In a paper presented at the annual meetings of the Transportation Review Board, and neatly summarized by Eric Jaffe at CityLab, Rachel Weinberger and Joshua Karlin-Resnick of planning consulting firm Nelson/Nygaard demonstrate in quantitative fashion what observers of the urban condition have long known–that complaints of “there’s no parking!” are generally exaggerated, and most mixed-use areas are actually systematically oversupplied with parking when all parking in the area is considered. To quote from the abstract,
Defining sufficient supply as that which would leave 15 percent of spaces open, we find that parking is oversupplied by 65% on average. Differences in oversupply are not systematically explained by commute mode share, region, type of place, or any other dimension we were able to identify. Indeed, oversupply in places that have identified parking shortages averages 45%. The finding suggests that parking is often oversupplied to such an extent that it is non-binding on travel decisions and has become unmoored from the typical relationship between supply and demand.
To many urbanist observers, that American parking policy has led to irrational excess and inefficient decision-making is hardly a surprise; there are few planning issues more emotional for the lay stakeholder than parking, and it’s a realm where pressure from the people often triumphs over demonstrable good policy (though, to be fair, the economics of parking can seem counter-intuitive to a layperson). I’m already on record as a fan of Nelson/Nygaard’s work on parking given their terrific (albeit entirely ignored by the relevant policymakers) work on Albany’s Park South urban renewal boondoggle, so I thought I’d offer a few words here in support of this paper’s observations.
My neighborhood in downtown Albany, Center Square (technically, I live in Hudson/Park, since we’re a few doors down from the border between neighborhood associations, but people generally refer to the whole area as Center Square), is known, as far as a neighborhood in Albany can be, for its difficult parking situation. It’s a dense, mixed-use neighborhood; the housing stock is primarily 1-4 unit rowhouses, with a few larger buildings mixed in. Center Square is also home to Albany’s premier college bar and arts scene, Lark Street, and a number of other businesses, some of them mixed in with the residential blocks.
Recently, after a 25-year fight with state employees unions, the neighborhood gained permit parking, a status that was confirmed and extended by the state legislature in the last hours of its session last year (yes, despite strong “home rule” principles, New York cities have to get legislative approval for such things). I’ve only been here a year and a half, but I hear that the permit system–active only during daylight hours–has significantly improved the curbside parking situation during the day. At night is a different matter; the parking spots fill up both with neighborhood residents returning from work and with visitors experiencing the area’s nightlife.
Center Square is definitely one of the few areas in Albany (and really, in all of Upstate) where it’s possible to live car-free; my partner G and I own a car because G’s state job is near-impossible to reach by transit. I haven’t been able to find definite data on rates of car ownership in Albany, but I suspect that one-car-per-household is fairly typical in Center Square, with families with children owning more, and more than a few students and other people on the lower end of the income spectrum carless by choice or necessity. The Times-Union article linked to above noted that there were about 5,300 permit applications in the first year of the program, for about 2,750 spots, but that in the second year of the program that had fallen to about 2,600 applications. I suspect the latter number is closer to the real demand from residents (the city also issues permits to local business owners), and that many of the initial applications may have come from state workers hopeful they could get in somehow. There are, for the record, roughly 8,630 people living in the three census tracts that make up Zone A in the permit system.
In real life, it’s generally not that hard to find a spot even at night. I’m rarely able to find a spot on my block when returning after about 8 PM, but I’ve only had to walk more than a block once or twice since moving in. The nighttime parking situation is annoying, but not a major lifestyle problem. But here’s the thing: the 2,750 on-street spots to which the permit system applies, as Weinberger and Karlin-Resnick remind us, are far from the only parking spots available to residents of the neighborhood. There are numerous spots available in Washington Park (a popular retreat during snow emergencies, when one side of each block is closed), and dozens of homes and buildings with one or two spots in a garage or small lot. There are also, and more significantly, numerous garages and surface lots for off-street parking in the neighborhood, some of them attached to specific institutions, some aimed at state workers who park and walk to work in the Plaza or other state office buildings. To get a sense of just how many there are, I did a quick sketch of polygons over the ones apparent from the air in Google Earth, covering what most people consider to be the core of Center Square and Hudson/Park (i.e., not all of Zone A):
I don’t have the time to go out and do an actual count of the spaces that all of these lots add to the neighborhood’s overall parking supply, but I’d estimate that, conservatively, it’s a supply of at least an additional 500-800 spots. The most prominent lot–the one at the corner of Swan and Hamilton that takes up most of a block–has, according to Parkopedia, 173 spaces; the garage on Lancaster between Dove and Lark adds another 125.
But here’s the catch: because parking in the neighborhood functions for two very different markets–for residents and for daytime workers–most of these off-street lots contribute little relief to the on-street parking situation. The lots intended for state workers (such as the two cited above) set their rates to exploit desperate commuters, and as a result are almost entirely empty at night. Both the Hamilton/Swan lot and the Lancaster garage set night/weekend rates around $90/month; low relative to major-city rates, certainly, but absurdly high in a place like Albany. The result is that–naturally–the major off-street parking resources are almost empty at night, and contribute neither relief to circling parkers nor revenue to their owners. The other lots–those belonging to churches, the neighborhood’s numerous policy and lobbying groups, and the like–are also typically empty at night.
In other words, there is plenty of parking in Center Square. The perception of a shortage is just that–unmoored from an reality of demand or supply, just as Weinberg and Karlin-Resnick would have us believe. The situation in Center Square is perhaps more complex than the norm because of the dual markets functioning in the neighborhood, but it’s not that hard to get a grasp on. I’m not sure if reducing the “parking crunch” is even desirable–and given the area’s walkability and transit-friendliness, it may not be–but it’s eminently possible with a little bit of coordination. The perception of a parking shortage in Center Square is driven by the same factors that drive parking oversupply in other areas–zoning assigning parking requirements by institution rather than by context or need, lack of coordination among business and institutions, and reluctance of residents to pay for parking. The solution, if indeed one is needed, is in fact quite simple:
Get everyone (the owners of the garages and lots, local institutions, and private homeowners willing to rent out their excess parking spots) in a room to coordinate a neighborhood-wide rate for off-street parking.
If everyone could just get in a room to talk–that coordination thing again–the garage owners could find themselves with more revenue from local residents parking in their lots overnight, local homeowners with extra spots could have a little extra cash in their pockets, and everyone would find it a little easier to park. Such a solution would also, presumably, obviate the need for new developments in the area to add even more parking. I imagine such a rate would fall in the vicinity of $40-$50/month, which, though it might not be affordable to all neighborhood residents, should be attractive to enough of them to make an impact. It’s a solution that would be easy enough to implement. But then, since when has American parking policy taken the easy or common-sense way out?