Flickr/Vincent Desjardins

Guaranteeing cheap downtown parking creates all the wrong incentives for drivers

My overnight trip to Baltimore from my home base of Washington, D.C. this weekend was a miracle of modern multi-modality—Capital Bikeshare from my house to Union Station, Amtrak to Baltimore’s Penn Station, then a quick ride on the Light Rail down to the Convention Center. But adjacent to the train station and here and there around central Baltimore I could spot a different kind of municipal transportation infrastructure: the city-owned parking garage. 

Indeed, the Baltimore City Parking Authority manages 13 garages and 21 surface lots throughout the City of Baltimore through contracts with private parking operators. The agency has been a bit scandal-plagued lately, hit with allegations of an executive director who secretly owned shares in a private garage on the side and a contract manager who exerted influence on garage operators to hire a company owned by her then-boyfriend. Bringing ethics to municipal government is frequently a challenge, but these scandals—and especially the business of an executive director who was also a garage owner—raise the question of why cities are in this business in the first place. 

After all, there’s never a problem where the head of a municipal light rail system is secretly a part-owner of a competing rail transit operation. Cities provide transit because it affords an environmentally-friendly transportation option that’s accessible to those too poor to own a car. It encourages city-living in urbanized neighborhoods near stations and reduces automobile congestion. And the private sector neither can nor will construct a train through a built-up city. Absolutely none of these arguments apply to a parking garage. 

That’s not to say that a city shouldn’t have parking garages. Clearly, the ability to park one’s car is valuable. But that’s precisely why there are privately owned garages around to create competition. This is a service that can be provided at market prices for a profit. Alternatively, office developers or retail businesses may construct garages for their own use to encourage customers to show up. The availability of garages does create positive externalities for area businesses, but these can (and often are) re-internalized through deals to provide free or discount parking to people with validation from a nearby retailer. Parking is great—great enough to pay for. 

But municipal provision of subsidized parking is another thing entirely. For one thing, it’s regressive. In almost every city, regular drivers are richer than transit users. Guaranteeing cheap parking in the city center also has the perverse impact of reducing incentives to live in the city, ensuring suburbanites that they can have convenient access to the center without living in the city limits and contributing to the tax base. And in environmental and congestion terms, it’s the exact reverse of building a train. You’re encouraging bad behavior. 

Increasingly cities are recognizing that the late 20th century fad of parking subsidies was a mistake. Baltimore itself is working on a draft of a new zoning code that will soundly reduce regulatory requirements for parking to come with new development. In much the same spirit, cities should seek to divest themselves of parking assets. Don’t contract management of garages out to private firms, sell the garages. Initially, they may simply continue to function as parking facilities. But management and pricing will eventually be de-politicized. And, even better, private garages and parking lots will be primed for redevelopment as homes or offices when economic conditions warrant. Garage-building as a spark for downtown revitalization was a mistake in the first place, and continuing to hang on to these eyesores only holds back places like Baltimore, where the city center is on the rebound.

Above image courtesy Flickr user Vincent Desjardins, used under a Creative Commons license

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