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The high cost of free parking

Marc Lefkowitz  |  05/09/13 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

Should bicyclists pay a tax to use the road? That question is being debated in Washington State where loads of Seattle residents bike as their primary form of transportation.

While some cyclists may cheer the news—having been accused of mooching the public by using the road “without paying for it”—economist Todd Litman, in Planetizen, shows that now half of the money to pay for roads comes from “non-user fees” such as federal and state taxes, so, cyclists do pay for roads.

Bike lanes first<br />Bike lanes were prioritized ahead of on-street parking on Cleveland's Euclid Avenue.Carless in Cleveland<br />With poverty reaching in to the 60% range in some neighborhoods, carless rates average 25% but go as high as 60% in Cleveland.

Drivers should pay more for roads, Litman adds. They drive more miles and cause more wear and tear than bikes.

But the biggest eye-opener from Litman is the subsidy that people who don’t own cars pay for those with cars. There is a hidden cost for free, on-street parking. It averages $1,000 per parking spot, Litman calculates, and that includes costs to clean up air pollution and storm water.

Since the 1940s when Cleveland ripped out its streetcars, it has unwittingly made it impossible to bring options like streetcars and bikes back into its transportation picture by providing unlimited, free on-street parking. A car is given an average of two to six parking spots in a region, Litman notes. Land set aside for parking a car leads to wider roads, bigger than necessary parking lots, and the low-density development that was so cheap for new suburbs to produce.

With less money coming from federal and state government, cities will need to look at whether they can still afford to give away an acre of land for cars. For cities, there needs to be a movement to shift the costs of parking back to the private market. London charges a toll to motorists coming in to the center of town.

Cities in Northeast Ohio might want to have a second look at their zoning requirements for parking. They might find that citizens (and sometimes even big box stores) agree with a rightsizing of parking to address both their infrastructure costs and the larger question of how to reduce air and water pollution.

The answer lies in a movement toward livable or complete streets. Three hundred cities like Cleveland are trying to reduce costs for maintenance by designing roads that are at once greener and safer for all modes. The legacy of 50 years of an on-street parking “giveaway” in Cleveland means the designs emerging for its Complete and Green Streets are already bumping up against limited room for bike lanes and bigger trees. What gives?

How can the City of Cleveland and its Pre-War suburbs lower their huge infrastructure burden? One step in the right direction would be to take a fresh look at their practice of giving away on-street parking. Another is a zoning requirement for parking minimums. Both stretch cities out, and make dense walkable urbanism harder.

Where on-street parking is concerned, cities might consider the fiscal impact of adding or supporting this past decision. It is more cost-competitive and more expedient for cities to repurpose a few feet from the road. In Cleveland’s case, questioning the policy of on-street parking giveaways relieves the cost burden from an average 35% of its residents who don’t own cars. It helps the city accomplish something far more valuable.

Policy makers often assume that removing on-street parking will anger residents and businesses, without actually asking if that’s the case. Take the example of Madison Avenue between W. 65th and West Boulevard. Now under construction, the on-street parking is a major complicating factor in complete streets implementation. Because it started with the presumption that on-street parking is a must-have, how much did the city handcuff itself? It wants to expand the sidewalk and add green streets elements like trees, but in not questioning the utility of on-street parking, the city removed all possibility of a bike lane on Madison. Madison is an important connection between two main routes—W. 65th and West Boulevard—in the city’s Bikeway Plan. With residents in Lakewood pushing for bike lanes on Madison, it could form a strong regional bike route. A city official working on the project confirms that businesses on Madison supported removing on-street parking and adding a bike lane. The same sacrosanct treatment of on-street parking threatens to quash a bike lane on Kinsman Road, which has two 22-ft. lanes and intermittent on-street parking.

Cities like Cleveland can take heart—plenty of on-street parking has been reduced and business stayed put. In many cases, plentiful on-street parking can be found on connected residential streets. When presented with a comprehensive design and parking plan, business owners might even find that they prefer the bike lane to more parking.

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John McGovern
5 years ago

I refer readers to Todd Litman's Figure1, The Cycle of Auto Dependency.


Walk Your Car Across the Street
5 years ago

Never a good sign when the bureaucrats think they know what is better for business than the business owners.

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