No Such Thing As Free Parking

I liked this item from the blog Cycling Info.

No Such Thing As Free Parking

A while back, I was in New York visiting a restaurant in a popular part of town (in Queens). There were no car parking spaces. So we spent 20 minutes driving around looking for a free car parking space. When we found a space, I noticed parking was free (zero cost). I suggested to the local New Yorker, wouldn’t it be better if you had to pay for parking?

A look of  bewilderment appeared on his face. “No, it wouldn’t be a good idea. They are always trying to tax us.”  (American really hate any tax) “Why I should pay for parking?” I decided not to pursue it any further. You have to know when it’s socially desirable to wheel out arguments about economics, social efficiency and sustainable transport. I didn’t want to spoil a nice meal by becoming an irritating combination of economist plus self-righteous cyclist. But, since this is a cycling blog, I hope readers will not mind so much.

In New York, car use is overwhelmingly the dominant choice of transport. Some parts of New York are very poorly served by public transport, most locals wouldn’t even consider using a bike (too dangerous)

But, this struck me as a classic example of market failure – a state of affairs where everyone is worse off because there is no charge for parking. When the price of driving is low and parking is free, demand is greater than supply. This causes the excess demand for parking spaces. It means:

  • People waste time looking for a parking space
  • Congestion is increased because people are driving around looking for a car parking space
  • More pollution and risk of accidents is created.
  • Because driving is comparatively cheap, people use it as a default form of transport – never walking or cycling.

But, driving into town has external costs. The social cost (= petrol + Pollution + congestion) of driving to the restaurant is much greater than the private cost (e.g. just paying for petrol).

If there was a significant extra cost of driving into town and parking, it creates a greater incentive to take alternative forms of transport – public transport / cycling or walking.

  • Parking charges would raise money which can subsidise alternative forms of transport
  • It would prevent time wasted driving around.
  • It would reduce congestion
  • It might even encourage a little more exercise. There’s no harm in Americans (or Britishers) burning off a few calories before putting them back on in their super-size meal type restaurantes.

Why We Need To Charge for Cars Entering Congested City Centres

  • Apparently, everyone dislikes traffic wardens because they fine people who park illegaly. Yet, when you take away traffic wardens, chaos is created. (BBC link about chaos in Aberystwyth)
  • It’s the same with charging for parking. No one likes to pay, but if you don’t charge for driving, you can get terrible congestion and time wasted in traffic.
  • Transport in cities needs planning. You can’t leave it to the law of jungle (or free market). There needs to be a recognition that the social cost of driving is quite different to the private cost. To get the best transport system, there needs to be extra charges placed on motorists so they pay the full cost of congestion and pollution created.
  •  There is no such thing as free parking. If it is free at point of use, other types of cost are created and other people lose out. Charging for motorists can even appeal to the self-interest of drivers. If they really refuse to use public transport or cycle, they will, at least, find it easier to find a parking spot. They won’t waste 20 minutes driving around looking for a spot. Surely $5 is worth that?
  • The problem is that any new tax is always going to be unpopular. When a congestion charge was proposed for Manchester, it was overwhelmingly defeated. People would rather have congestion and get stuck in traffic jams then pay towards better alternatives.
  • Yet, despite current levels of traffic congestion, the DFT predict a 43% increase in traffic in London. How much more congestion do you want?
  • It’s easy to blame politicians for failing to be long-sighted and implement long-term transport solutions, but, the truth is that voters would often vote against new policies which change the current status quo.
  • To encourage cycle use, there needs to be a careful discouragement of driving. Painting symbols of cyclists on New York roads won’t change the culture of driving. But, if people have to pay the full social cost of driving, then there will be greater consideration of what is best way to travel.
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