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Oases, Baking in the Sun

All of these people live in Providence, and all of them want the parking lot tax (and lower property taxes).

Yesterday, a group of Providence residents joined me for Jane's Bike. Our topic was parking, and we explored all aspects of it. 

The bike ride is part of my continued effort to educate the public on the need for a Providence parking lot tax. Some officials in Providence--notably, my awesome state rep.--have been very vocal in supporting the proposal, while our mayor has taken a wait-and-see approach. 100% of the proceeds of the tax would go back to reduced taxes on adjacent properties. 

The Mayor on the Parking Tax

The Providence Business News recently wrote about parking as well, exploring a variety of angles to parking policy, including a parking tax. PBN incorrectly stated that Mayor Elorza is against a parking tax. What the mayor said was this:

I’m all for incentivizing alternative forms of transportation, and disincentivizing our over-reliance on cars. While I like the idea behind the parking tax, and it makes sense within a discussion of developing a more progressive transportation system, we can’t adopt it right now. The larger reality is that our citizens are already over taxed [sic], and we can’t consider adding anything new to that burden. 
Hence, PBN's statement that he is against it. But. . .  
Over the long term, if we can manage to lower some of the other taxes – property tax, the car tax, etc. – I would consider a parking tax, because it’s much more progressive tax. First, it requires visitors to the city to share a portion of the tax burden, unlike the property and car taxes, which only impact residents. It also incentivizes other forms of transportation and ride sharing. (my emphasis)

When a politician gives you an answer like this, what they're saying is get your troops rallied, I'd like to support your awesome cause, but you have to convince me of who the demographic is that will keep me safe for backing you. It's kind of like Obama's pre-evolution statement on gay rights, when he said he "thinks" he's "soon" to evolve, but hasn't evolved "yet".

So let's push him. It's time for Mayor Elorza to turn that maybe into a yes.

The PBN article was, as Stephen Miller of Streetsblog said, "comprehensive but all over the place." My criticism of it, in the same vein, is that the article posits a false balance on this issue, when no balance is needed. Just as climate change coverage frequently presents a thoroughly researched scholar against a wacko with no credentials, so too did the PBN article do this for parking.

It went even further than that. At times it awkwardly editorializes in favor of parking lots in ways that are both bizarre and objectively false:

For those who work in Providence, surface parking lots that cover an estimated 70 downtown acres can seem like oases amid the chaos and congestion of city life. So why are the city and planners across the country actively discouraging them?

This was the opening line.

Besides being absolutely ridiculous, this statement is objectively false. Traffic engineers know well that congestion is worsened by parking lots. It's not only demonstrated by practical engineering, but it even makes intuitive sense if you stop for more than two seconds to think about it: when you're in a traffic jam--any traffic jam, anywhere--where are all those cars coming from and heading to? Parking lots.

Joe Paolino, Guardian of the Impoverished Masses

An interview with former mayor and local parking yahoo Joe Paolino bears being quoted in full, because there's just so much that's wrong about it:

Yet for those who use and operate them, the lots are thriving, often affordable examples of supply meeting demand.  

First of all, how can something be subjectively an example of supply meeting demand? Does everyone else catch the trick there? "For those who use them...". No! The parking lots are there because we willed them into existence. We had years of parking minimums, and an elevated highway, putting extreme pressure on the downtown's building stock to lose value and become dilapidated, while also at the same time creating induced demand to drive and park. And that's to say nothing of the fact that the parking lots over that time became a major cause of stormwater overflow, meaning that we all paid for part of their cost in our water bills. What part of that is supply and demand? It's socialism for cars.

"They're not understanding the economics," one prominent parking-lot owner, former Providence Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr., said of the new zoning code that discourages surface lots. "It's flawed policy." 
If parking becomes too expensive, he says, businesses will relocate to suburban communities, where it is plentiful and free. 
Let's introduce the former mayor to Zurich, Switzerland, which is pretty comparable in size and density to Providence:

Then Paolino's gem of an argument comes out:
"A secretary, a downtown worker, can't afford more than $150 a month," he said.
PBN allows this to stand unchallenged, but the argument is false. Lower income people are more likely than any other demographic to be transit-dependent, and while many people of all classes drive, building density to a downtown is a big factor in actually making transit useful to people. Density doesn't build linear changes in transit ridership, it produces exponential ones. For instance, a density doubling can quadruple the number of riders. This is what is needed to allow frequency of service on bus lines, and frequency is the most important aspect of whether working people feel like a bus system works for them. 

A parking lot tax also supports carpooling, which is a working class support. I've argued that without some internalization of the cost of parking, an imbalance of power is left between workers who have cars and those that don't. I know this because I've had to carpool to Boston. The high parking costs in Boston have assured me that any time I've had a job during hours that the T didn't run, a coworker was not only happy to give me a ride, but was quite likely to view my riding along as a business opportunity. People who carpool to workplaces with "free" (as in, bundled to their wages) parking do not have such an advantage, and may find less interest from coworkers.

An Unnatural Village

The owner of a downtown parking lot is a speculator, by nature. Now, a word on speculation: Any of us, all of us, speculate. If you buy a house and fix your kitchen, you're a speculator. Even if you don't hope to flip that house the next day, you're making an economic decision about that property in hopes that it will profit you to invest in it. That's absolutely good. You can take advantage of an arbitrage--speculator!--by buying your winter clothes when it turns warm and those clothes will be cheaper, or try to find a list of your books for the next semester a few months in advance--speculator!--when books will be in less demand. There's nothing wrong with speculation. It's what makes the economy work.

What we talk about when we use the word "speculation" is oftentimes more like what goes on with parking lots: there's some kind of institutionally weird policy that is creating an unusually stark border area between the price of two things, or there's an unfair asymmetry of information. The only types of situations that can exist like this for long are those that have some kind of institutional backing, or else the market would correct them.

With downtown parking lots, you have a weird situation like this. Government created these lots, and continues to supply new money to them through "free" state worker parking. The land that the parking lot is on is nothing like any normal place would have, because no place would have both empty land and high land prices at the same time. 

Detroit has no parking tax: red & orange are parking.
A village developing in the market would intensify a little at a time. You might have a cluster of houses, and then someone might add a story to one, or tear one down and build a taller building, and over time, bit by bit, the village would turn into a city. The land prices wouldn't start high, and when they grew it wouldn't be huge stair-steps. In neighborhoods that grow out of urban renewal, there's the bizarre feeling that nothing is quite "neighborly". Things feel unnatural. It's this stair-step, clearing of the land all at once, that makes for this. In a normal city built out from a village on a green field, the change in intensity of building would be gradual, along a normal bell curve. Only because government created a situation where the tallest building for fifty miles in any direction is next to an empty lot can these lots be worth anything in the absence of development. You don't see development because the land is expensive, but you don't see a big enough change in land price to correct for that because why not make some money off of parking and wait?

Pittsburgh has the highest parking tax in the country--contrast to Detroit.
A parking lot corrects this situation. The 40% tax set by Pittsburgh--the highest in the country, although theirs was at one time set at 50%--collects more revenue for the city of Pittsburgh than the income tax in that city. Providence should do the same, but give all the money directly into lower property taxes on actual buildings. You may resent paying high parking rates, but if your taxes are cheap on a beautiful, centrally-located building, guess what? You'll adjust. Buildings will be taken care of better and new buildings added because of the corrective force on land prices. It's not just that you're taking away the competitiveness of parking, which sounds anti-market. What's actually happening is that parking is competitive for government-created reasons, and you're putting the land parcels back into a natural market such as would exist in any gradually developing city. Owners of lots can choose a variety of things: One could still own a plot of land, knowing that parking won't provide the boost that it did, in hopes of that "perfect deal" for the expensive skyscraper. One could build a place-holding building to provide temporary uses, or open the land to outdoor tent bazaars, and hold onto the land but avoid the tax. Or one could sell: but selling means selling the expected tax alongside the favorable location of the land, so the price will go down. A lower land price sounds ominous, like something's wrong with our city. But remember, if you were building a new Providence like Roger Williams did, the land just beyond the last settlement would be the cheapest land within the pale of the city, not expensive. And so you're allowing for the great market creativity of the past to come about again. Reduced land prices mean that the improvements to that land have a disproportionate value, increasing the value of buildings all around. And that's exactly why we need the parking lot tax. We're not waiting around for glimmering "oases" of asphalt.

What we want are buildings, in the form of neighborhoods.

Contact the Mayor!

So let's push this parking tax, until we get it. Our mayor is not against the parking tax, but what he needs to hear is that we think it's important enough to deserve his attention. Give the mayor a buzz or send him an email and let him know that a Providence parking lot tax makes sense. 


  1. That Pittsburgh parking map is a little misleading. There are many pocket lots and underground lots underneath buildings in the immediate downtown area, not all are "public" , but they do increase and impact parking availability.

    I think the nuance of your point is spot on: People go to downtown Pittsburgh to attend sporting events and arts events, cultural festivals, etc. And when you head down, you pretty much know that you're going to end up in one of the garages a few blocks from your destination. Not all streets have metered parking, getting an on street space is quite a challenge.

  2. Oh, and one other thing, I don't know it for certain, but I suspect that there are price caps on parking in Pittsburgh. When I lived there, the highest event rate I ever saw at a garage was $20-$25.

    One of my complaints about going to downtown PVD is i don't know if I'm going to pay $0 (street), $5 (nothing going on), $20 (dunk or PPAC have a low-key event) or give up because I don't want to pay $40 to park and go to dinner when PPAC and the Dunk are both having a show. I've even seen $50 on (short-lived) sign once.

  3. One of the dangers of using an American example is that you know somewhere in your heart that it's not going to be as good as a European one, which is why I included Zurich. Zurich, by the way, at 11,000 per square mile, is somewhat denser than Providence (9,000 per square mile) but Pittsburgh is much further off than that (just above 5,000 per square mile). My impression of Pittsburgh as someone who visited from Philadelphia was that it wasn't a city, but I realize now that my perspective on what characterizes a city was skewed by growing up in an unusually urbanist region. Pittsburgh ranks up there with Providence for lane-miles of highway per capita (as I recall, there were all these huge arch bridges seeming to cross from one hill-peak to another, but only for cars), but is also making some huge leaps on bike infrastructure.

    Maybe one of the comparisons that would work would be Groningen to Assen. David Hembrow points out that Assen actually has better infrastructure than Groningen, but a lower biking rate (*only* 40% of trips) compared to Groningen (50-60%). I think Pittsburgh is a city that just doesn't have the bones to be a great transit/biking city compared to Providence, much less Philadelphia, but it's hauling ass a lot harder than either city to put itself in that position. We should see what our advantages are and try to pull ahead.

  4. For an explanation of why the aerial of central Pittsburgh shows very few parking lots one needs to understand two unique factors:
    1. Pennsylvania state law allows municipalities to employ a "split dual tax rate" based upon the "Single Land Tax" philosophy of Henry George. Here's a link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax_in_the_United_States
    To the best of my knowledge RI law does not include this provision enabling municipalities to do so.
    2. The city's parking meters are under the control of the City's Parking Authority. Parking meter revenue does not get swallowed by the city's operating budget. Instead it is used to float bonds to construct parking garages in neighborhoods to support neighborhood grocery anchored shopping centers; garages in downtown and garages near the new baseball and football stadia on the North Side. The stadia and garages replaced the old stadia, which were surrounded by acres and acres of surface lots. The result is these stadia sit right on the street within an urban street grid close to the Allegheny River and are easily (and pleasantly) walked to over one of the three lovely bridges that span it. As a result,the area has seen significant new development & building re-purposing (Andy Warhol Museum is in former warehouse)

    1. The only thing I'd want to change about that model is that I'd prefer if the parking meter money went into something other than parking---something transportation related, that would offset the need for parking, like transit, bike lanes, etc.

      But for now, I think it would be great to get such a tax and put it to lower property taxes. Seems like an easier sell.