Pete Langr: Parking incentives sometimes backfire
If you choose to take in a movie at Duluth Cinema near the DECC, you'll pay $4 for parking and then receive $4 off your ticket once you walk inside. Similarly, if I pay for parking outside Bellisio's, I can use the coupon I receive to get $3 off ...
If you choose to take in a movie at Duluth Cinema near the DECC, you'll pay $4 for parking and then receive $4 off your ticket once you walk inside. Similarly, if I pay for parking outside Bellisio's, I can use the coupon I receive to get $3 off the price of my entrée.
Such incentives make glaringly clear how much "free" or subsidized parking is embedded in American life. Given the lengths that businesses go to make sure that parking costs are kept hidden, it can be assumed that actually expecting clients to pay full price to park is equivalent to business suicide.
In truth, all forms of transportation -- including walking -- are heavily subsidized, so generalized complaining about a specific transportation subsidy is little more than foolishness.
Specific complaining, though, is another matter.
In fact, there's a huge difference between the subsidies for most transportation and the subsidies for parking. The vast majority of people seem to agree that promoting efficient transportation by subsidizing roads and airports has been good for us all.
But we don't agree that the consequences of hiding parking costs have been quite as good. Few people like cars lining their streets (especially when their owners are college students) or parked too close to intersections.
Few people prefer streetscapes in which parking lots are the dominant scene, as in many of our least-attractive areas.
Few neighbors of the future East High School jump for joy at the prospect of students parking on their streets.
Unfortunately, what we don't pay for we use as if it costs nothing, so we get more cars lining our extra-wide streets, more cars in huge business parking lots and more kids needing parking spaces at school.
It's a strange situation, because what we really want is for people to have easy access -- not a spot for their car -- but what we subsidize is a spot for their car and not necessarily access.
The driver that brings a car full of people downtown gets his subsidy based on his car, not on the number of people.
Meanwhile, the person who happens to bike to Duluth Cinema has to pay full price, and embedded in that price is a subsidy for those who parked. (Of course, when I arrived at the theater on a bike, there was no place to lock it anyhow.)
Business people, who we might expect to promote a market-priced payment for each parking spot, instead are often prime advocates for the subsidies.
They urge cities to construct more (sometimes money-losing) parking spaces, and they join forces to offer "free" or discounted parking in both public and private lots.
In fairness, though, downtowns are constrained from charging full price for parking by the need to compete with businesses in outlying areas, where parking is cheaper (but costs are still hidden). On top of that, few have figured out a good way to both charge for parking and not turn off customers -- otherwise Walmart, Target and cities would be making a bundle in parking fees.
Still, over and over again, parking incentives are backward.
In another example, parking meters along Superior Street downtown charge far below market rates, so there's an incentive to clog up the on-street parking (or clog up streets when searching for parking spaces) while under-utilizing ramps.
That last example is noted by Dave Feehan, one of a panel of experts that will soon release a full report on how Duluth can improve its parking systems downtown.
It remains to be seen if any more of the recommendations include using the cost of parking to regulate its use. I wouldn't bet on it, since some of the preliminary recommendations include allowing for more "free" parking.
Those kinds of recommendations are to be expected, since the over-riding concern is to make downtown a vibrant place, and most people get there by driving.
Nonetheless, it makes sense to remember that what we are trying to incentivize is an attractive downtown, with good access -- not just parking.
Re-examining the system of incentives might get us more of what we really want.
While I wait for the report to be released, I think I'll bike to dinner at Bellisio's. Do you think they'll give me $3 off to cover biking expenses?
Budgeteer columnist Pete Langr writes every other week in the Budgeteer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .