Time to Right-Price Parking

Evan Manvel

SFpark Overview from SFpark on Vimeo.

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.

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    I would think that from a pure sociological/economic standpoint, one would not usually think about the busiest seasonal parking time as one where you'd want to price the parking differently -- better to look at some median range of busy day, to determine the impact.

    Also, what is so wrong with walking a block or two? People who shop in malls easily walk 2-3 blocks just to walk in the front doors, in the busy season. Surely it's not that big of a deal for people to do that in the Hawthorne shopping district (particularly since the walk will take people by stores they might window shop from).

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      The San Francisco experiment adjusts prices monthly. You could definitely build in a seasonal pricing aspect.

      The idea is that those people who are fine with walking a couple blocks will move toward cheaper parking, and those who want to pay more will get closer parking.

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    I work and live in Vancouver so I don't claim a political voice in the Portland analysis, but from a selfish perspective, people driving into Portland to eat or shop or visit the parks or whatever would appreciate a reasonably accessible and reasonably priced place to park. I know we are " sinners" from the current environmental dynamic because we don't eat and shop within walking distance of where we live, but it is still nice to visit the Big City once in a while.

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      What's a reasonable price for you? Would you rather pay $1.60 an hour and have a hard time finding a spot, or $2.50 an hour and have a spot be available?

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        Happy to pay 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 dollars an hour for reasonably convenient downtown parking. Although - as a progressive - I wonder about relying too much on pricing to allocate what is essentially a public resource - parking spaces. Thanks to my particular spot in life I can out bid most folks if it comes down to it, but I wonder if there might be a better way. No worries for now, as this Sunday we swooped in from Vancouver, parked in one of the downtown Portland parking garages, had the grandson's picture taken with Santa, picked up a couple Christmas gift iPads at the Apple Store (sales tax free - thank you very much) and were on our way back to Vancouver in under 90 minutes with 'free' validated parking courtesy of the Apple Store. Parking is a complicated subject and thank you for letting me ramble.

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    Smart pricing for parking makes sense. But let's not stop there. If prices should go up when parking slots become scarce, why shouldn't the same concept apply to scare road space? Why should it cost the same to drive on the Banfield at 2am as it does during rush hour?

    Congestion, or value pricing ideas have been floating around for a long time, but political opposition has kept the concept from advancing. Perhaps here's a concept that "car hating" liberals can get behind as strongly as "car loving" conservatives often oppose it.

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      Thanks, Steve - I've been a proponent of congestion pricing of roads for a while.

      My sense is congestion pricing is harder politically than right-pricing parking. Maybe implementing smart parking can increase the public's support for congestion pricing.

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        That's a good insight, Evan. We used to be familiar with a type of congestion pricing in phone service and some internet services, but greatly expanded bandwidth has virtually ended the need for such pricing.

        To the extent that road space is virtually fixed, and very scarce at certain times, we could all benefit from congestion pricing. But, we're so used to "freedom to travel" and paying at the pump that we resist the more rational approach. Perhaps smart pricing of parking spaces could be a way to introduce us to what we should know already.

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          Was just listening to NPR, and there was a story featuring some anti-tax advocate complaining that while Mitt Romney hadn't raised taxes as Governor, he'd raised all sorts of use fees.

          And here I thought, like Steve, that fees associated with specific services were actually supported by conservatives - particularly as compared to taxes.

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            Kari, everyone probably resists to some extent having to pay for what they use when they were previously able to shift those costs onto others through the tax system.

            In my experience, conservatives also have a blind spot when it comes to user fees for transportation. They somehow equate the Constitutionally protected "freedom of movement" with not having to pay user fees for roads.

            Progressives, on the other hand, may oppose user fees because they think that they somehow discriminate against the poor.

            In really, both positions are wrong. I hope Evan's parking pricing suggestions are seriously considers by everyone who has an interest in solving our transportation problems.

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    Parking meters make sense to the extent that the destination is unique and can't be replicated elsewhere. Jeld-Wen stands out as an extreme example. In comparison, how unique is Hawthorne, the Lloyd Center, or the MLK-Grand corridor? How many of the businesses there can claim "event" status for their shopping or dining experience?

    Let's put it this way: How likely are you to go to a coffee shop where you have to pay to park?

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      That's why prices would fluctuate. If too many people were driven away, prices would go down.

      It may be that the right price for parking right now at Hawthorne or MLK-Grand is zero. But that's certainly not the right price for street parking downtown, or in Northwest.

      As far as unique, I go to Hawthorne to go to the Bagdad, which is unique, or to certain establishments I don't find elsewhere.

      Some people are driven away from some places because it can be hard to find parking - they're not willing to pay in terms of time and agony of traffic or parking, but would be happy to pay for available parking.

      If I've paid $3 in gas and $4 in lumped costs (insurance, repairs, etc.) to drive across town, paying $1 to park isn't going to stop me from having an $8 brunch with a friend. But some consumers don't think that way, which is what the market would find.

      It seems in San Francisco they're finding well-located parking is still underpriced, even after several upward adjustments.

      I don't drive anywhere to have coffee. I walk or bike to where I want to have coffee.

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        This doesn't seem that difficult a problem.

        Every parking meter is already connected to real-time information network (for processing credit cards). There's no reason why they couldn't communicate with each other (or, more likely, with the central hub) about how many open spaces there RIGHT NOW within a quarter-mile and adjust pricing accordingly.

        The only downside of truly real-time pricing is that consumers wouldn't have predictability - which is probably key to adjusting behavior.

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          It's an interesting challenge between economic signals and consumer thought process/burden.

          San Francisco adjusts prices monthly, which seems like a compromise. Parking patterns probably don't vary too much from day to day (with some clear nods to sports games, holiday seasons, really bad weather). San Francisco's monitoring of each individual space (even those people who leave early, and those who don't pay) should give a fabulous data set.

          To do real time price adjustment may be too far, but daily price adjustment doesn't seem too far-fetched.

          Given today's technology, we could have a system that people ask their phone/computer "How much would it cost and how long will it take to get to work?" and their phone/computer would answer, "$4.20 round trip on the bus, 30 minutes each way, $14 driving and parking near work, 25 minutes each way, $10 driving parked ten blocks away, 30 minutes each way, $1 on a bike, 20 minutes, and $1 walking, 50 minutes each way."

          Of course, the main variable pieces would be the parking rate and bus/drive commute times.

          And the consumer could choose how to distribute fixed and marginal costs in those calculations.

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    I'd definitely be willing to see the experiment. Whenever we consider an issue like this, we tend to take the circumstances as a given, rather than the accretion of years or decades of planning decisions.

    When we plan cities around cars, we have to ensure that there's lots of parking in downtown areas. This in turn means we enable car commuting, which provokes the need for more parking. It's slightly different than what you're talking about, Evan, but when we build parking lots in a city, we're hugely subsidizing car commuting--those lots would have far, far more value if they had a building on them.

    We tend to think of parking as "expensive," but in fact, the expense is in creating a massively inefficient system designed to shuttle tens of thousands of people into a downtown area where they all need to park 3,000 pounds of steel somewhere.

    This is a modest attempt to begin pricing that extremely valuable land at its real market price. I wonder, would you also lower the rates at off-hours? Seems like this would be popular for downtown businesses.

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    East of the Rose Garden, south of Broadway, west of 7th, parking is metered for one distinct business - Rose Garden/Memorial Coliseum Events (Ok and Convention Ctr., too.) Save for an inordinate # of Starbucks and a few eateries, there is minimal retail. Residents and guests of area apartments pay for parking M-Sat until 10pm. When City folk start yapping about "right price" parking, I'd hope they'd also consider when to give residents that right break.

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    Thot # 2. All the cost relative analysis in the world to find the "right price" will mean little to 1000's of Portlanders who just avoid Downtown if what they are after is available elsewhere. But hoisting green boxes in NW and in Hawthorne is not a solution - it'll just further inconvenience folks who live there, as drivers will be willing to walk and extra block or 2 to save a couple of bucks. I suppose the City could then start shoving the boxes down SE 37th... OHHH.... don't get me started.


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