By Zane Selvans

free-parking-01To some, parking policy seems like a boring backwater, peripheral to bigger issues of zoning and transportation planning, but because it has powerful impacts on our transportation choices, providing the “right amount” of parking is very important. Unfortunately, our sense of what constitutes the “right amount” rests on some unreasonable expectations. As individuals, we want parking to be easily available at any time and every destination. We also want it to be cheap, or even free. Trying to fulfill both of these desires is expensive, and has enormous unintended consequences for society.

Parking is not cheap. A recent analysis by the Sightline Institute found that parking requirements add an average of nearly $250/month to apartment rents in Seattle. Nationwide, a single underground parking space costs about $34,000 to build, which is equivalent to $150 to $200/month (given a 4-6 percent cost of capital, over 30-40 years). Surface lots are obviously less expensive, but they have big opportunity costs — instead of building housing, parks, or other interesting places, we create inhospitable asphalt deserts in the middle of our city.

If parking is so expensive, why don’t we pay for it more often?

For over 60 years most U.S. cities (including Boulder) have created a parking glut with mandatory minimum parking requirements, often depressing the market price of parking to zero. In Boulder, with the notable exceptions of downtown and the University of Colorado, this means it’s impossible to recoup the cost of building a parking space by charging for it directly. Boulder recently commissioned a citywide study of parking utilization. It found that even during peak usage there were still vacant spots almost everywhere: at offices, commercial centers, and residential developments. The oversupply is so great that even at a price of zero, we don’t use all the parking we’ve built.

But don’t be fooled! We’re still paying for parking. We’re just doing it indirectly.

We only think that all this parking is cheap because we “bundle” it with other purchases. What’s the difference between paying $1,000/month for rent and parking together, or $800/month in rent and $200/month for parking? If you need the parking space there’s no difference, but if you don’t need the parking space, being offered the choice is huge! The Solana apartments in Boulder Junction charge $50/month for a parking space, hiding $100-$150/month in their rents. By making it impossible to opt out of paying for parking, we’ve socially engineered people into driving, and inhibited other transportation cultures from arising and becoming normalized. We also force poorer folks to incur a substantial expense they might otherwise choose to avoid.

To allow the cost of parking to be separated from the cost of everything else, we need to build much less parking going forward than we’re used to. The places to start are Boulder Junction, the Broadway corridor, and other areas that are easily accessible without driving.

What parking we do build should be shared, not dedicated to any particular development. This will give us more flexibility to adjust prices and supply going forward, and free us from obsessing over whether any individual project has exactly the “right amount” of parking. Shared parking can be public, as with the city structures downtown, or it can be provided through public-private partnerships, as is the plan for S’Park in Boulder Junction. Eventually it can even be a private enterprise — but only if we allow the price of parking to reflect the cost of its production. If we play our cards right, Whole Foods and Target may decide selling overnight parking to Boulder Junction residents is a good side business.

What about spillover into adjacent neighborhoods? We don’t want drivers to avoid paying for parking and park for free elsewhere, unfairly impacting others. Today we address this issue with Neighborhood Parking Permit (NPP) zones. As the price of parking comes to reflect its real cost, it may become worthwhile to meter on-street spaces for non-residents. We could even reinvest some of the resulting revenues in the neighborhoods it came from, creating what are known as “parking benefit districts.”

Sharing and unbundling parking will allow us to create a fairer, more cost effective, and more efficient transportation system. Building less parking means less traffic associated with new development. Those who really need to drive won’t be any worse off — like everyone else, they already pay for parking indirectly today. The rest of us will have one more reason to explore other transportation options.