Cap and Trade Parking Permits to Fix Philadelphia's Parking Crunch


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Philadelphia's current parking policies fail to achieve Mayor Michael Nutter and Deputy Mayor for Transportation Rina Cutler's stated goal of nudging motorists into off-street parking spaces after "longer than an hour or two," but it isn't because we don't know how to do this. 

Cutler argued back in 2009 that we needed to charge $3 an hour (not $2 or $2.50) to achieve her goal of cutting "circling" traffic and clearing the streets for bus transit and deliveries, and that was even before we really started seeing population growth return to Center City.

Since then, thousands of new residents have moved here, and as I showed the other day, you'd now need to charge about $4 an hour to nudge people off the street after 2 hours on a typical weekday. Here's that graph again:

We know this would work. But why isn't it happening? As usual, the reason is politics. City Council isn't just going to vote for a $4 an hour curb parking rate, because they're only going to hear complaints from the parking people. There isn't anybody else calling them up to ask for higher prices.

That is why any idea to fix the parking crunch also needs to have a plan to change the politics of parking. If all you have is a clever policy idea, your job's only half done. You also need a plan to create a brand new political constituency with a vested interest in higher curb parking prices.

That seems hard to do because people hate paying for parking, but a Parking Benefit District would get the job done by giving the meter money to neighborhood Registered Community Organizations (RCOs), and this new idea I wrote about for Next City would work even better.

Basically we're now giving residential parking permits away for free. $35 a year is a joke, and so is $100 for 4 vehicles or more. If your side of the block has 8 parking spaces, it would cost you $260 a year to rent half the parking spaces on your block. 

Here I am over at Next City putting these numbers in context:

For some context on just how massively subsidized residential parking permits are, my back-of-the-envelope calculation using prices from the 98 parking facilities listed on comparison shopping site says the median market rate for monthly parking in central Philadelphia is $230.

Interestingly, the prices for surface lot spaces and garage spaces are not noticeably different, and appear to be mostly a function of land value. Monthly rates get more expensive (up to $485) the closer one gets to pricey land in the city center, and the most common market rates for off-street parking in close-in neighborhoods hover around the $200-$250 range.

To put the subsidy in perspective, if City Council wanted to stop subsidizing parking and peg residential permit prices to the median market rate of $230 per month, a permit would cost about $2,760 a year. Here is a table comparing rates for residential permits, on-street metered spaces and the median off-street parking facility for different durations:

To bring this back to the argument that you need a plan to change the politics, ask yourself if City Council is ever going to vote to raise the price of a parking permit to $2,760, to match the market rate for parking. Of course not! But that is the price they would have to be to fix the parking crunch in residential neighborhoods. How do we get from here to there, if City Council won't ever have the political courage to charge the market price?

It's actually pretty simple, easy to implement, and would be wildly popular: we cap the permits. We just stop printing more, and we make them tradable so that people can sell them.

All of the existing residents who currently have parking permits get to keep parking for crazy cheap, and new people who don't live here (or vote here) yet don't get to do that. They either pay to park in a monthly off-street space, or they buy a permit from somebody who already has one. This wouldn't actually be a big deal because fewer new people are bringing cars with them anyway, so we'd simply be tipping the paradigm further in the direction it's already going.

It sounds repugnant, but as the Next City piece argues, this is basically what politicians are already trying to do with things like off-street parking minimums for new housing. They want to reserve the cheap curb parking for more established residents, and make new residents get their own off-street spaces, to keep them from competing with existing residents for limited curb parking. Why not take the implicit right to nearby curb parking that existing residents already believe they have, and make it explicit, except scarce and tradable? 

This would create a political constituency (and a very powerful existing constituency at that, because long-time residents are already the voters politicians are paying the most attention to) in favor of new infill development and in opposition to lots of new off-street parking. That's because more population growth in the neighborhood would make a parking permit - basically the privilege to avoid paying $2760 a year for car storage - even more valuable as an asset. Livable streets activists would find a receptive constituency ready to embrace arguments against off-street parking minimums for new buildings for selfish reasons, and NIMBY activists would struggle to motivate their neighbors to show up at zoning meetings to oppose new housing.

Implementing this program would be easy. It's not hard to just stop printing more parking permits, after all. We could stop doing that tomorrow. We could also create a new form, available for online download, to transfer the parking permit from one driver's license/license plate number to another, with a pretty hefty tax of course. And voila! People would arrange permit sales informally on Craigslist or eBay, mail the transfer form and tax payment down to City Hall, and that's that. Parking problems: solved.

Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 January 2014 @ 11.10
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jongeeting's picture Jon Geeting About the Author:

Jon Geeting is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and policy researcher. His writing also appears at Next City, Primary Colors, and Keystone Politics, where he covers politics and elections, land use and transportation, and urban economic policy. He also writes a monthly Political Machine column at Philly City Paper.