Ruffling the parking vultures' feathers

Urban Chronicle

Theory: If street parking were scarcer and costlier, cities would be better off, an author suggests.

April 14, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

TO MOST PEOPLE, parking in Baltimore and most other cities is too expensive and too hard to find.

To Donald Shoup, it's too cheap and too available.

Shoup is a professor of urban planning at UCLA and the author of a recently published book, The High Cost of Free Parking.

At 733 pages, the book, published by the American Planning Association, is long - but Shoup's message is short and sweet.

He argues that the conventional decades-old urban policy of providing free or subsidized on-street parking and requiring off-street parking for new development contributes to congestion and discourages alternatives to automobile transportation such as mass transit, walking and bicycling.

He suggests allowing developers to take a free-market approach to how many off-street parking spaces they provide for apartments and businesses, and increasing the cost of metered spaces so that they equal the cost of parking garages.

Shoup acknowledges that his ideas go against the grain, but he notes that urban planning is rife with discarded notions.

"High-rise public housing projects were once state-of-the art, but many cities have since demolished them," he writes. "Urban renewal (which Jane Jacobs compared to bloodletting) was once the best hope of downtowns, but most cities have now abandoned it in favor of historic preservation."

Baltimore Planning Director Otis Rolley III says he hasn't read Shoup's book but acknowledges, "We've done a little too much to make the car king in our cities."

Rolley says the city has no plans to overhaul its dozens of pages of zoning regulations on off-street parking, but says it is looking at making appropriate modifications to encourage transit-oriented development.

He points to a draft of an amended urban renewal plan for Mount Vernon, which calls for limiting off-street parking for new apartment buildings to one space per unit as a way of reducing auto traffic in a historic neighborhood that is well-served by mass transit. "We think it's good for Mount Vernon, and good for the city," he says.

Similarly, Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, says the long-term goal of the business advocacy group is to have a more auto-free environment. "Our vision for downtown in the future is for us to have a neighborhood where you don't need a car to work and live and play," he said.

But he says that in the near term, the downtown area, which has increased its number of garages in recent years, is best served by making parking accessible and affordable. "We don't want to adopt disincentives or increase the cost of coming downtown," he said.

As a longtime city resident, I have mixed feelings. I enjoy walking to stores and restaurants near my house in Wyman Park and would certainly like a less-congested city. At the same time, I confess to being a one-car-per-driver household. But I also like the two-car parking pad behind my house and my employer-provided parking space (albeit at a higher price than a year ago), and I almost always tend to drive and look for on-street parking when I leave my neighborhood.

Still, Shoup might have a point in calling for eliminating off-street parking requirements and letting the marketplace determine whether parking is necessary or desirable. "If parking were less plentiful and more expensive, we would own fewer cars," he writes.

And he is persuasive in arguing that making the expense of metered parking comparable to spaces in parking lots and garages would reduce bottlenecks caused by people cruising for cheap spaces. In a survey of 20 cities, he found that it cost an average of $4.71 more to park for an hour in a garage or lot near city hall than on the street. New York, at $12.88, had the highest differential; Baltimore, at $4, was near the middle.

Shoup also proposes converting widely used residential parking permit districts, which allow residents to park for free or minimal fees on the streets outside their homes but limits the time that nonresidents can leave their cars, into "parking benefits districts."

In the latter, a limited number of nonresidents would get to park during the day on the street for fees dozens of times that charged to residents, with the proceeds going to community improvements. Shoup says cities such as Boulder, Colo., and Tucson, Ariz., are successfully issuing permits to commuters in certain neighborhoods at fees up to $400 a year.

Would parking benefits districts work in any of Baltimore's three dozen neighborhoods with residential parking permits? Who knows? But they might be an idea worth a try.

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