The Joy of Parking in Chicago

In a global survey of 20 cities, finding a spot ranks toughest in New Delhi, easiest in the Windy City

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REUTERS/John Gress

This morning IBM released the results of a survey on the experience of parking in 20 cities around the world. A total of roughly 8,000 city residents answered a series of questions designed to gauge the "the emotional and economic toll of parking," as IBM puts it, describing how long they take to find a spot, how often they argue over a spot, how often they get a ticket, and the like. IBM used the responses to devise a global parking index:

 

 

A brief rundown of the findings: When asked about their longest parking experience in the past year, drivers in these cities responded with an average of nearly 20 minutes. Nairobi parkers took the longest — typically about 32 minutes — while drivers in Chicago and Johannesburg needed only about 13 minutes. Three in five drivers reported that in the past year they had started to look for parking and given up; in Shenzen, the worst city polled, that figure was four in five.

In the past year a little more than a quarter of respondents got into an argument with another driver over a parking spot. Parking in New Delhi was most likely to lead to a tiff, at 58 percent, while frustration overwhelmed Midwestern sensibilities in just 11 percent of Chicago drivers. Surprisingly, and not a little shamefully, New Yorkers ranked below average here, fighting for a spot just 22 percent of the time.

Nearly three in ten drivers worldwide recalled receiving a parking ticket in the past year. The meter maids in Beijing were strictest, ticketing 52 percent of illegal parkers, while those in Madrid and Johannesburg were impressively lenient, tagging just 9 percent. The 8,000 or so drivers in the survey averaged nearly 4.5 total parking tickets for the year; that figure reached 9 if you lived in Bangalore, and not quite 2 if you lived in Chicago.

The questions feel a bit arbitrary, and the self-report recall method is far from ideal. (The survey announcement itself is anything but random; it comes the day IBM also announces a joint venture with Streetline to improve parking in cities.) Still the emerging picture suggests that parking in developing cities is, on average, a rougher experience than, say, finding a spot in midtown Manhattan. Cities in India and China land on the painful end of the spectrum, while Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto drivers find a spot with relative ease.

Parking in the Windy City, above all others in the survey, comes off as something of a breeze. So why is that the case? The parking index itself offers no answers, but logic suggests the situation may, at least in part, result from the heavily criticized privatization of Chicago's parking meters that occurred a few years back.

In 2008 Mayor Richard Daley leased the city's meters to Chicago Parking Meters LLC — an agreement that gave the company the right to collect revenue from the meters for the next 75 years, in exchange for $1.15 billion up front. The Economist captured the sentiment of many city residents by calling the deal a "disaster," and reported that while the money temporarily eased a budget deficit, most of it was gone by 2011. Taxpayers initially tried to challenge the deal in court, and a law professor recently examined the agreement at length and concluded that it was "particularly noxious," and some officials are still trying to have it nullified.

Drivers, of course, hate the big rise in meter rates that followed the agreement. By early 2011 the rates had reached a national high of $5 an hour in the downtown area, and they're expected to rise to $6.50 by 2013. (Those are the daytime rates, according to the company website; from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. the rates fall to $2.50.)

The situation in Chicago — high rates and open spaces — is exactly what urban parking experts would predict. UCLA professor Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking and sometimes tagged the "prophet of parking," has called for parking rates to fluctuate in downtown areas based on demand. During heavy traffic hours, the rates should be high enough to keep at least one spot open. In the process, streets are less congested, and alternative transport modes are used more often. Chicagoans may pay a lot for parking, but they do seem to get something more than a spot for their money.

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