Parking-Wise, S.F. Smarter Than NYC, Economist Says

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Matt Smith
It's getting crowded in here
When it comes to parking at least, San Francisco is smarter than the Big Apple.

That's not just local boosterism. It's the conclusion of an east coast economist writing in the New York Times.

San Francisco may be the worst-run big city in America. New York may be managed by a forward-thinking technocrat. But George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen noted over the weekend in an "economic view" essay in the paper of record that our city's pioneering program to link parking prices to supply and demand puts us a step ahead of the Big Apple:

Manhattan streets are full of cars cruising around, looking for cheaper on-street parking, rather than pulling into a lot. The waste includes drivers' lost time and the costs of running those engines. By contrast, San Francisco has just instituted a pioneering program to connect parking meter prices to supply and demand, with prices being adjusted, over time, within a general range of 25 cents to $6 an hour.

Cowen's essay, titled "Free Parking Comes at a Price," follows the "show-me-the-evidence" school of policy analysis exhibited by Judge Vaughn Walker in his ruling shooting down Proposition 8. Rather than bigoted Shibboleths opposing gay marriage, Cowen knocks down the flawed logic behind billions of dollars in subsidies cities such as San Francisco and New York throw at motorists in the form of free and discounted parking.

"It's a classic tale of how subsidies, use restrictions, and price controls can steer an economy in wrong directions," Cowen writes.

Academic research cited by Cowen puts the land and other cost of a Los Angeles parking space at more than $31,000.

"The parking subsidy outweighs many of the other costs of driving, including the gasoline tax,"
the economist writes. "If we don't give away cars, why give away parking spaces?"

The Oprah question is actually a serious one for economists studying urban policy. On its daily rounds, each car requires seven or so parking spaces at stores, offices, government buildings, parks, and anywhere else an automobile might go. An average auto has a footprint of more than 13,000 square feet, and parking spaces are about half-again that size. The more parking spaces there are, the less room there is for anything else, requiring more and longer car trips to satisfy daily needs. Those additional car trips crowd out pedestrians, buses, and cyclists, and delays motorists themselves.

This congestion creates demands for wider roads and more parking spaces, thus eliminating room for apartments, stores, and offices -- meaning motorists must drive even further to work, shop, and play, beginning the vicious cycle anew. Meanwhile, every square foot of land and building space dedicated to free parking -- rather than taxable development such as homes, offices, and stores -- deprives cities of potential revenue.

Despite this subsidy-imposed hardship, Cowen writes:

"99 percent of all automobile trips in the United States end in a free parking space, rather than a parking space with a market price. In his book, [UCLA Professor Donald] Shoup estimated that the value of the free-parking subsidy to cars was at least $127 billion in 2002, and possibly much more."
San Francisco's SF Park program doesn't significantly reduce these subsidies, many of which are hidden behind minimum parking requirements for buildings and streets. But it takes an important step toward warming the public to the fact that subsidized parking isn't naturally "free."

According to the program's website, "All parking spaces in SF Park reas will be priced based on their real value as determined by drivers themselves. This is called demand-responsive pricing."
In practice, this just means putting one's credit card in new electronic meters, and being charged less during non-peak parking hours, and more during busier times of day. Coverage of the program has focused mostly on supposedly onerous parking price hikes. But it might actually create noticeably felicitous effects. One example: Merchants might no longer find it cost-effective to park all day in front of their own stores, making it easier to park and shop, putting more money in those merchants' pockets.

Such prosaic results might even precede more remarkable ones. Per Cowen:

"If we're going to wean ourselves away from excess use of fossil fuels, we need to remove current subsidies to energy-unfriendly ways of life. Imposing a cap-and-trade system or a direct carbon tax doesn't seem politically acceptable right now. But we can start on alternative paths that may take us far."

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