Wide Angle: The High Cost of Free Parking

Donald Shoup, in his highly influential book The High Cost Of Free Parking, provides us with strategies for dealing with a growing problem: how to best manage parking in communities like Beacon and Cold Spring, which are increasing in popularity.

Beacon and Cold Spring’s main streets are among the communities’ greatest assets, and parking along them is in great demand. But Main Street parking is a resource that can’t be easily increased in either municipality.

Cold Spring is preparing to roll out this fall a paid parking plan that relies on a combination of meters on Main Street and neighborhood-oriented parking permits for residents. 

Beacon should follow Cold Spring’s lead in paid parking, but avoid the pitfalls of fixed-price parking and adopt “performance pricing” as part of a comprehensive plan. Such a plan would also include striping of the side streets to maximize parking space and continuing free parking in Beacon’s many parking lots.

If we are to balance the needs of local residents and visitors, free parking on Main Street satisfies no one’s desires. Why? Because it produces the wrong results. A survey conducted by Beacon’s Main Street Access Committee last Oct. 15, on a sunny 60-degree Saturday, demonstrates the high demand for parking along the city’s commercial artery. 

How can we achieve the goal of having a few parking spaces available on every block so that a resident can drive to Main Street, park, pick up a prescription and drop off dry cleaning, without having to park three blocks away? With free parking, on any given day, that may be a pipe dream. And on a Saturday, as the survey indicates, it’s unlikely. 

Shoup’s “performance pricing” — setting parking fees to maintain an 85 percent occupancy rate (one open space on a block with eight spaces) — improves the situation in three ways:

If all but one or two spaces are occupied, the resource is being well-used, but the unoccupied spaces are available for use.

Since a few spaces are always available, drivers spend less time cruising in search of a space. Cruising for parking is more than a waste of time: It congests traffic, wastes fuel and pollutes the air. 

So, along Main Street, economic efficiency is increased, since drivers will park, drop off their dry cleaning or pick up take-out, and leave quickly, allowing others to use the space, too.

As Shoup points out, targeting a desired outcome is much better than hoping: “Free curb parking in a congested city gives a small, temporary benefit to a few drivers who happen to be lucky on a particular day, but it creates large social costs for everyone else every day.” 

Appropriately setting prices is the central way to achieve the outcome. This doesn’t require complex modeling; the street itself is the model. One approach is to set initial prices for different days and times, and then survey the results. If too many cars crowd into one area, raise the hourly rate for that day and time, and then continue to survey.

There are predictable criticisms of instituting paid parking. First, people don’t want to pay for what has been free. Yes, but free parking comes with high costs —  cruising, pollution and traffic congestion — so it’s not really free.

Another claim is that it’s regressive, falling hardest on less-well-off residents. But Beacon could implement a “one-free-hour-a-day” policy for residents, allowing for most general-use situations, like picking up a prescription. 

If someone wants to park and walk around Main Street for a few hours, they are likely a visitor, and we could keep the parking lots off of Main Street unmetered in order to draw long-term visitors, especially in times of high demand.

Some cities are implementing fully automated dynamic pricing, where real-time sensors or information communicated by parking kiosks are used to raise and lower prices based on the number of cars on a given block or in an area. 

Ultimately, Beacon would raise new funds from this initiative, once the cost of implementation is covered. Those funds could be used to improve Main Street in other ways, such as increased trash removal and improving dangerous intersections.

6 thoughts on “Wide Angle: The High Cost of Free Parking

  1. Regarding metered parking in Beacon (July 7); it will ruin Beacon. Too strong of a statement? Compared to other places I’ve lived, Beacon is Heaven. Since I’ve moved here, I almost never have to park more than one block from where I want to be. Try living in White Plains where you always worry if you will find a space, how much it will cost, and if you have to feed the meter. Has paid parking encouraged visitors to shop and eat in the downtown areas of Poughkeepsie or Peekskill? In contrast, Beacon is thriving.

    Mr. Boyd asks, “How can we achieve the goal of having a few parking spaces available on every block so that a resident can drive to Main Street, park, pick up a prescription and drop off dry cleaning, without having to park three blocks away?” Why should this be the goal? Is it that bad to have them walk past a few other businesses on the block? Maybe they’ll discover a shop or restaurant they haven’t seen before. Would residents rather have visitors park in front of their homes to avoid paying for parking on Main and its adjacent blocks? That will happen.

    I spend thousands of dollars a year in businesses on Main Street. I don’t live within walking distance, so must take my car, but with so many other nearby places with free parking, I, and others, will go elsewhere. We can easily reach the villages of Fishkill and Wappingers by car, as well as any place on Route 9 where parking is free. Many, if not most, of the weekend visitors to Beacon arrive by train, so won’t contribute to metered parking anyway; but it might make our Main Street look less quaint to them.

    I hope the survey conducted by Beacon’s Main Street Access Committee sampled days other than a 60-degree day during leaf peeper season. A valid traffic survey must sample several days, not just those where activity can be anticipated to be much higher than normal. Anyone who’s tried to park on the metered streets of White Plains can tell you that they do nothing to stop you cruising around for blocks to try to find a space. I lived less than a mile from downtown but mostly ate and shopped on nearby Central Avenue where parking was free or in White Plains’ malls where I at least knew I could find a space, eventually (except in December). Nothing good will come from meters in Beacon.

  2. Beacon should not adopt paid parking. Maximum municipal profit from tourists should not come at the expense of the residents, and a pay-to-play model is an inequitable “solution” that bars our marginalized and vulnerable residents from accessing main districts in our city.

    Paid parking in Beacon would increase demand for police presence and overburden lifelong residents with unnecessary fines and daily fees. If the concern is about car emissions from cruising, we should be focusing on ways to make the city a safer place to bike and expanding free shuttle service. [via Instagram]

    McCray is a member of the Beacon City Council.

  3. City residents should receive free permits. When I lived in Washington, D.C., this was floated for the different wards (it was adopted after we left). It allowed residents to park free 24 hours a day (except during street cleaning) but restricted street parking for non-residents to two hours per day.

    I feel like that is a fair model and could reserve parking for people who live near Main Street. The cost of enforcement would be a larger issue, though. I don’t feel we should burden the police with enforcing parking, although I do wish they would enforce laws against bad driving. [via Instagram]

  4. There should not be paid parking on Main Street. The residents of Beacon who park on the streets when the tourists are not around should not be punished for the weekend warriors.

    We don’t have a parking garage in Beacon — maybe it’s time to build one? [via Instagram]

  5. If only there were a way to reduce the number of cars parking in Cold Spring, like a giant boat that dropped people off. [via Instagram]

  6. Beacon should close Main Street to cars, such as they have done in Burlington, Vermont, which is amazing for residents, businesses and tourists. Less space for cars, more space for people. [via Instagram]

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