CIRCLING THE BLOCK: Saving Money, Time, and Aggravation Through Parking Reform

We’ve all done it; cruising around the block looking for an open parking space.  In fact, we all do it so much that studies suggest between 8% and an incredible 75% of the traffic in high demand areas have already reached their destination and are wasting time (and gas) looking for a place to pull over.  Studies in 10 cities found that it took between 3.5 and 13.9 minutes to find an on-street parking spot.  In Harvard Square, nearly a third of the drivers were cruising at peak time, with an average search taking 11.5 minutes.   (It’s even worse overseas: the global average of cruising time is 20 minutes, and in Nairobi it’s not unheard of to spend an hour searching for a spot!)

Parking is the emotional volcano in our conflicted relationship with car dependency.   Even though 99% of auto trips start and end in a “free” parking space, we have what consultant Mark Chase describes as a “famine mentality” – we are always afraid of its disappearance.  And the current method of apportioning the available on-street spots using residence permits, free or low-cost meters in commercial areas, handicapped reservations, loading zone and no parking areas simply doesn’t assuage our anxiety.  Until we have created enough viable alternatives to using our cars –improved public transportation, better bicycle and pedestrian facilities, a whole range of car-sharing and taxi-like services — we need a way to ensure that parking spots are available for those who really need or want them.

The way forward starts by recognizing that we are already paying a very high price for our dysfunctional parking policies through air pollution, wasted fuel (and the resulting climate volatility), time,  and aggravation.   Some of that cost comes directly out of our own hide, much of it is externalized to the more vulnerable members of society and the world at large – and to our children.  The second step towards a solution is understanding that by changing the way we price parking, we can solve or at least reduce many of those costs.  Parking, like most things, has never been and will never be truly free.  But at least we can cut a better deal.  


Why do we do it – driving and driving to find an on-street parking spot?  One reason is our desire for convenience – we all have a fantasy of pulling in right in front of the store or the friend’s house or our workplace and just rolling in.  We’re so committed to this vision that at least 10% of us (based on a UK report) are willing to sneak into reserved handicapped spots.     We have this fantasy even though we also rush out before or after work to spend an hour sweating at the local gym or running/biking through every kind of weather.  Somehow, the idea of walking from the car to our goal always registers as inconvenience rather than exercise, as an assault from the elements rather than a chance to breathe the outdoor air.

Partly we do it because it’s so cheap.  In most residential areas it’s free, available on an unlimited basis for the minimal cost of an annual resident’s sticker.  Even in metered downtown areas, we get to use public street-space in high-cost districts for a minuscule fraction of the going rental price of adjacent property.  In Boston, parking costs $1.25 per hour – less than a cup of coffee!  And anytime the city proposes an increase everyone denounces it as a horrible way to raise additional revenue, a piling on of insult to the existing pain of finding spots.

And mostly we do it because off-street private parking is so expensive.   Because on-street parking is cheap everyone wants it, which makes it so hard to find on-street spots that the garages can exorbitantly jack up prices.  And even without price-gouging, building an off-street space is expensive:  each spot on a lot costs about$10,000 to create; each spot in a garage costs more than twice as much; and underground parking built in the Boston Area cost more than $100,000 per space to build!   Recently, a single parking space in Boston’s Back Bay sold for $300,000!


The result is that a huge percentage of our street space is pulled out of circulation and dedicated to passive storage of a single type of object for the 95% of the time that it is not in use.   Taxpayers subsidize the cost.  Economist Edward Glaeser points out that “on-street parking carries a huge opportunity cost. Boston could get far more than $30,000 [a year’s maximum possible total of meter fees] for a permanent parking spot on Newbury Street, which could be used by a food truck or even a mobile boutique.”  And if it is going to be given away to facilitate transportation, why just to cars?  Glaeser adds that the space “could also be used for other valuable purposes, such as bike lanes or extra pedestrian space.”

The costs also seep into housing prices.  A San Francisco study found that requiring new developments to include off-street parking raised housing prices by an average of $47,000 and increased the household income necessary to purchase a home by over 13%.   And into public health – increased traffic-related air and water pollution are a major source of respiratory and other problems.  And into the overall livability and attractiveness of our country – the insatiable demand for parking drives much city planning and suburban design, leading to wasteful use of space and less friendly neighborhoods.  A case in point is the recent spectacle of a developer in transit-rich Allston who wanted to provide Zip-car and bike parking but no car parking in exchange for lower purchase fees – but who got trashed by neighbors who wanted to protect their own on-street spaces.   (His brilliant solution: include only half the normal number of spots, on a 1 spot per 2 units basis,  and offer to hire valets if the 180 spot capacity is exceeded who place cars tightly enough to fit even if it required temporarily blocking in long-term parkers. )

Our current parking system also hurts business.  Many retail shops think that the presence of a parking spot right in front of their door is key to attracting customers.  However, that spot is most likely being taken by an employee of that business or a neighboring business who got there early and keeps feeding the meter.  Furthermore, one parking place equals only one customer, who has no incentive to move their car even after they’ve left the store.  In fact, study after study shows that most downtown customers have walked to the store.   (Of course they did – even if they came by car it’s unlikely they would have found an empty spot right in front of that store!)  Which makes the creation of an inviting environment the key to keeping customers around while they meander from store to store – trees, benches, places to meet and talk with friends, and less intimidating and smelly and noisy traffic.

Parking garages might seem an easy fix.  But as noted above, they are extremely expensive to build and on street spaces will still be packed if the garage is more expensive.  Existing off-street parking space already uses enough land to cover the state of Connecticut –the first public garage was constructed in Boston in 1898!  We need to better use what we have before building more.  And, as with highways, expansion is an expensive and only short-term solution: if you build it, they will come, and come, and come – increasing car traffic until the new facilities are just as congested as the old ones and the competition for off-street spots is even worse.

Simply reserving more on-street space for parking won’t work either.   So long as it’s free or extremely low-cost, the only “cost” is convenience so drivers will give excessive value to spots closest to their desired destination and keep circling until they can get one.   The hard reality is that there will never be enough free parking to fully satisfy the potential latent demand.  So we ration it in a variety of ways.  Currently, we mostly use a “first come, first served” approach and we reserve spots for people with certain residence or workplace or handicapped stickers.  Increasingly, cities are limiting the total time a spot can be continuously used by one car.   We all know about the problems with each of these approaches.


So what to do?  Requiring all employers and residential developments to create Transportation Demand Management programs would be a great foundation.  TDM implements strategies to reduce single-occupancy vehicle travel by facilitating car-pooling, providing subsidized transit passes, setting up better bike parking and even bicycle purchasing benefits, and reducing the amount of on-site parking.

But TDM is long-range and indirect.  We need something that is more visible and fast-acting.   UCLA professor Donald Shoup posits that we should charge just enough for parking so that there are always a few available spaces.    And what if parking fees were recycled back for communities to use for local improvements and ways to make the public way – streets, sidewalks, parks — friendlier, safer, and more inviting?  And what if doing this would also make housing less expensive, increase local business, and reduce both injuries and illness?

Of course there’s a price – we’d have to start thinking about parking not as a guaranteed right but as a commodity to be sold.   Markets are a form of rationing, usually by ability to pay but potentially by allowing a trade-off between price and convenience.  We also need to consider the needs of low-income people who need a car (and a place to park).  We can accommodate them through targeted discounted parking.

New technologies allow cities to adjust the cost of every parking spot (or every group of parking spots) according to the demand for that location.   In the more advanced systems, the price can change every hour of the day, every day of the week.  The more demand at a particular time the higher the price until it reaches a level where at least a few spots are always open for someone who wants to be there so badly that they’re willing to pay that premium for the privilege.   When and where demand is lower the prices are too, as the distance from the high-demand area increases cost drops until, a couple blocks further away, it’s nearly free – meaning that people who are willing to walk get the best deals.  If that lower-demand area or time is where or when you want to go, you’re in double luck – an available and low cost spot!   In Pasadena, a similar system has been created and fine-tuned so that 15% of the possible parking spots are always free – if you really have to park near a particular place you can.

In San Francisco, the SFpark program has put these theories into practice on a large scale by installing sensors in ten neighborhoods throughout the city. After having the pilot system in place for over two years and almost a dozen price adjustments (the price is adjusted $0.25 at a time up or down every six weeks depending on measured parking occupancy), in 1/3 of spaces the cost of parking has gone up, 1/3 of spaces have stayed the same, and 1/3 of spaces have seen prices increase. Overall, the cost of parking has gone down as underutilized spaces are being accurately priced and better used.  This approach is  scalable and just as applicable in a small downtown as they are in urban neighborhoods.

To further reduce the demand for on-street parking in the most congested areas as well as put some downward pressure on the prices charged by private garages, cities could lower the cost of using a public garage – perhaps making the first 90 minutes free.   And replacing an occasional parking spot in front of a willing store, such as a café, with a bike parking corral creates space for up to 10 customers instead of just one!

A market-oriented approach is not problem-free.  Markets seldom embody the “voluntary exchange between willing participants” that capitalist mythology describes, if only because the two sides so seldom have equivalent levels of knowledge, choices, or power.  And markets seldom create as much social as private value, if only because the pressure to externalize long-term costs affects all participants so strongly.   But markets are very good at “clearance” – using price differentials to find a buyer for every product.  However, to avoid at least some of the discriminatory effects that markets inevitably create, reserved handicapped spots would remain and low-income families could apply for discounted parking cards or get annual rebates of their parking fees.

The transportation benefits go beyond the availability of parking.  One study suggests that a $1 parking surcharge in Boston would cut traffic enough to roughly halve the time it takes a driver to get through the central business district – an impact equivalent to imposing a $1 congestion fee.


The best part of this approach is what could be done with the parking money.  For example, at least half of all revenue, after expenses, could be available to the community as part of a “Neighborhood Improvement Fund” to pay for sidewalk repair, tree planting, benches and table, cultural events, and anything else that neighbors decide would make their street space better.   This would create the political will within neighborhoods to advocate for parking pricing.

Of course, this is just the beginning.  Subsidized parking creates an incentive for people to use their cars rather than transit or bicycle, which leads to even greater traffic congestion.   Current zoning rules create additional perverse incentives.  Boston zoning requires a minimum of one off-street parking spot for every unit of housing, and once you’ve paid for a spot it feels silly not to use it for a car…which you then drive rather than find an alternative.  Zoning provisions are almost entirely focused on avoiding tenants parking their cars on street.  If the price was set correctly, a new development would not result in net new cars, but in a gradual, perhaps imperceptible increase in the cost of parking.

In areas with abundant transit options, if developers were allowed to leave out the parking they could both add additional units and lower the sale price.  To encourage this, some cities have parking space maximums instead of minimums.   To keep on-street parking demand low developers are urged to negotiate agreements with car-sharing and car-rental firms for discounted use, and often required to provide ample indoor bike-parking facilities.   When off-street parking is required, developers are allowed to set up arrangements for the use of an existing nearby parking garage for long-term parking.  Put all together, it is likely that the much feared new-development spill-over of cars onto neighborhood streets might be avoided.

At a minimum, zoning laws should be changed to require landlords to separate the cost of the housing from the cost of the off-street parking and allow tenants to opt-out of the parking purchase if they wish.  However, separating the cost of parking from a unit will have the intended effect only  when the price of parking on street is high enough to encourage use of the garage over a City permit – and Boston’s are currently free!


Change will be controversial.  Parking is an emotional trigger for the feeling of vulnerability caused by our dependence on our cars.   We love our cars, but they are expensive and troublesome.  For most,  given our current transportation system and land-use sprawl we can’t escape needing them.  So the idea of having our ability to park taken away is infuriating.  We get pretty agitated about it.   It would be short-sighted and insulting – as well as political suicide – to expect everyone, or even most people, to suddenly give up their cars. Happily we don’t need to do this to solve the parking problem.   We only need to  provide enough incentive for a few people to willingly walk further to park, or to use a car-sharing service instead of their own vehicle.  We need to find ways to create choices, and to begin shaping the decision-making context so that it makes sense to park elsewhere – or to not drive at all!


Thanks to Mark Chase and Mike Izzo for feedback and facts.


Related previous blogs:



AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

Streets Are Public Property: Revitalized Streets are a Lever to Revitalize Public Life




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