This week is our annual focus on the excessive amount of parking we have here in North America. Parking costs a lot to build. It costs a lot to maintain. It lowers and stagnates a city's tax base. It makes little to no use of expensive city infrastructure. It fragments neighborhoods and makes them less walkable, which negatively impacts business opportunities and residential property values. It creates a huge burden on small business. It causes local taxes to go up and local services to go down.
And to pour salt in all these wounds, we don't even need it.
On Friday, we will be hosting the Fourth Annual Black Friday Parking event. While Black Friday isn't the shopping day it once was -- a fact that only reinforces the argument we are making -- it is still the day when we experience the peak demand for parking. Even so, there will be vast seas of unused asphalt, spots that will never see a car parked in them. We're just throwing away our wealth. Why?
It is a combination of regulation, community design and cultural expectation. I experienced all three in high fidelity last week when I was in the pleasant little town of Saint Marys, Pennsylvania.
Saint Marys reminded me of my hometown of Brainerd. Roughly the same number of people, a very similar cultural backdrop and a similar abusive, co-dependent relationship with parking.
In the core of Saint Marys, all parking is metered at -- and for those of you in major urban areas, this is not a typo -- it is metered at $0.25 per hour. The fine for an expired meter is $5. That's essentially free; actually just high enough to be a mild annoyance but not high enough to have any type of market response to parking demand. It causes such outrage that the city is forced each year during peak shopping season -- the time when you actually might theoretically have a squeeze on parking -- to make all parking free. It's a pro-business thing, you know, yet it perversely fills up the empty spots with store owners, employees and others who don't cycle around.
The city has an overwhelming amount of unnecessary parking, yet there is a broad cultural belief that there is not enough. The city's regulations require anyone opening a business to have ample parking, a regulation that has induced businesses to tear down buildings (and reduce the city's tax base) just to meet the standard. While the left hand demands excess asphalt, the right hand questions why the tax base is stagnant and nobody is opening a business downtown. And why the surrounding neighborhoods are not doing well.
All of this happens while the city -- which is not rolling in cash -- loses money every year on parking collection and enforcement. It costs them more cash to maintain and administer parking regulations than they bring in with the program.
Here's what I told them.
First, imagine we could reduce everyone's taxes by the amount spent each year providing subsidized parking in the downtown. Then, add that same amount back into the tax statement as a Downtown Parking Charge. Same amount of money but just a different way of presenting it. What would happen? We all know: people would flip out. A great number of people would go nuts and insist that their tax dollars not be used to subsidize parking in the downtown. I actually think it would be a good thing to have this group of people yelling at the group of people insisting that anything less than ample free parking is tyranny. Funny thing is, there would likely be a lot of overlap (don't make me subsidize it but it should be free). Presenting the parking problem not as a government service but as a cost and benefit will help city officials expand the conversation.
Second, and most importantly, there needs to be a realization that the downtown functions best when it is part of a broader economic ecosystem that includes the surrounding neighborhoods. There are thousands of people -- thousands -- who live within easy walking distance of downtown. This is a huge market that can sustain lots of economic activity. Even though the distance is an easy walk, the walk is not easy. Most people drive and, when they do, they don't go downtown nearly as often as geography would suggest.
The value of the homes in the adjacent neighborhoods are improved by having great businesses within walking distance. The business environment is improved by having a market of people inclined to walk to their business. We have businesses and potential patrons near each other; the only thing keeping them apart is the hostile nature of the walk.
Walking infrastructure is so much cheaper, and has vastly higher returns, than parking spots. Saint Marys, like most every city in North America, needs to reduce their staff by one code enforcement official and replace that position with an urban designer. The small design elements that make a city walkable -- cheap yet critical investments -- are the difference between a city increasing its prosperity and one stuck in decline.
We pay an enormous cost to have unneeded and unused parking spaces. That's true whether or not you personally take advantage of that handout. Help us this week to push back on the cultural consensus that you simple can't have enough parking.