Category Archives: Transportation

Uberizing Van Pools: A Useful Experiment

Northern Virginia transportation officials will try an interesting experiment to help cope with traffic disruptions during construction of the $2.3 billion Interstate 66 widening project — they will allow commuters to sign up and pay for van-pool services through a smartphone app. Reports the Washington Post:

“This is not just new technology for the area, it is also new technology and service in an area that has been a bit of a desert for transit options,” said Chuck Steigerwald, director of strategic planning at the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC), which oversees a regional van-pool service and runs commuter buses from Prince William to Washington.

The apps will be critical, he said, to encouraging people to use transit and van-pool services during peak construction on the I-66 expansion, a project that also aims to change the way people move along the corridor.

The PRTC is planning to launch a free, on-demand ­microtransit service from the Gainesville and Haymarket neighborhoods to OmniRide commuter lots starting next summer. PRTC officials say the agency will develop an app to connect riders to rides. The $1.1. million project will provide transportation from residential areas to bus stops for commuters who don’t take the bus because of the challenges of using park-and-ride lots, which are already at capacity, officials said.

The funding will cover the cost of a software interface that will allow vehicle operators to respond to commuter requests with dynamic, real-time routing. It also will pay for vehicles, onboard vehicle hardware, transit operations and advertising of the services.

In another high-tech effort, the PRTC is creating a platform for a flexible van-pool program that will connect riders with van pools and facilitate payment of fares. The $317,600 project will enable the use of the technology to potentially transform the way van pools operate in Northern Virginia, said Robert Schneider, executive director of the PRTC.

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s good to see Northern Virginia transportation officials experiment with new technology. Persuading more commuters to use vans and buses is potentially the most cost-effective way to squeeze more capacity out of the region’s overloaded transportation arteries.

There’s more to a successful ride-hailing service like Uber and Lyft, though, than just connecting people with rides via smart phone. Ride-hailing companies have sophisticated algorithms to predict when and where ridership demand will materialize and where to pre-position vehicles to serve that demand. As demand waxes and wanes and moves around, these companies respond nimbly. Will PRTC be able to go with the (traffic) flow? We’ll see.

Another question is whether riders will avail themselves of van pools for the convenience of reaching park-and-ride lots. Might they not prefer to ride a van directly to their destination (or very close to it) rather than to a park-and-ride lot where they then shift to another transportation mode? Will they see enough of a value-add proposition to make it worth their while?

Finally, I wonder if PRTC ever considered the option of contracting directly with Uber, Lyft or another third-party company to come up with creative solutions. The Washington Post article doesn’t tell us.

Still, I don’t see how this initiative can hurt. The worst case scenario is that commuters don’t respond. In the context of a $2.3 billion construction project, the cost is peanuts. On the positive side, things just might work out as hoped. If we’re ever going to improve our transportation system, we need to make lots of small, inexpensive experiments, discard the losers, and scale up the winners. You don’t know if something will work until you try it. There is nothing wrong with failure — as long as government acknowledges the failures, shuts them down quickly, and moves on.

Embrace the Scooter Revolution

Bird, the Uber of the electric scooter world, has deployed its first 50 scooters in Virginia — in Arlington County, to be specific. Arlington has no official policy regarding electric scooters, and Bird placed its black-and-white scooters without county permission. Whether that becomes a problem remains to be seen.

“We will be having discussions with the county manager and the county attorney’s office on how to respond to Bird’s deployment of electric scooters in Arlington,” county spokesman Eric Balliet wrote in an email to the Washington Business Journal.

Bird, a California company that has raised $400 million in venture capital backing, has announced plans to expand into 50 new cities by the end of the year. The service works like this: Users download an app that identifies where unused scooters are located. Passengers ride the scooters wherever they want. Bird requires riders to wear helmets and stay off of sidewalks, but has no mechanism to enforce the requirements — a source of contention in some municipalities. At the end of the day, Bird picks up the scattered scooters and places in them locations where they are most likely to be used the next morning.

Bird’s Save Our Sidewalks pledge lays out the company’s thinking:

We’re witnessing the biggest revolution in transportation since the dawn of the Jet Age. From car ride-sharing to bike-sharing to autonomous and electric vehicles of all kinds, an explosion of innovation stands to transform the cities in which live, improve the environment, and help get us from Point A to Point B.

The sharing of bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters, and other short-range electric vehicles to solve the “last-mile” problem is an important part of this transformation. We have an unprecedented opportunity to reduce car trips –especially the roughly 40 percent of trips under two miles — thereby reducing traffic, congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Smaller-than-automobile ride sharing is not without a downside, acknowledges Bird. “We have all seen the results of out-of-control deployment in China — huge piles of abandoned and broken bicycles, over-running sidewalks, turning parks into junkyards, and creating a new form of pollution,” states the Save Our Sidewalks pledge. To avoid having such things happen to the U.S., Bird vows:

  • The company will retrieve all vehicles from city streets every night, inspect vehicles for maintenance and repairs, and re-position the entire fleet to where they scooters be wanted the next day.
  • It will not increase the number of vehicles in a city unless they are being used on average at least three times per day (weather permitting). The company will remove underutilized vehicles, and it will share its data with cities for purposes of verification.
  • Bird will remit $1 per vehicle per day to city governments so they can use the money to build more bike lanes and promote safe riding.

I have no idea how many people will cotton to the idea of riding electric scooters. But Bird is taking the financial risk, so I’m not worried about it. For the public, Bird’s approach sounds like a no-lose proposition — especially if scooter riders avail themselves of the ever-expanding bicycle infrastructure. Take Richmond for example. The city has been adding bicycle lanes (see Steve Haner’s recent post on the Franklin Street bike lanes), but it appears that the bike lanes are expanding faster than bicycle ridership. If bike lanes are under-utilized — and they seem way under-utilized to me — cities should be delighted to see them employed by a bicycle-compatible transportation mode like scooters.

Bird has only so much capital to deploy so many scooters in so many cities. I don’t know how it prioritizes markets for entry, but I presume that it would consider the percentage of young people, density, availability of mass transit, and the prevalence of bicycle lanes and other scooter-friendly infrastructure. Oh, yeah, and one more thing. An expressed desire by city officials to collaborate with the company — which Arlington, despite its preference for non-automobile transportation modes, has yet to provide. Richmond, Roanoke, and Norfolk should be stumbling over themselves to get in line for the next deployment of Bird scooters.

The more transportation choices the better.

Franklin Street Bike Lanes Coming Next to Residential Brook Road

Franklin Street facing toward Capitol Square. I waited hoping to see a bike. The white truck is parked in the former travel lane.

People who regularly drive downtown Richmond, including many of us who consider ourselves somewhat in touch, were surprised and initially confused by the new dedicated bike lane on Franklin Street that reduced vehicle traffic to one lane after the morning rush.

A similar configuration – except in both directions – is planned for Brook Road on the north side of the city, apparently without any provision for a second traffic lane during peak traffic times.  Unless word gets around in advance this time, the result will again be surprise and confusion.  If you don’t like what’s happened on Franklin you won’t like what happens to Brook.

Now in my tenth year of city living I’ve come to understand that as a driver I am morally inferior to bicycle riders, and my anachronistic ways are preventing the arrival of Utopia.  In nine years I have never once seen a bicycle rider pulled by a cop for running a red light or making an illegal turn, another sign they are a protected class.  They are a political force in a blue city.

The Brook Road plan is not new.  The engineer drawings are now almost a year old with construction coming up fast, but the City Council members who represent the area, Kim Gray and Chris Hilbert, have sponsored an ordinance to stop it.  That brought out bike enthusiasts for a sometimes-heated discussion with Hilbert at a June 28 town hall meeting.  The issue will come to a head in future City Council meetings.

People who use Franklin Street regularly are now aware that what was the left parking lane is for bikes only now and the left driving lane became a parallel parking lane (except between 7 and 9 a.m. weekdays).  The far right lane is also parallel parking.  Vehicles in the single remaining traffic lane are constantly having to stop when a driver ahead seeks to maneuver into or out of one of those parking spaces, and of course traffic is still impeded by the same set of lights and other reasons traffic stops.  Bikes of course still use the vehicle lane, too.

My main objection about Franklin, however, is I don’t see that many bikes at all.  I’ve seen some, but hardly a flow that justifies taking an entire paved lane for their exclusive use and limiting vehicles to one lane for 158 out of 168 hours in a week.  It will be the same on Brook, with thousands of drivers inconvenienced or endangered daily to benefit dozens of riders.

Franklin passes through a business district but Brook runs past several sections of single family homes, and a large apartment complex under construction right in the middle of the proposed stretch will double the residential population and boost traffic.  The stretch of Brook involved (from Gilpin Court near downtown to Azalea Avenue on the Henrico line) also crosses two busy east-west corridors, Brookland Park Boulevard and Laburnum Avenue.

New configuration of five-way intersection at Brook Road, Fauquier Avenue and Laburnum Avenue with dedicated bike lanes on Brook.

Hilbert mentioned the apartment complex as the main reason he has reversed his earlier support for giving bikers two of the four Brook Road lanes.   I live a block from Brook on the same block as that complex, and without that development I would be less alarmed.  Hilbert is concerned that the upshot will be much heavier traffic on the parallel Chamberlayne Avenue, which is mostly apartments and the main bus route in that direction.  He should also be concerned about Seminary and other side streets, which are purely residential and usually narrow.

The idealists think with the dedicated (and certainly safer for them) bike lanes and more mass transit options, usage will grow.  There are places where it is probably happening.  It might be that with another configuration, or a decision to eliminate parking along Brook in order to maintain two travel lanes, it can happen on Brook Road.   This time drivers may assert themselves.  Whatever the outcome, this time it needs to happen without surprise.

Pulse Is Pumped about Early Ridership

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney cuts the ribbon to launch the Pulse service last weekend.

The Pulse, Richmond’s new bus rapid transit system, is off to a good start. On Monday, the first weekday of service, GRTC Pulse counted 8,669 riders, far exceeding the daily weekday goal of 3,500, reports the transit company.

First-week performance at mass-transit roll-outs benefit from media attention and, in the case of the GRTC, free rides. The trick is to maintain the  momentum when the hooplah dies down and the novelty wears off.

The other measure of success is the level of re-development along the Broad Street corridor. A top goal for Pulse is to stimulate construction of mixed-use projects that generate higher property and sales tax revenues while encouraging ridership on the bus line. City Council has put the right zoning in place, and there seems to be no limit to the appetite of homeowners, businesses and retailers for walkable neighborhoods with access to mass transit. Here’s hoping that Richmond’s $65 million gamble pays off! 

Washington Metro Downsizes Board

Succumbing to political pressure from Virginia, the Washington Metro board has voted to reduce the participation of so-called “alternate” board members. The move, which will enhance the power of the eight “principal” board members, was necessary to comply with the Commonwealth’s demand for board restructuring as a condition for receiving $500 million a year in dedicated funding.

The measure passed Thursday, reports the Washington Post, bars alternates from participating in board or committee proceedings. The change, proponents say, will streamline discussions, reduce parochialism, and increase the level of expertise among board members.

“Over the long term, the jurisdictions will compensate for the supposed loss of access to expertise by putting forward, as members of the board, individuals who possess levels of expertise and experience of complex organizations that few, if any, members of the board today possess,”  said David Horner, a federal representative on the board. “At the end of the day, that is a better model for governance of a complex transit property.”

But not everyone was happy with the change. “I strenuously object to the changes in the bylaws that you are considering, which will basically circumvent the compact that governs this body,” said ­alternate board member Malcolm Augustine, who represents Prince George’s County. “Virginia is holding all of us hostage, and it will disenfranchise Prince George’s County.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I haven’t attended Metro board meetings, so I haven’t seen the board in action, and I don’t have an informed opinion on whether a streamlined board will improve the quality of its decisions. But I am dubious that much will change. Metro’s structural problems run too deep.

First, Metro has set its fares too low, thus depriving the mass transit organization of desperately needed funds. The board is worried about two things: that increasing fares will depress ridership, and that higher fares will punish lower-income riders. Sidelining the alternate board members doesn’t change that calculus.

Second, fundamental reform is subject to a union veto. An unwillingness over the years to confront the Amalgamated Transit Union, which has the power to shut down the Metro and throw the Washington economy into a tailspin, has resulted in excessive pay, featherbedding, favoritism, and unproductive work rules that make the bus and commuter rail systems far more costly than necessary. But clawing back  concessions will be extremely difficult, no matter how many members the board has.

Virginia should have used its financial leverage — no reform, no $500 million — to stiffen the backbone of management and the board to make the tough decisions. The Northam administration settled for governance reform. We’ll find out if eight board members show more courage than sixteen. I’m not counting on it.

Needed: The Right Parking Policies for a Growing Richmond

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by Stewart Schwartz

Editor’s Note:  The City of Richmond has launched a parking study focused on seven distinct areas of the city and is holding seven public meetings this week. Meeting dates and locations.

Parking is perhaps the most important aspect of a city to get right if we are going to address traffic, make housing more affordable, and create a sustainable, walkable, bikeable city. The City of Richmond is growing, but if it’s to grow without making traffic really bad, we need to get parking right. Too much parking, especially free or underpriced, will lead to more driving and traffic. Too much parking can also drive up building costs and housing prices, making it harder to provide housing affordable to the full range of our workforce.

As we grow, we need to provide good alternatives by expanding our transit system and adding more dedicated bus lanes over time, and adding bike lanes — especially protected ones, and make walking safer and interesting. Combine these with car sharing like Zipcar and Car2Go, taxis, and ride hailing like Uber and Lyft. With all of these options, you may not need a second car, and for some people, any car at all.

Cities around the U.S. are adopting a range of creative parking policies that combine both market-oriented and regulatory approaches to managing parking. These include:

1) Setting the right price for parking on the street so that there is good turnover in retail districts and 20% of spaces are rotating open at any one time.

2) Using residential parking permit programs but pricing the parking passes appropriately and adding car sharing options to the neighborhood.

3) Dropping use of parking minimums and putting in a maximum limit on number of spaces, while exempting small buildings from having to have any parking. Today our city actually has many zoning districts which actually do get parking right — without requiring too much.

4) Sharing parking between users — one example is daytime office parking used for nighttime entertainment parking.

5) Pricing all off-street parking in lots and structures and separating the rental of parking spaces from the apartment lease or condo purchase price, and from the office lease. This makes clear the high cost of providing parking and always results in lower demand.

6) Equalizing employee commute benefits — instead of just offering free or subsidized parking, an employer should also offer a transit pass benefit, or even a “parking cash out” where an employee offered a parking space can “cash it out” for an equal value in a transit pass + cash, or cash + walk or bike to work.

For a comprehensive presentation on modern parking policies, I recommend this presentation to the City of Portland, Oregon by Jeff Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard. Jeff is one of the premier national experts in parking policy. Or for the scientific and technical basis for changing a city’s parking policies, see UCLA Professor Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

If Richmond wants to maintain its quality of life as it grows, the city needs to get parking right. Hopefully, the ongoing study will lead to the adoption of the best combination of market-rate and policy solutions for our community.

Stewart Schwartz is a board member of the Partnership for Smarter Growth and executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

No Contract, No Pulse… No Riders, No Sympathy

What a clever way to introduce Richmonders to their new Bus Rapid Transit service, Pulse, when it is scheduled to commence in less than two weeks — a drivers’ strike.

The Amalgamated Transit Union has been negotiating with the GRTC Transit System since September 2017 over a new contract, and apparently union members are getting impatient about the lack of results. Now the union is using the Pulse roll-out as leverage in the talks. Bus drivers have been wearing buttons that say, “No Contract, No Pulse,” reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Said Local 1220 president Frank Tunstall III: “We wanted to get GRTC’s attention that it’s very important we have a contract before the Pulse starts. That would be to everybody’s advantage, and when I say everybody, I mean passengers, the company and the union members.”

The union may or may not be justified in its contract demands, I really don’t know. What I do know is that in other transit systems, such as the Washington Metro, transit workers have successfully used the threat of strikes to negotiate contract terms so favorable that they damage the integrity of the transit enterprise. Washington Metro faces a multibillion-dollar backlog of maintenance projects due in considerable part to its expensive and unproductive union workforce.

But there’s a big difference between a strike by Washington Metro workers and a strike of Pulse workers. Without a functioning Metro, transportation in the Washington region would gridlock, causing massive economic dislocation and pain. That gives the union power. Without a functioning Pulse, Richmonders wouldn’t notice or care — the region is doing just fine without the BRT service at the moment, and it will do just fine if it doesn’t start on time. A strike would do nothing but get prospective riders irritated at the union, generate red ink for the GRTC — and give people an argument for investing in roads instead of mass transit.

Can Chesterfield Ride the Uber Revolution?

<i>This piece was originally published in the Chesterfield Observer.</i>

Only a few years ago, taxicabs were a non-factor in the Richmond region’s transportation equation. Few Richmonders used a taxi other than to ride to and from the airport. Then came the Uber revolution. While Richmonders still rely upon their own cars for routine needs, they often hail Uber for rides to restaurants where they’ll be drinking or to events where parking will be a hassle. Literally hundreds of Uber drivers are providing transportation services in the Richmond region today.

Ride-hailing services are still a tiny niche in Richmond’s transportation marketplace, but they have the potential to grow exponentially. In 2015 Uber introduced to Richmond its UberX shared-ridership service, which provides rides for up to four people. The inevitable logic of the Uber revolution is to build market share by spreading the cost of a trip over larger numbers of riders in order to reduce the price per rider. It’s only a matter of time, whether San Francisco-based Uber provides the service or a competitor does, before we see vans and buses using Uber-like technology to establish mass transit-like services – but with greater flexibility in routes and schedules.

The cost of transportation will get even cheaper when self-driving cars hit the roads. Eliminate the cost of compensating drivers, and prices will plummet. Meanwhile, deep-pocketed enterprises are experimenting in other cities with transportation-as-a-service: providing customers with a wide array of options – taxi-like ride hails, trips in vans or buses, car rentals by the hour and even bicycles – seamlessly knit together by the app on your smart phone.

Ten to 15 years from now, the transportation landscape in the Richmond region will be unrecognizable. People will have more options than ever. Local governments face a big question: What role should they play, if any?

Chesterfield has a big advantage over Richmond and Henrico County in adapting to the Uber revolution. The county never made a major commitment to the GRTC bus system. With its Pulse service, Richmond is doubling down on Bus Rapid Transit. Henrico is increasing its bus subsidies to expand its GRTC service. Politically, both will find it extremely hard to cut service in response to new opportunities. Chesterfield doesn’t have that problem. It is free to build a transportation system that takes full advantage of 21st-century technology.

The county took a small step in that direction last month when the Community Service Board partnered with Uber and Goodwill of Central and Coastal Virginia. The pilot program provides point-to-point transportation service for low-income Chesterfield residents accessing job training, employment opportunities, health care and even grocery stores. Passengers ride for free. The county reimburses Goodwill for each ride on a per-mile basis; Goodwill and Uber split a $5-per-ride administrative fee. By contrast, Access Chesterfield customers pay $6 for one-way rides and the county pays $33.15 per ride. If the partnership is successful, the county can either save a chunk of change or expand the program within the same budget.

Ride sharing and transportation as-a-service also can be powerful tools to reduce the number of vehicles on the road and reduce transportation congestion. Why can’t Chesterfield and the Virginia Department of Transportation dedicate a small fraction of the millions of public dollars spent each year on building new roads, highways and bridges to promoting shared ridership? Consider what Virginia Beach is planning for its beach resort redevelopment – creating a shared ridership drop-off zone. Could Chesterfield carve out small public spaces near hospitals, apartment buildings, employment centers and other major trip generators where Uber and its competitors can easily and conveniently pick up passengers and drop them off? Perhaps the clustering of riders at these drop-off zones could improve the economics of shared-ridership services, making them less expensive and thereby broadening the market. Try a series of inexpensive experiments to see what works and what doesn’t.

Uber is using Washington, D.C., as a test bed for its integrated shared ridership services, which includes bicycles and car rentals from individual owners. Lessons learned there could be applied to other metropolitan areas. Of course, the population density of Washington is more than 10 times greater than Chesterfield, so what works in Washington may not work here. But why can’t Chesterfield be a test bed for the vast low-density suburban market?

Uber is not welcomed by many local governments. The thanks the company gets in Washington is a proposal by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser to increase the gross receipt tax on ride-hailing companies from 1 percent to 4.75 percent to help fund the decrepit Washington Metro bus and commuter rail system. Imagine the reaction in Uber’s San Francisco headquarters if Chesterfield said, “Hey, Uber, we love you. We won’t tax you. We want to collaborate. Let’s build a 21st-century transportation system together.” It’s worth a shot.

Taking Another Look at Tolls on I-81

Interstate 81, which slices through western Virginia, is one of the most heavily trafficked highways in the Old Dominion. Nearly 12 million trucks travel the Interstate, accounting for 42% of all interstate truck traffic in the state and transporting more than $300 billion in goods per year. The tractor-trailers make other drivers miserable by hogging lanes as they pass one another on steep mountain inclines. Typically, trucks are involved in the 30 or so crashes a year that take six hours or longer to clear and generate miles-long backups.

Tractor-trailers have been a nagging headache for decades because the situation has defied an economically and politically viable remedy. There was serious talk some twenty years ago about imposing tolls to finance a multibillion-dollar upgrade from Winchester to Bristol, but the idea provoked fierce local resistance. The Virginia Department of Transportation opted instead for a less ambitious — and far less expensive — program of making spot improvements to alleviate the worst bottlenecks.

Now the talk of tolls is back. Legislation enacted this year orders the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) to complete a study of tolling options by the end of 2018. The law restricts the parameters of the study, however, in a way that presupposes the outcome. The CTB, states SB 871, “shall not consider options that toll all users of Interstate 81” nor “commuters” but may consider “high occupancy toll lanes” and “tolls on heavy commercial vehicles.”

Reports the Bristol Herald Courier of the legislation:

“It is very specific in tolling either hot lanes, express lanes or a heavy commercial vehicle toll. The objective is to not toll commuters,” said Ben Mannell, VDOT’s deputy director of planning. “They’ve also asked us to look at minimizing the impact to heavy commercial vehicles, if we did have a tolling scenario.”

Part of the study will focus on the latest crash data, areas that have a high number of crashes, congestion, delays and the potential for operational improvements for incident response in case of a major crash, Mannell said.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will hold a dozen public hearings this summer.

Bacon’s bottom line. Take note: Commuters (i.e. voters) are not to be inconvenienced. By exempting commuters from tolls, the legislation envisions co-opting I-81, which was built for inter-city and interstate traffic, for the purpose of local travel. Virginia seems destined to repeat the error that turned Interstates 95, 395, and 495 in the Washington metropolitan area into traffic hell-holes that disrupt the flow of interstate traffic up and down the Atlantic Coast.

Conceptually speaking, there are two reasons for worsening congestion and traffic accidents on I-81: increased interstate traffic (mostly trucks) and increased local traffic. Local commuter traffic on the interstate hasn’t gotten as bad as in Northern Virginia because the metropolitan areas along the route — Winchester, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Roanoke, Blacksburg, Bristol — have experienced much slower rates of population and economic growth. But the dynamics are the same: New commercial and residential development clusters around the interchanges and people come to treat I-81 like a local transportation artery. Over time the Interstate clogs up, and commuters come to resent all those annoying tractor-trailers.

There is no way to solve the congestion problem on I-81 without solving the land use problem in each locality. Localities must stop treating the Interstate as a local transportation corridor. Instead of widening I-81 and paying premium prices to build at Interstate-grade standards, VDOT needs to build parallel transportation corridors designed for local use at lower travel speeds and lower construction costs. Furthermore, localities must eliminate zoning barriers to higher-density, mixed-use development supporting travel patterns of fewer, shorter trips.

As for some of the ideas contemplated in the VDOT study… Singling out heavy commercial vehicles for tolls may make political sense — out-of-state truckers don’t vote in Virginia — but it violates the purpose of the interstate to create connective tissue between states and metros. However, it would be appropriate to increase user fees on trucks so they pay their proportionate share that their super-heavy loads cause on the highway.

Tolls are a useful tool for funding transportation improvements and rationing scarce highway capacity. But they cannot do the job alone. All vehicles must pay their proportionate share of interstate maintenance and operations, and proper land use/transportation planning must provide commuters with viable options for local travel. Let’s hope that the authors of the I-81 study understand these principles better than those who wrote the legislation.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Parking Space


Following up on thoughts in the previous post about what is to be done about the Washington Metro… Here is a basic maxim to remember: If we want more people to avail themselves of shared ridership, be it commuter rail, bus, or shared ride-hailing services, they need to pay the full cost of their transportation choices. At present, nobody pays the full cost. Just as mass transit is heavily subsidized, so is automobile mobility.

Here in Virginia, motorists pay a portion of what it costs to maintain and build new roads, bridges and highways through retail and wholesale taxes on gasoline. But they also pay taxes on the purchase of new cars, which is unrelated to how many miles they travel and the wear-and-tear they put on the road system. They also pay a sales tax, which has no connection to transportation at all.

Transportation funding is just the tip of the subsidy iceberg. The current system for allocating parking spaces represents another wealth transfer, and the subsidies are all the more insidious for being invisible. However, Donald Shoup, the nation’s foremost academic authority on parking, has published a new book that sheds light on those subsidies. I have not yet read the book, “Parking and the City,” but I crib here from a review in Public Square, a publication of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

The first nationally representative survey shows that urban garage parking is costly to renters, for example. “We find that the cost of bundled garage parking for renters is approximately $1,700 per year, and the bundling of a garage space adds about 17 percent to a unit’s rent,” CJ Gabbe and Gregory Pierce write in Chapter 11. This is true even though many of these renters don’t own cars, and many of these spaces go unused.

A study in San Francisco showed that off-street parking requirements make housing more expensive. Having off-street parking raised the average household income needed to qualify for a mortgage to $76,000, from $67,000. “If the parking requirements had not existed, 26,800 additional households could have afforded condominiums,” report Bill Chapin, Wenyu Jia, and Martin Wachs. Parking reform downtown and in several adjacent neighborhoods allowed for development with 60 percent less parking and a 30 percent reduction in the construction cost of dwelling units—“enough to allow for market-rate housing that is more in line with the typical San Francisco household’s income.”

As of 2009, the average value of a motor vehicle was $5,200. Yet the average cost of an underground parking space is $34,000, and the average cost of an aboveground garage is $24,000 per space. “One space in a parking structure … costs at least three times the net worth of more than half the African-American and Hispanic households in the country,” Shoup points out.

Parking requirements play a part in determining what kind of housing is built and discouraging the “missing middle,” according to researchers. “Because parking can consume so much space and money, parking requirements needlessly reduce variety in the type and location of housing available,” notes Michael Manville.

Policies to promote off-street parking reduced the economic development in cities studied by Chris McCahill, Norman Garrick, and Carol Atkinson-Palombo. “For the six cities we considered, each parking space added since 1960 reduces potential property tax revenues by between $500 and $1,000 per year,” they write. Parking is both a cause and effect of driving, “yet the changes in commuting behavior in cities that added more parking suggest that more parking increases driving.”

Parking is expensive. In a functioning free market, automobile owners would be willing to pay for some of that parking, just as they pay for gasoline, auto insurance, tolls, and other mobility-related costs. But the practice of mandating parking is absurd. If motorists paid the full cost of parking their vehicles, people would own fewer cars, drive less, and choose more shared-ridership transportation modes.

Alas, Virginia’s transportation system, like that of every other state, is so permeated with subsidies, cross subsidies, and subsidies to counter other subsidies, that rational economic decision making is impossible. Political decisions to support “mass transit” or “road building” are driven by ideological, partisan and special-interest considerations. The scale of the misallocation of resources is mind-numbing.