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The Power of Getting Paid Not to Park at Work - CityLab

Subsidizing employer-paid parking clogs streets, boosts emissions and isn’t fair to commuters who can’t use this perk. But there’s an easy way to fix it.

Cities, states and the federal government are trying to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions, but a Catch-22 in the federal tax code works against these goals. The income tax exemption for employer-paid parking subsidizes solo driving to work, which helps explain why 81% of American commuters drive to work alone.


The tax exemption for employer-paid parking creates three big problems. First, free parking at work increases the number of cars driven to work by about a third, mostly at peak hours. Second, higher-income commuters are more likely to get tax-exempt parking subsidies. The tax exemption is also worth nothing to the 44% of American households who pay no income tax because of their low incomes. Third, free parking doesn’t help transit riders, who are disproportionately communities of color. In Los Angeles, for example, 92% of Metro riders are people of color.


Repealing the tax exemption for a popular fringe benefit is unlikely, but the discussion doesn’t end there. In a bid to reduce driving and increase fairness, the District of Columbia enacted its Transportation Benefits Equity Amendment in 2020. If an employer with 20 or more employees subsidizes parking at work, the law requires the employer to offer an equal benefit to employees who do not drive.


Called “parking cash out,” this policy gives commuters flexibility to choose between free parking or another benefit of equal value. Commuters can continue to drive and park free, or they can take the cash value of the parking subsidy and use it for anything they want, such as putting it toward the rent of an apartment within walking or biking distance of work.


California enacted a similar cash-out law in 1992. The California Air Resources Board examined the law’s effects in a travel study of 1,694 commuters at eight firms in Southern California. The 1997 study found that after employers offered the cash option, solo driving to work fell 17%, carpooling increased 64%, transit ridership increased 50%, and walking or biking increased 39%. These changes reduced vehicle travel to work by 12% — equivalent to removing from the road one of every eight cars driven to work. Employers reported that parking cash out was cheap, easy to manage and fair. It also helped them to recruit and retain workers.


Adding 22 words to the Internal Revenue Code can benefit almost everyone at almost no cost to anyone.


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