The Low Cost of Parking Everywhere


The Low Cost of Parking Everywhere

Editor’s note: PT traditionally has not reported on products that aren’t actively working in the marketplace. However, some are on the cutting edge of technology and deserve an advance look. This is the first in a periodic series highlighting new

The 752 pages of Donald Shoup’s paradigm-tilting book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” is not a quick read. If I was unfairly forced to summarize Professor Shoup’s diligent work in less than 50 words, I’d say:
“Free parking causes far more harm than good to our cities, and on-street parking prices should be set to ensure a 15% vacancy rate during peak usage time, so shoppers can find a place to park without circling the block several times congesting downtown streets.”
This latter “15%” point translates into the “85% occupancy” mantra that I heard intoned several times during a presentation at the 2007 IPI conference in Tampa by Mike Estry, Manager of the Traffic Management Division in the Seattle Department of Transportation. The audience of about 100 was predominately municipal or institutional (hospital, university) parking managers. And from the many questions and comments, it was clear that most were either aware of Shoup’s work or were otherwise clear that the “85% occupancy” rule was important. They all seemed genuinely interested in Seattle’s prospect for meeting this target.
Since I do not know Seattle’s situation, I cannot make any comment about their work except to say that it was pretty clear its traffic managers were getting it right in principle – quite unlike the less-than-diligent Toronto proposal simply to raise parking everywhere by 50 cents without a thought about vacancy rates and congestion effects.
As I listened to Estry and his co-presenter, Bill Trimmer, I thought again about the even bigger problem – the “no free parking” part. In any part of a city where on-street parking is in sufficient demand to mount on-street meters, it is a relatively simple matter to determine the correct price to achieve a 15% vacancy rate. Many dozens of parking consultants can draw that pricing map. The only real ingredient needed is political will. Far harder is the eradication of free parking.
Ignore for a moment that employers might provide free parking and that to deal with that, say, with parking cash-outs, creates a more demanding logical burden than does simple “15%” market pricing. Rather, consider the residential streets that often are a block away from the main streets that have high parking demand. These streets are subject to spillover.
In Toronto, we generally handle this by putting up “no parking before 10 a.m.” signs to keep away non-resident commuters that might park there all day for free and walk a block to the subway. Or the “one-hour free parking” signs to provide a slightly inconvenient, but cheap high-turnover area for overflow shoppers along the main drag. These and similar control techniques come at a high cost of enforcement and loss of customers to local businesses. Another odd from of parking control is the sign that says, “Three hours free parking.” In Toronto, they are used on residential streets far from shopping and subway stops and are meant to force you to park in your driveway or to ensure that your cousin can’t stay more than three hours.
Why not just meter all these places, thereby decriminalizing legitimate parking and let people do the business and visiting they want, for however long they want? Because the cost of on-street meters would never provide a return. So now we are stuck with sporadic, barely self-financing tire-marking, which is uneven and only modestly effective. On my street (three hours free, the unsigned default), cars get ticketed about once a month, which appears to happen only when someone on the street calls to complain.
Bottom line: The current cost of metering is too high to price at the margins and the margins are everywhere except in the very core and on the busiest streets. So “No Free Parking” ain’t happening. Only “Painful Parking Practices” is happening.
A Solution has Arrived
Thanks to EU directives to move to wide-area road-pricing, the demand for in-car meters to accurately measure road use for distance-based road-user charging has provided the impetus for the innovation of a high-precision, GPS-based, tolling meter that works for distance-based road-use pricing and automotive liability premiums – even in deep city centers where until now GPS signals were so disturbed by tall buildings that it could not be used for reliable tolling.
With some extra work, one of these meters now doubles as an in-vehicle parking meter.
This device requires no user interaction, no ground beacon, no phone call, no rate selection, no button to turn on or off. It knows when you are parked, what the correct rate is, and best of all, it is “location anonymous” – i.e., your location is not reported to the billing center, only a list of what you owe to each parking operator (and road authority and insurance company) – so it is not possible to be tracked. If you want to audit your bill to check the exact location and time, you have to provide a password to allow your location data out of your vehicle and into a program that will decode your geography into an auditable bill.
So what? This unit zeros out the marginal cost of metering a new parking spot, and the marginal cost of self-financed enforcement via mobile license plate recognition for that new spot is only $10 to $100 per year, depending on how frequently you wish to scan the vehicle in that spot. So now on my three-hour-free-parking street, you could meter non-residents for a fractional amount – say, 1/2 cent a minute – tire-marking only those who park over three hours without a meter.
A touchless on-board parking meter allows for citation-free parking. As an example, one could attract shoppers with 20 minutes of free parking, 100 minutes of modestly charged parking, followed by any number of minutes of more expensive parking, designed to promote turnover and to replace the citation revenue. Parking rates are set in a database, administered according to local needs and posted to show local rates.
Many residential areas controlled by permit require guests to leave at, say, midnight or risk a fine. Such streets could be priced modestly throughout the day and more aggressively after midnight (residents exempt) – all scaled to suit the neighborhood.

Bern Grush is the founder of Skymeter Corp. He can be reached at

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