Parking The Bull – and Ignoring it Completely
We have a choice. It’s an actual choice. Do we want to live by a park or by a parking lot?
Judging from real estate prices, most of us prefer the first choice. We have, however, such a counterproductive urban model of society that we end up choosing the latter. Living in a parking lot. Sure, that’s better than living in a sewer, but perhaps it’s just a matter of time before we have merged our habitat into an integrated housing sewer and parking facility.
The increasing number of parking lots and cars and, in the Danish perspective, even more frequent storms with wild amounts of precipitation – like we’ve seen the past few years – may well ensure our housing in cities becomes more integrated with our sewage system.
Much of this is related to Copenhagen but, in my experience, it’s the same dynamics and issue in most larger cities.
Although there are exceptions. Singapore, for example, has had a cap on the total number of cars in the country for decades. Even Boston, of all places, capped the total number of parking spaces in the inner city in 1978 in order to combat congestion. Seattle allowed developers to manage their need for on-site parking on their own. San Francisco has started implementing market pricing on curbside parking spots. These are great examples, but they are, unfortunately, rather rare.
We tend to think of cars primarily as a vehicle for driving when it is, in reality, not at all that. It is a parked vehicle for about 22 hours a day. According to a Danish newspaper, Politiken, it may be parked much more than that since almost half of Copenhagen car owners use their car once a week or less, on average.
Why is parking important?
First of all, abundant free parking at the workplace increases the number of car commuters – by around 100%, accordingly to the Danish Technical University. In Denmark, perks acquired at your job are taxed – anything above 100 DKK ($170 USD). The only exception is free parking. Which is bizarre when you consider the value of a parking spot. The City of Copenhagen’s Finance Department has recently calculated that a parking spot in the city centre may be worth as much as a whopping 1 million DKK ($170,000 USD).
In California, the state has introduced a reversed model in order to combat rush hour congestion. If a company supplies free parking to employees, the company must pay an allowance of equal worth to all employees who do not commute by car.
Secondly, all this parking takes up a great deal of space in our cities. A parking space is about 12 m2. But if you include the necessary access area you need to calculate about 25 m2 if you’re planning a parking lot, underground facility or facility with random entry and exit – and without valet service.
In Copenhagen 36.5% of all the asphalt is used for public parking. If you include private parking, 50% of the asphalt in the city is for driving and 50% is for parking.
It gets worse. The common assumption is that one car fits into one parking spot. It is never that low, however. In the US, it can be between 2 and 8 parking spots per car. In Copenhagen, my conservative analysis suggests that there are between 3 and 3.6 spots per car, both public and private.
The reason that one parking space is never enough is a combination of differences in need, according to character of the destination, job, home, shopping, entertainment etc.. In addition, a high share are reserved for one car only – your driveway is not used by anyone else while you are at work and, chances are, nobody uses your parking space at work, when you’re not there. There may be no need or your company has reserved it just for you and you alone. Parking spots outside a sports stadium will usually be empty 99% of the year… and so on.
Too many parking spots are built since some people often plan for peak demand, which leaves the parking lot half empty most of the time. “Some people” is usually the City, and they make these choices for you.
Most cities have “zoning” or parking norms, which demands that specific numbers of off-street parking spots must be built when a new building is erected. These norms are often very arbitrary. All manner of retail businesses are treated the same no matter if they sell timber, cars or bicycles – and regardless of the part of the city it is built in and regardless of what public transit service is nearby
In Copenhagen, the norm is one spot for every 35 m2 retail space. This is the case even though there is absolutely no evidence of any relation between the size of a store and the number of customers it attracts, or the share of those customers who arrive by car.
The parking norm does take general use into consideration albeit in VERY broad terms; such as place of work, residential, retail, education etc.. The role of the parking norm is to relieve the city of a perceived obligation to provide free parking to car users.
In Copenhagen, 76% of all public parking is free. If you are a resident in a neighbourhood and bought a flat without a parking spot included, the City will sell you a parking permit for less than $120 USD a year. That is cheaper than any homeowner in the suburbs paid for their driveway and why this is the case in the most expensive areas in the nation is beyond reason.
In Copenhagen, only 0.5% and 1% of public parking generates an income that actually covers the cost of construction, land value, need, depriciation and maintenance.
This, of course, is extremely bad business and dreadful economics. Instead of increasing parking prices, the city taxes developers – although not with a fixed amount or percentage – in order to furnish the city with the billions needed for abundant, free, subsidized parking. The City forces the developers to provide a certain amount of parking spaces per square meter – ususally 1 parking spot per 100 m2 of floor space. Regardless of how much vacant public parking there is to be found in the local surroundings and often also regardless of the proximity to high-class mass transit.
Each parking spot in an underground facility costs around $64,000 USD – which is about equal to 10% of the property value. Housing expenses in the capital could be up to 10% lower if the city allowed car-free apartments. It doesn’t, however.One of the unfortunate side effects is that nobody can make money on parking, so no private entity is willing to invest in parking unless they are forced to by the city. If a rent-controlled, socio-economic residential complex wanted to let the residents who own cars pay the cost of the parking spaces that the city forced them to build, they would just opt to park in the street, where it is free. The result is that all low-income families, car or not, have to pay for the parking spaces.
In effect, the parking norm is a tax on construction, directed at parking. There is, however, no tax directed at public transit or bicycle infrastructure.
In our Swedish neighbour city of Malmö (Copenhagen M, as some refer to it) they allow a 30% deduction of the parking norm if the contractor enrolls the residents of the new building into a car-share service for five years. This significantly lowers living expenses for the residents, as well as providing them with a great and affordable palette of transport alternatives.
Housing and transport are to two major expenditures in the private economy of most in the Nordic peoples. Kudos to Malmö for such a pragmatic and, for the city, free solution. In the long run, this will save the city a lot of money as well – less road maintenance, less pollution, etc. As we know all too well, the parking spot at home is just part of the big picture. Society at large will have to pay for one, two, or maybe more parking spaces in other parts of the city.
It’s not only our housing expenses that are affected. When retail is forced to pay a higher rent due to a high number of parking spaces – one for every 100m2 of retail space – the consumer goods they sell will increase in price – retailers will seek to earn a premium after all costs are covered.
When museums are forced to use money on parking spaces, they have less for exhibitions. When schools are forced to provide parking spaces for students, they have less for education and facilities. Why are universities forced to provide parking, but not dormitories? No Copenhagen universities build or offer student housing.
When you don’t pay for a service you tend to demand more of it – as much as you can possibly consume – since there is no trade-off necessary for you as an individual.
I can guarantee you that if Copenhageners had to pay the cost price of a parking spot, 35-50% would opt for a car-share service, car rentals, taxi or no car at all. I will come back to these percentages with a case example.
For shops, low parking prices are a disaster because there is no motivation to park, shop and leave again in a timely manner, this means a lower customer flow. If parking was more expensive, many may choose to use public transit or bicycles for purchases that don’t require a car or when travelling in a group. In Copenhagen, one car is, on average, only occupied by 1.1 – 1.3 people.
If parking was expensive outside the shop, the store employees would likely choose to park farther away from the store, instead of occupying spots which should be used by customers, which again means less business, and fewer jobs for the store employees.
A recent report compared the economic growth of the ten most car-friendly cities in the US with the ten worst. The economic growth of the car-friendly cities was significantly and consistently below that of the least car-friendly cities.
Lack of free parking has been shown to increase traffic volume as much as 30%. If parking pricing is matched to demand, there will always be available parking on the same block as the destination shop or restaurant – creating less traffic on the streets and more traffic and revenue in the shops. This is exactly how the pricing of real estate works and how the pricing of retail space works. This is how the market works. It’s a simple principle. For some peculiar reason even neo-liberals do not believe in the market when it’s related to car parking.
Suddenly, parking and car ownership has become a social issue and the high cost of parking is punishing the poor. What is unfair and punishing is if the poor are forced to drive by car because all the parking spaces take up the most valuable space in the city – instead of being allocated to affordable, high class, reliable and frequent public transit and bike infrastructure.
My Back Yard!
In my neigbourhood of Copenhagen, Skt. Kjelds Plads, public parking is free. There are 4700 public parking in curbside spots. This is in an area of 1500 km x 750 meters. 10.5% of the entire surface area is allocated to parking. That is a lot by any standard. It shows, too. Most streets are parking lots, which doesn’t invite life during the day and evening. No outdoor café tables, no playing children and virtually no shops except tanning shops and discount supermarkets.The City has meticulously registered parking patterns. In the evening, the pressure peaks, which means residents own cars. The neighbourhood is “known” to have a much higher parking demand, than it can satisfy.
And it’s not because people just give up driving around seeking vacant spots – the same spots are vacant every evening. What is even more insane is that this is only the curbside parking we’re talking about. There are also 800 vacant parking spots in underground facilities around the neighbourhoods – incredibly expensive facilities forced into construction because of politicians dutifully and blindly paying lip service to the parking norms.When you look at the parking registration journals, you will notice that about 200 cars are parked illegally – but also that about 250 parking spaces are vacant. One street is even reserved for truck parking. In many cases, the streets with the most illegal parking are adjacent, or run parallel to, the streets that have vacant parkings spots. People simply can’t be bothered to park a block away. They prefer to shorten their walk, even though it may jeopardize the life of one of their own neighbours or their kids.
These are empty partly because they are in private garages, many of them being governmental organisations, and they are simply locked to outsiders at all hours. In many other cities, the parking norm requieres parking lots to be open to residents outside normal business hours.
One of these underground parking garages that is almost always empty belongs to a patient home for patients from Greenland and the Faroe Islands who come to Denmark for treatment that is not available at home. Not surprisingly, they never bring a car with them. Nevertheless, a huge share of the construction costs for the home for these people was due to the fact that the City refused to use a realistic parking norm. They could have used the money better and elsewhere in the city.
You might think they would have an incentive to park legally but there is never parking control in the evenings or at night and the police refuse to ticket cars – insisting that it is the responsibility of city parking attendants.A large share of the 800 aforementioned parking spots are actually beneath residential buildings and they cost 350,000 DKK ($60,000 USD) a piece. That represents 10-15% of the property value of each of the flats. A massive amount when you consider that a new car in Denmark costs as little as 76,000 DKK ($13,000 USD) and that parking is free on the street. In some buildings they charge a symbolic fee of 500 DKK ($85 USD) a month in order to cover at least some of the huge cost. This means that most car-owning residents decline to use parking in the basement and just park in the street for free.
20% of street parking in my neigbourhood could be removed, just by using the current parking lots better – and basically at a zero cost to society.
By dispatching parking attendants to the neighbourhood at night it would become much safer.
By introducing a fair price on street parking around 20-40% of the cars would simply vanish, since almost half of Copenhageners only use their car once a week or less. A significant number would likely sell their car and use car share programmes, taxis or rental cars the few times a year they actually need the car.
All in all, curbside parking on one side of the street in the entire neighbourhood could, by reasonable measures, be reclaimed for bicycle infrastructure, playgrounds, flowers, grass & trees.
The ground floor flats are usually the least attractive, but many could get a small garden fronting the street and all of this would make our streets immensely more colourful, soft and joyful to experience.
Maybe the remaining car owners would even start to enjoy the longer walk from the car to the front door?