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End Free Workplace Parking?

A Tantalizing Opportunity

As we all should know from Donald Shoup’s landmark 733-page tome, The High Cost of Free Parking, cities with free parking do not qualify as smarter cities, as there is no free lunch and no such thing as a truly free parking space.

Of the 102 million US commuters, 91% are provided with free workplace parking. The large majority of US free-parkers commute by SOV (single occupancy vehicle). 10% carpool with someone in their household (also called “fam-pooling”), 2% carpool with someone more daring, 2% take transit and 3% commute by foot or bike.

A survey of San Francisco Bay Area commuters found that while 77 percent of commuters drove alone when free parking was available, only 39 percent drove alone when they had to pay to park. Additionally, among commuters with free parking, only 4.8 percent commuted by transit. By contrast, among commuters with paid parking, 42 percent commute by transit.

Envisioning the Tantalizing Transformation

Should it become politically feasible to eliminate this freebie, a major transformation will occur. 20 million commuters will switch from SOV commuting to alternatives (bus, train, carpool, bike, walk, telework). The growing smartphone mobility ecosystem will thrive, with increased take-up of smartphone transit directions, Relay Rides, SideCar, yet-to-be-launched self-driving robotaxis, NextBus, ZipCar, Avego, ZimRide, Carticipate, Piggyback, NuRide, Lyft, City Carshare, Car2Go, DriveNow, Buzzcar, iBART, iCaltrain, Pocket Muni, etc. In the past, 15 smartphone ridesharing pilot projects (for daring people) failed to achieve critical mass, but 20 million additional non-SOV commuters will put the ecosystem on secure footing. Commuting will become much more technologically-intensive. 20 million parking spaces (162,000 prime acres) will be freed for redevelopment. Voters will happily vote for new transit investments.

California State Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal’s stalled parking bill explains:

Eliminating subsidies for parking has enormous potential to reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas by reducing vehicle miles traveled. If drivers must pay the true cost of parking, it will affect their choices on whether or not to drive. In the short term, changes to parking policy can reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions more than all other strategies combined, and they are usually the most cost-effective.SB518 findings

Not Free

Free office parking that is paid for by employers and provided freely to employees represents a perverse $7.58 per day incentive for SOV commuting: employers pay for valuable parking space land that they give away to SOV commuters, but transit, bike, and tele-commuters receive no such free land.

Economics and Politics

When the cost of driving increases, the amount of driving decreases. For example, European and Asian gas prices are roughly $8 per gallon. Per capita annual driving is one-third less than the US. In the long-run, higher driving costs also contribute to the more efficient European and Asian settlement patterns.

As far as reducing GHG and wrestling down traffic congestion, the Moving Cooler Report suggests that a gradually-phased $5 per gallon gas tax increase will reduce US driving by 28%. But even a small gas tax increase isn’t possible. Polling of California voters considering a $0.25 tax increase wasn’t close: 22% aye and 75% nay. The “hot fudge sundae diet” is a mythical diet where people eat four 1500-calorie sundaes per day while simultaneously losing weight. Voters want the equivalent mythical combination: low driving prices while GHG and congestion magically shrink.

Remedies

For workplace parking, there are various combinations of carrots (incentives) and sticks (charges). Incentives work great for training dogs, but human behavior changes much more readily with sticks as compared to carrots. Furthermore, incentives-only programs are decidedly unpopular with marginally profitable companies that are cutting expenses.

Cities21 promotes a combined carrot & stick approach: Employers charge SOV commuters each day they park at the workplace. Non-SOV commuters are provided with financial incentives funded by the SOV parking revenue. Implementation begins with $0.25 SOV daily parking charge and $0.50 commute alternative incentives. Charges and incentives are increased gradually to a final level of approximately $2.00 SOV parking charge and $4.00 incentives. Compared to a large gas tax increase or large parking charge, this approach sucks less. For an employer, project implementation cost is very low, as employees self-report their commute choices on a web-based commute calendar that is periodically imported into payroll commute benefits processing. Employers do not have to add expensive parking access control.

A location-tracking smartphone app (enabled via Google Now Latitude) can affirmatively ascertain whether bike, train, bus, or car was used from the speed and route “signature” that is generated. Carpoolers can “bump” their smartphones with near-field communications to affirm carpooling. Opting in to such applications can automate commute calendar reporting.

Surely smarter city industry leaders Cisco, IBM, SAP and Oracle can best walk the smarter cities walk by dogfooding such a commuting technology transformation at their workplaces!

Action Alert

Vote on-line to eliminate free parking: http://cities21.org/vote/

Calculations & references:

  • $7.58/day parking cost: link
  • Europe/US gas price & per-capita driving: link
  • Moving Cooler Report: link
  • Commute mode info: Census Transportation Planning Package report, Chapter 4: link
Steve Raney

About the Author : Steve RaneySteve Raney heads Palo Alto-based Cities21, a smart mobility consultancy. Steve’s project history includes: Google self-driving cars, Ultra personal rapid transit (self-driving electric vehicles), smartphone instant ridesharing, smart parking, the US EPA’s "Transforming Office Parks into Transit Villages" study, BART’s Group Rapid Transit Study, and conceiving Bay Area MTC’s $33M Climate Innovations Grant Program. He is the author of 18 transportation papers. Steve holds three masters: business, software, and transportation from Columbia, RPI, and Berkeley.View all posts by Steve Raney

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