PEOPLE OLD enough to remember the gasoline price controls of the 1970s can recall long lines of cars waiting for scarce supplies of fuel, the unsurprising result of a foolish government scheme to defy the market. Those days are over — when it comes to gasoline. But when it comes to parking, even in high-demand areas, municipal governments keep street parking prices artificially low. This pumps up demand and produces the parking equivalent of gas station lines: people wasting fuel, time and sanity circling around looking for spaces.
Cheap or free parking feels like a right to most Americans. It isn’t, and the sooner cities stop treating it like one, the sooner roads will be less crowded, emissions lower, parking easier to find and cities generally more livable.
Not that it will be easy. See, for example, the indignation over the District’s prototype “variable pricing” plan for street parking in Chinatown, which will affect about 1,000 spots in one of the city’s most popular destinations. Instead of keeping these at a flat $2 an hour, the city will adjust individual meter rates according to the demand for parking. Effectively, drivers will have to pay a market rate for parking rather than expecting that the taxpayers lease them a valuable asset — precious real estate that requires upkeep — for far less than it is worth. Experiments in other cities — along with basic economics — suggest that variable pricing cuts unnecessary driving, scales back or eliminates the wasteful spectacle of cars circling for under-priced spots and encourages turnover in parking spaces.
Critics allege that downtown restaurants and other businesses could suffer. Maybe, but they also might benefit: More turnover means less hassle finding a parking space, which could encourage visits. The record in other cities suggests that, though prices will increase in some places, they will not — or will not as much — on less-popular side streets. People can decide whether to park in prime spots at high market prices, pay less and walk a little ways or consider alternative methods of transportation. Motorists expect to encounter market forces in other areas, like upkeep, insurance and gasoline. There is no good reason to keep implicit price controls on precious parking spots. Meanwhile, the extra money the government raises from parking fees could fund better public transit.
By arguing to keep parking rates low, critics demand that taxpayers subsidize urban parking — and in particular that nondrivers, many of whom are poor, subsidize drivers, many of whom are not poor.
Cars transformed American life in the past century. But the way Americans use cars is evolving in the 21st century. Car-sharing services, Uber, self-driving cars — all of these innovations promise to reduce the traditional, two-cars-in-the-garage model in ways that cut the resource waste the country became accustomed to in previous decades. Anyone who cares about traffic, the environment, tax rates and plain sense should want to put rationalized parking policy on the agenda.