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New Yorkers say they're willing to pay $400 a year for curb parking, so why does the city give it away for free?

There are lots of reasons to charge city drivers for street parking. Street space belongs to everyone, competition for spots causes congestion, underpriced parking encourages driving — the list goes on. As private car owners benefit from these curbside subsidies, it’s the public welfare that suffers.

Things aren’t so bad on commercial streets, where drivers have been perfectly willing to pay for a spot. Several U.S. cities have started to charge market-rate street prices in business districts with great success. But commercial parking makes up only a sliver of all city street space; in New York, for instance, commercial meters account for just 2 percent of the street-parking stock, whereas residential spots account for most of the rest.

That’s a problem, because city drivers are traditionally unwilling to pay for a spot on a residential street. Some cities do require residential parking permits, but the fees tend to be nominal (the U.S. high is about $100 a year) and don’t reflect proper value of the space. Public officials tend to view residential street parking charges as a political poison.

This conventional wisdom stops most cities from raising residential permit rates. But while it may describe the mindsets of many city drivers, it doesn't apply to all of them. In an upcoming issue of Transport Policy, transport researchers Zhan Guo of New York University and Simon McDonnell of the City University of New York report that roughly 53 percent of New Yorkers are willing to pay something for residential street spaces — and this something averaged about $400 a year:

The greater-than-50% approval rate and the high price tag both indicate that pricing curb parking for residents is feasible, at least in our sample.

Guo and McDonnell asked households outside the Manhattan core how much they were willing to pay for a residential street permit. Keep in mind that New York is the only major U.S. city that doesn’t issue them, so the respondents were coming from a baseline parking cost of zero. Many of the 244 people who responded said they weren’t willing to pay, but more than half said they were, and the mean contribution of this willing group was roughly $34 a month.

Over the course of a year that comes to $408 — almost four times more than the top U.S. permit rate, in San Francisco.

When Guo and McDonnell analyzed the numbers, they found that the people most willing to pay for residential parking lived on congested streets. Drivers who said they could typically find a spot within a minute of their home were willing to be $25 a month for parking. Those who walked more than 3 minutes from spot to home were willing to pay double.

The study comes with several cautions. The survey sample was small and not terribly representative. Respondents lived at higher densities and had higher incomes than average New Yorkers, and also residents of other cities. Many of people who expressed a desire for parking permits lived in car-free households and frequently rode public transit.

But there were caveats in the other direction, too. The researchers asked residents about their willingness to pay for a street spot without offering anything in return. If they had offered to put street-permit revenue back into the neighborhood — say, through street improvement or transit subsidies — the response might have been even warmer. 

If public officials actually proposed a permit program in New York, they would likely propose a way to return some of the revenue to the neighborhood. In addition to reducing parking demand, residential permits could pay for street improvements or public transit. City drivers may never pay what they should for residential street spots, but that doesn't mean they'll never be willing to pay more than they do.

Top image: rawcaptured /Shutterstock.com

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