Greater City Providence's "Parking Crisis Illustrated". Downtown Providence
Justin Katz wrote a piece questioning the need for parking meters. I responded on Twitter:
— James @transportpvd (@TransportPVD) December 29, 2015
@TransportPVD When did it become the point of government to make a profit?
— Justin Katz (@JustinKatzRI) December 29, 2015
The conversation continued for a tweet or two more, and then there was what I perceived to be radio silence.
It came to my attention today that Katz actually wrote a response essay on his website, and so mixed amidst whatever else might be true, it's worth giving him a hat-tip for his earnest reply. Whatever else I might disagree with Katz on--and I disagree with him a lot--I've made it a goal to try my best to see people who disagree with me as in earnest unless evidence presents itself otherwise. And for that matter, not just in earnest, but at least occasionally able to teach us something. Everyone has some idea to commit to the conversation.
Katz brings up a lot of genuinely important questions about good governance. Government can use fines on parking to play "gotchya", so we should watch out for that. But I think Katz's essay misses the point in that he's harpooning Providence city government for implementing a parking plan that should help decrease the problems he's concerned with.
Katz's essay is relatively nuanced, but I think still wrong. The core argument is that demand-management of parking* can't work because it sets up government as the agency to carry it out. Government, Katz says, is in it for the immediate gain, and won't carry out parking management fairly:
As a first and overriding purpose, why does a city charge for parking? Whatever the answer may once have been, it certainly seems as if it has become the raising revenue, and that may be an inevitable problem. If that’s the purpose, then the incentive can become to produce fines, not regular fees, because they are each so much more valuable.
The idea that government might avoid an ideal management of a problem in order to collect on fines is not a totally out-of-hand suggestion. Strong Towns, the libertarian-leaning blog which I--Bernie Sanders pin and all--enjoy reading for its grasp of municipal finance, made this about speeding:
In several articles on the matter, Chuck Marohn has pointed out that many of our municipal streets are designed for speed (wide lanes, etc.) and that the most efficient way to fix that problem would be to fix the design. The classic image of the driver who is caught, "gotchya" style, by a shady policeman hanging out in a dark corner on the side of a fast-moving speed-trap is at least partly true. If we designed our streets to function at the speeds we want them at, then only a small percentage of deviant drivers would go outside the norms, and would get a ticket (proof is in the pudding: engineers build streets wider to allow for error, then measure speeds. If drivers go over the expected speed, instead of changing the design, engineers use the bell curve of actual speeds to justify a higher speed limit). When we design streets for higher speeds, but control speeds through ticketing, government is truly using the ticket more as a revenue scheme than for behavior modification. Really extreme instances of this phenomenon have happened in places like Ferguson, MO. Governments are capable of abusing fines for speeding, parking, or virtually any offense. This is a valid and worthy observation, but not a trump card against any and all other policy options that might exist. For good parking management in action, you could look to many cities that have adopted Shoup's policies (see, for instance, Pasadena, California).
The best modern demand-responsive parking systems have the kind of parking meters Katz was complaining about to begin with. See this video, with former DC and Chicago transportation planner Gabe Klein, from Streetfilms:
Here, you can see that one of the advantages of the new systems over the older ones is that they try to optimize the drivers' ability to be informed about when his or her meter is about to expire, and re-up remotely to avoid fines. This is fundamentally about removing an information asymmetry (I know something, you don't, I benefit unfairly) from the parking market. So government should be much less able to abuse parking fines as a gotchya with the new meters, and much better able to use the basic fees to actually manage parking supply.
The Means of Production (Um, Parking). Rise, Proletarians!
This passage really struck me from Katz's essay:
For instance, parking is a disadvantage that stores and other businesses located in cities have against those in the suburbs. One could say that the city government has to manage the parking as a means of assisting the local economy for the good of all, thus providing the rationale for government ownership of the means of parking, but this is simply a subsidy to the businesses. If it’s advisable, it isn’t clear why shoppers should bear the brunt of the cost. Additionally, government introduces new problems. If parking becomes a fine trap, that amplifies the incentive to stay away, not merely for the cost, but also for the sense of injustice. (my emphases)
Government already owns the means of parking--it's the street! The distinction is not between having on-street parking being owned by the government or not, but between having government own the parking and give it away for free, or having government charge a market-based price for it.
Having demand-management of parking isn't a subsidy to business, and nor is having free parking a subsidy of business per se. Free parking subsidizes parking one's car and all other beneficiaries are incidental. The Providence city government, in its infinite wisdom, continues to give away "free" parking at holiday time, on the basis that that will encourage customers to its downtown. For certain, drivers hate paying for parking, and so there's a logic to this, but the downside is that parking becomes harder to find, as turnover becomes less effective. Government also then tries to manage parking through additional stilted layers of rules, like time limits. Instead of creating a marketplace, this creates bureaucracy. It causes problems with dealing with food trucks, and it punishes people who might walk, bike, or bus their way to buy something. And, in the end, the parking still ain't free: the government is choosing to raise local property or business taxes in order to cover the buffet-style provision of parking spaces, instead of having people pay a la carte each time they use it.
The Trojan Horse
To Katz's credit, I haven't seen him throw this argument, but I have heard it elsewhere, and so I want to address it: If Donald Shoup's ideas are so damned market-based, why do you liberals like them so much?
My response to that pointed question is this: I want government to interfere in the market when there's a public need at stake. I want good public services. I want a cushion or safety net. I want government to regulate externalities in the economy, like pollution, to make sure that the environment is sustained. But in order for government to succeed at those goals, it also has to be a slim fighting machine. It needs to employ the smarts of the market in every possible case where that works, because markets are very efficient at a lot of things.
The Shoup method of dealing with parking uses markets to create an optimum for parking usage. That optimum helps our city to be leaner, helps our businesses to succeed, and ultimately means that when we have an actual public need to provide for, we'll probably be able to afford it. It's the conservative motto of thrift in action, though admittedly with the caveat that what I'd like to buy is a social-democracy. But you can support parking reform, and have what you'd like to "buy" be lower taxes. That's the point: making government leaner in one place just frees us up to have debates about the things that matter in other parts of our society. Let's put our heads together, left and right, and solve the parking crisis.
*Forget what "demand-management of parking" is (kind of wonky, can't blame you)? Here are the basics (or watch the video, complete with matchbox cars!):
Stop requiring parking lots or garages through zoning (so, zoning deregulation).
Stop putting government money into parking garages (a la Garrahy Garage).
Place a price (as low as zero, but as high as necessary) so that parking availability balances out at one or two spaces per block. More spaces than that, and your price is too high (no one wants to park). Fewer spaces than that, and your price is too low (you're not getting turnover).
Turn over the money from parking meters to communities, at a neighborhood level, to fund services or to lower taxes.
Demand-based parking could be managed by a municipality--and in conservative style, the more local that management, the better. But it could also, in theory at least, be managed by a private entity. I personally favor the former, but either can work.
Check out The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup for more. The full book is a tome even in paperback, but is witty and funny, and easy to read. The first chapter is available online for free, right here, and summarizes things pretty well.