Parking, like carbon and sulphur dioxide, is dramatically underpriced. And, just like CO2, the status quo is incredibly resistant to change, despite the many large environmental externalities. In Boston (and in Cambridge), residents can park for $0 (and $8) per year, while at the same time it costs as much as $3000 a year to rent off-street garage parking. One open air parking space in Boston sold for $250,000 a few years ago. That’s $2000 per square foot!
Every time these cities (and every city) talk about raising the price of residential permits, political firestorms ensue and we end up with no change. No change means as many as one-third of the cars parked on-street aren’t driven in any given week and residents happily drive within the city instead of walking, biking or taking transit because – well, they have a car! And can park it for free!
A friend has been thinking about this problem for years, trying to come up with a market mechanism that would fix the situation. And suddenly, my environmental brain crossed with my transportation policy brain and voila – cap & trade parking! What if:
Starting today, the city issues no more parking permits and those with parking permits were allowed to sell or trade them. Suddenly, the reality that those permits are worth a heck of a lot more than $8 a year is no longer contested. People who rarely drive will have to decide whether it is worth it to them to keep owning that car, or to sell the permit for wherever the market sets the price. Today in both Cambridge and Boston, parking permits allow parking only in certain specified zones. The parking permits would transfer along those same lines. In some neighborhoods, the permits would like fetch $500/year, in others, as much as $3000.
The city could decide to buy some of these permits themselves, and retire them, reducing the number of cars residing in Cambridge, or providing them at reduced cost to new-to-the-city low income families.
What would this plan accomplish? Two things:
It lets permits get to market rate without politicians having to cast votes. It lets every car-owning resident participate in this new market. It gives the city a way to cap and then reduce the number of parking permits issued in the city. Permit ownership could continue to have an annual price payable to the city. The price would cover street cleaning and road repair, as well as perhaps an annual incentive to residents who don’t own a car, or to buy residents turning 16 a bicycle for their birthday. In Cambridge, a $25 annual parking permit fee would result in about $1 million a year.
It would also reduce the number of cars parking in Cambridge, and therefore the amount of driving that gets done in Cambridge. It would or could turn Cambridge into a city of residents that would rather walk or bike for local trips (which is most of people’s trips) and provide the political demand for the bike, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure that supports this way of life.
What do you think? I need some economists to weigh in.