Washburn

Disarming objections to parking pricing

Since the beginning of time, parkers have argued that they should park free. Yet the economic justifications for pricing are well documented - pricing leads to more efficient parking use and a multimodal transportation system. Many arguments against pricing don’t hold up to scrutiny. I have been chronicling them in my work with local stakeholders over three decades. This blog post summarizes the top five arguments I’ve encountered and provides responses that are useful in the heat of the battle.

Photo credit: Richard W. Willson

Pricing won’t work.

  • Arguments: “People love their cars and will park regardless of the price”, or “I have to drive because of reasons x, y and z and everyone is like me,” and/or “I enjoy showing off my parking skill by circling blocks looking for the best space.”
  • Response: Yes, some people love their cars, must drive and/or enjoy hunting for parking, but that’s not the point. Parking pricing seeks to change behavior at the margin, not for everyone. In other words, if your alternatives to driving are good and you drive because parking is free, pricing will induce you to consider changing modes or parking location. Seeking 85% curb parking occupancy with dynamic pricing, for example, requires that only a few people change.

 

Pricing will kill business.

Photo credit: Richard W. Willson

  • Argument: “I won’t shop in this shopping district if you price parking, and no one else will either.”
  • Response: That’s a bluff. People who spend $100 on dinner say they won’t pay $3 to park.  A few people may do that, but most will go to the restaurant they like. People will pay for parking to gain access to a district with competitive businesses. Instead of improving their businesses, uncompetitive districts hold on to free parking like it is a life preserver in a stormy sea, thinking it draws customers. The stakeholders screaming the loudest about parking charges probably spend the least money in the district.

 

The past is an entitlement to the future.

Photo credit: Richard W. Willson

  • Argument: “Since parking was free in the past it should be free now. My community has a small town feel and I want it to stay that way.”
  • Response: Communities are dynamic and change over time. Change addresses important social, economic, and environmental objectives. Past parking policies didn’t recognize resource limitations, climate change, and current goals for livability and multimodal transportation. But one can’t ignore this sentiment – it is powerful – so frame and design pricing programs in a way that positions the place as a “modern” small town.

 

Pricing is unfair.

  • Argument: “No one should pay for parking because charges burden low-income drivers.”
  • The SF park dynamic pricing program shows that while prices on the prime blockfaces increased, the average price declined because prices were lower in less-used locations, so affordable parking was still available, albeit with a longer walk. Using parking revenues to improve transit and active transportation is a better path.

 

Pricing is a money grab by local government.

Photo credit: Richard W. Willson

  • Argument: “Cities push parking pricing just to generate revenues for the general fund.”
  • Response: Fair enough. Lots of cities are so motivated. The answer is to set prices to achieve target occupancies, not a revenue target, and return all or a portion of the funds for local parking, transportation and community improvement in the neighborhood being priced.

 

Convincing a person to change her or his mind is, of course, the greatest challenge of all. It has stumped teachers, marketers, philosophers, and religious leaders through the millennia. But is it possible, and it is more likely, when you understand the core ideas in the objections and frame the issue in a way that acknowledges them.