Traffic Congestion and the Price of Parking

By Saskjon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Last week a story showed up in my Twitter timeline about traffic congestion in downtown Regina, and the mayor’s thoughts on how to alleviate the problem. That’s a story right up my alley, so being the curious fellow that I am I clicked that link right away to see what it was all about. The story itself was a little light on details, and was really only some off-the-cuff ideas to solve the problem, but nonetheless there were a couple of things I found interesting in the article.

The first was the idea that formed the basis of the story. From the story:

The mayor is looking to replace large buses with smaller ones on 11th and 12th avenues, as well as Lorne and Smith streets north of Victoria Street. According to Fougere, the move would relieve congestion and add more parking spots along 11th and 12th avenues. Replacing the buses with smaller shuttle buses would also move people around quicker, he added.

There is some logic to this. Smaller buses take up less space both in traffic and at stops along their routes, so smaller buses would potentially reduce congestion. Of course so would getting more people out of their cars and into the regular sized buses that already travel those routes, and this would come with the added benefit of not having to purchase new buses. Since the mayor is suggesting smaller buses it’s likely that there is additional rider capacity along these routes, and you only need to see the difference in space occupied by a bus and the equivalent in passenger cars to get an idea of which is more likely to have a bigger impact on congestion.

But it wasn’t the public transit aspect of this story that really caught my attention, it was the comment from a member of the general public that applies not only to Regina, but to all cities:

“It’s to the point now where there’s so much congestion, it’s very hard to park,” [Robert Carlson] said Tuesday on his way to the downtown shopping centre. “If you keep circling, you’ll maybe find a spot, but it’s very doubtful. If there was better parking, I would come downtown more.”

If you’ve read anything from Donald Shoup on parking you probably know exactly why I found this interesting. From “Cruising For Parking:”

A surprising amount of traffic isn’t caused by people who are on their way somewhere. Rather it is caused by people who have already arrived. Our streets are congested, in part, by people who have gotten where they want to be but are cruising around looking for a place to park.

That is exactly what Mr. Carlson admits to doing, and he’s probably not alone. I don’t live in Regina so I don’t contribute to the problem there, but I’ve done the same in Edmonton; and I’m sure you probably have too. Looking just at my experiences I can think of times where I’ve spent as long looking for a parking spot as it took me to get to my destination (I live close enough to downtown that when I drive it only takes about five minutes).

So the solution is more parking then, right? That might be the intuitive solution, but there is another less obvious solution, one advocated by Professor Shoup: Change the price of on-street parking.

People are incentive driven; they’ll circle the block looking for a spot because there is value to them in doing so. If a parking meter costs $2 an hour and a parking garage or lot is charging three, or four times the price, there is an incentive to find the cheaper on-street spot. So, if a city wants to reduce the congestion created by drivers cruising for parking they simply need to raise the price of parking in the areas where the cruising is happening and remove that incentive.

The key to this idea is “in the areas where the cruising is happening” because in all likelihood there are not only underutilized parking facilities in the immediate area, but also areas close by with plenty of available on-street parking that sits unused because it’s deemed too far away to be worthwhile to pay to park there and have to walk to one’s destination. Once again the incentive to cruise for parking exists. But by raising the price you remove the incentive and make the choice paying more or parking further away and walking.

Basically it’s all about supply and demand; if every spot is always occupied the total price (the actual cost of parking plus the convenience factor) is probably too low, and if they are always available, the price is too high. It’s a different way of thinking, and changes like this are easier said than done though because we tend to think of parking availability as something we are entitled to. After all, streets are public property and we pay taxes to maintain the roads, so being asked to pay a high price to park on those roads seems unreasonable to most. But, as the saying goes, nothing is free. If parking is under priced then the cost is transferred to the driver in another way, like increased congestion or time spent circling for a parking spot.