 million a year, garages another $5 million), it’s a step in the right direction. Andersen notes parking meter revenue is becoming a larger percentage of the budget, but PBOT is “not looking at new revenues right now.” Council approval is required for parking rate increases.
And so, if you drive downtown during the holidays and are stuck in traffic, ask yourself whether spending another quarter or two an hour might be worth it to avoid some of the circling. And tell the businesses you patronize that you’d support such a change.
Until we start managing our resources wisely, we will be unable to meet our basic transportation needs and responsibilities, such as completing the sidewalk network. Right-pricing parking is just one step, but a smart one.
Note: There is a related question about the right amount of car parking, given all the externalized costs of driving and our responsibilities to cut health care costs, create safety, and fight the climate crisis. This article only focuses on how much we should charge for the spaces we have.