The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Detroit spends more money issuing parking fines than it collects from them

(Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Detroit has a number of problems with parking, not the least of which is that the city has way too much of the stuff. Spend an afternoon driving through Detroit, and it's immediately clear that there are more parking garages, street meters and surface lots downtown than people who actually want to park there (or destinations that might lure them). This weird imbalance of vacant blocks and excess parking is no accident: The more of the latter the city created over time – often tearing down buildings to make way – the less attractive the downtown became for anyone who drove there, and then actually wanted to walk around.

This map of the city created by Rob Linn, a personal favorite, does a nice job of illustrating why there'd be nowhere to go in downtown Detroit once you got out of your car:

So the city has a basic supply-and-demand problem. But that's just half of the story. For the first time in a decade, Detroit is now talking about increasing its parking fines. Not only is parking ridiculously plentiful in the Motor City; for a long time it's also been too hard to pay at broken meters, or too easy to ignore the signs telling you to pay at all. Here's the money paragraph from the Detroit News this week:

The city is paying $32 to issue and process a $30 parking violation, and it hasn’t adjusted rates since 2001. On top of that, about half of Detroit’s 3,404 parking meters are not operating properly at any given time, says [Emergency Manager Kevyn] Orr’s spokesman, Bill Nowling.

There are all kinds of problems here. The first is clearly that the city shouldn't be losing money on parking enforcement. It also shouldn't be cheaper to violate parking laws in Detroit – current fines are as low as $20 – than it is to park your car at Gallery Place in downtown DC for the time it takes to watch a single movie.

According to Detroit's chief operating officer in the News, raising fines and actually enforcing them against repeat-offenders would bring the city an extra $60 million over the next 10 years. This is revenue a bankrupt city clearly needs. But even if Detroit weren't short on cash and hunting for it in every cranny, it would still be time to bump up these fines (and, you know, repair all those broken meters).

The ostensible policy goal of parking tickets isn’t really to generate municipal revenue – it’s to manage the supply of a public asset. If parking is plentiful and cheap, people will use tons of it. If the cost of violating parking regulations is low on top of that, the city has even less leverage over how curb space should be used for the public good. Maybe a cheap parking spot feels good for the individual parker, but a city overrun by parking – where there's little incentive to invest in alternative transportation, among other things – probably doesn't feel like somewhere you'd want to live.

Update: I'm going to add to some of the comments below here so that I can embed a few images in the process. First off, some historical context: In the first half of the 20th century, downtown Detroit was the shopping center for the region. Then malls opened in the suburbs, and consumers (understandably) left for the ease of access and parking there. The downtown began to dry up as a destination, as happened in a number of U.S. cities. Many of them – Detroit included – responded to this situation by reasoning that if they created more parking downtown, people would come back.

The city tore down buildings to do this. It built parking in spades. Today, nearly 40 percent of the land downtown has parking of some kind sitting on top of it. Unfortunately, we now know this did not entice people to come back.

Part of the problem is that all of this parking, while designed to lure people, ultimately has the impact of making the city less worth visiting in the first place. Why go to downtown Detroit when so much of what you'll find there is... parking? All of that parking, in turn, creates a perception of safety problems. People hesitate to park three blocks from a restaurant when that means walking past several streets of darkly lit garages and empty lots (as opposed to store fronts and bustling bars).

Now, let's say a new casino wants to open up downtown, and it insists on building its own adjacent parking lot, too (zoning regulations play a role here as well) because it fears that customers won't feel comfortable walking through the neighborhood from the ample parking that already exists. Now cheap parking begets more cheap parking. Even more of the land downtown is devoted to pavement instead of businesses or homes.

Yes, it's absolutely fair that we don't all want to live in an urban condo in a dense neighborhood. A lot of us want to be able to park with ease and affordability when we want to go somewhere. My point is that many people don't want to live in a place where the defining feature is, well, this... grab some sample snapshots from Google Street View:

Or this:

It is, in fact, possible to have too much cheap parking, and this is what it looks like. Detroit already has some of the lowest big-city meter rates and expired-meter fines in the country, as the original Detroit News story above cites. To suggest that we might revitalize the city by inviting more people to come in and park there for even cheaper is to keep trying an idea that has not worked in Detroit for years. Parking is a commodity that needs to be managed (through supply and pricing), not an entitlement for anyone who owns a car. I like a nice parking spot, too. But too much of anything can be a bad thing.