On an average day, the typical car owner doesn’t give much thought to parking, beyond whether they will luck out and find a spot to park when they reach their destination.
We’ve had this luxury — even if it feels like a pain — because for nearly a century, our cities have been oriented around the automobile. In many American cities, up to 98 percent of people own a car. We allocate space for parking, because otherwise how would we go about our lives? It makes sense.
Or does it?
It’s estimated that a one lane mile of roadway costs about $2 million tax dollars to build. Add to that maintenance, wages for parking enforcement staff and other costs, and free parking isn’t really free. Parking costs money, and the spot by the curb you squeeze into is paid for by all of us, through our tax dollars.
This subsidy to those who can afford to own a car is, of course, not only fronted by car owners, who are disproportionately middle-class and upper-class citizens. Lower income people who can’t even afford cars are also making that lucky parking spot you found possible, through the taxes they pay.
People who don’t own cars pay the price for our automobile-centered approach in other ways, too. It is estimated that 30 percent of all traffic, based on analysis of traffic patterns, is made up of drivers searching for parking spot — circling blocks, wasting fuel, and congesting roadways.
In the latest analysis done by the Department of Transportation in New York City, average bus speeds have slowed to their lowest in decades: only 7.58 miles per hour. Lower-income communities disproportionately rely on these public forms of transportation. Congestion from cars looking for parking slows down public transit, sucking up time from those who already work the longest hours for the least pay.
Clogged traffic also lowers the wages of the many gig workers who rely heavily on tips for their living. The longer it takes them to accomplish their delivery, the lower their hourly pay rate drops.
It may seem odd to suggest that a passive parking spot at the side of an already-paved road is actively costing us loads of cash. But it is, if you factor in lost revenue opportunities for cities.
Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, suggests that instead of free or metered parking, cities should be charging market rates for the real estate a car occupies. This money, in turn, can be used for public services on that very block. It can also be used to increase services or bike lanes in surrounding, less affluent parts of the city. If we put the money generated by properly charging for parking space into making public transit more efficient and comprehensive, we’d have yet another reason to stop throwing good tax money (or your own money) at cars.