A car is the ultimate entitlement machine — particularly when driven by a Philadelphian.
Can’t you hear it now? “Parking here is so expensive.” “Why is it so impossible to park in Queen Village?” “Seriously, is the Parking Authority a division of the Gestapo or something?”
Garbage, all of it. (Except, maybe, for the bit about the Parking Authority.) Meters in Chicago’s Loop are 260 percent more expensive than the priciest blocks in Philly. Daily parking in midtown Manhattan is $41 on average, compared to $26 in Philadelphia. As for street parking, Philadelphia — a city of narrow thoroughfares built for pedestrians and carriages — has surrendered far too much real estate to immobilized cars. (What other city would tolerate mid-median parking on its Broad Street?)
Of course, Philly is hardly alone in its expectation that parking should be abundant and cheap. That’s pretty much dogma throughout America. But it’s still wrong. The notion that drivers are entitled to 200 square feet of street-level real estate for a couple of quarters an hour needs serious rethinking.
The first guy to suggest as much was UCLA professor Donald Shoup, who in 1997 wrote an influential paper titled The High Cost of Free Parking. Shoup’s paper and subsequent research obliterated — in policy circles, anyway — the notion that parking is ever really free, particularly in dense urban settings like Center City Philadelphia. In fact, parking subsidies are one of the biggest hidden costs absorbed by both cities and developers.
Drivers circling city blocks and burning gas in hopes of scoring cheap metered parking are massive contributors to downtown congestion, particularly at peak hours. Philadelphia motorists are so wedded to their parking — and so monumentally lazy — that they actually shot down street cleaning to avoid the hassle of moving their cars once a week, the City Paper reported in May.
For developers, parking is an expensive perk, one too often required by NIMBY neighbors even when the zoning code permits development without parking. It costs about $11,000 to construct a single parking spot in a Philadelphia garage.
That’s to say nothing of the squandered space — the huge chunks of street we surrender to parking without considering the alternatives: wider sidewalks, pocket parks, another traffic lane, dedicated bus or bike lanes, more sidewalk dining. Our collective obsession with cheap parking degrades the cityscape, makes development far more expensive, and dramatically increases congestion and vehicle emissions in the core of Center City.
The answer — hate it though you may — is to double the downtown meter rate to $5 an hour. That should reduce demand and create more open spots for those willing to pay for the convenience of on-street parking, while converting more parking lanes to other uses. Even better would be a system that adjusts prices on the fly, reacting in real time to parking demand on a block-by-block basis. San Francisco has adopted just this approach and in the process reduced “cruising” for parking by 50 percent, according to a recent study.
Though Philly’s zoning laws have stripped away parking requirements in many areas of the city, City Council will be tempted to undo that good work as locals accustomed to an emptier Philadelphia wail about the inconvenience of parking in a thriving neighborhood. They should be ignored. Cheap parking is a luxury the city just can’t afford.
We've got plenty more Philly heresies where that came from in our “Fighting Words” package. See the lineup here, then go buy the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine, on newsstands now, or subscribe today.