– Can parking be managed better?Posted: May 12, 2011
I’m disappointed by the discussion of parking in Melbourne City Council’s draft Transport Strategy Update 2011-2030 (note – it’s a big download). There’s an opportunity to improve the efficiency of parking space allocation through using technology and pricing in combination, but Council seems content to pass on it.
The broad thrust of the discussion in the report is that the number of on-street parking spaces will decline over the next 20 years to enable public transport and amenity improvements to be implemented. Council is mindful of the impact this will have on its own revenues and those of local businesses, but is persuaded by the social and environmental benefits.
A key recommendation in relation to on-street parking is that Council “will implement new parking technology systems that allow payment without requiring parking machines or meters (and) will remotely sense and assess parking occupancy”. Surprisingly, this recommendation is entirely unsupported by any explanation or discussion. As far as it goes, it nevertheless sounds good – it’ll lower costs by eliminating the need for parking inspectors and it’ll give drivers more flexible payment options.
What seems to be missing, though, is the opportunity to provide drivers with real-time information about parking availability. More importantly, it squibs the opportunity to improve efficiency in allocating parking spaces by setting a price that’s responsive to demand.
The current pilot project just introduced in San Francisco, SFpark, gives a sense of what can be done. Like Melbourne City Council’s plan, it involves sensors that automatically sense if a parking space is empty. SFpark however will convey that information to drivers electronically via a smartphone app. That should reduce the time drivers spend cruising for parking. According to Donald Shoup, a Professor at UCLA and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, several studies have found that cruising for curb parking generates about 30 percent of the traffic in CBDs in the US. He cites a study he did of a 15 block district in Los Angeles where cruising for on-street parking created 950,000 miles of excess vehicle travel per annum, in the process consuming 47,000 gallons of petrol and producing 730 tons of carbon dioxide.
But the real innovation of SFpark is that prices are adjusted in real time in response to rises and falls in demand. The objective is to ensure that, on average, there is at least one vacant space in each city block:
SFpark will adjust meter prices based on demand to encourage drivers to make trips in off-peak hours and to use parking lots and garages. While high-demand spaces will gradually go up in price, other spaces will decrease in cost……Once a space is found, longer time limits and new meters that accept credit and debit cards will make it easier to avoid parking tickets.
I’m not convinced eliminating cruising would necessarily deliver the same benefits in Melbourne as in LA. The extent of cruising varies between places, depending on variables like the supply and cost of off-street parking. A new study of cruising behaviour in The Netherlands by researchers from the Tinbergen Institute, using a nation-wide sample, found that 30% of car trips involve some cruising. The average trip duration is 20 minutes, however the average cruise time is only 36 seconds. I’d expect cruise time to be higher in Melbourne’s CBD although probably not as high as the average 8 minute cruise time that Shoup found in the US.
However that’s not the key issue. The principal benefits of variable parking pricing would be in prioritising higher value trips and in promoting turn-over of spaces. Those with the strongest reasons for driving would be prepared to pay more – others would park further away. The objection that pricing is inequitable fails to see that people on all income levels will at various times have powerful reasons to pay more for parking – using a dynamic price mechanism means on average there is a greater likelihood a space will be available.
There are also other potential benefits from the way pricing is implemented. For example, rather than incur a hefty fine for over-staying the specified maximum time by a few minutes, drivers could elect to pay (by smartphone) a sharply escalating tariff that gives them, say, an extra 15 minutes at triple the standard rate. Smart meters and smartphones open up a host of possibilities.
Melbourne City Council’s reluctance to use pricing of parking space as an efficiency tool is not surprising – governments usually prefer expensive capital works programs over measures that use existing infrastructure more efficiently but are politically difficult. Council’s Transport Strategy Update 2011-2030 also discusses road pricing but, after pointing out the downsides of congestion and the strong rationale for pricing on efficiency grounds, elects to do nothing about it, solely on the basis of these lame words: “A key issue for the City of Melbourne in considering changes to road pricing is maintaining and enhancing access to the city for a wide variety of trip purposes”.