Parking in the City, At What Price?

Parking lot in Montreal

It would be nice if everyone got around by public transport, but the reality in North America is that a majority of people in most cities get around primarily by car. This is true even in Montreal, which has the continent’s highest per-capita rate of public transit ridership. Accommodating the car, then, has always been a tricky balancing act. This is especially true for parking, much of which falls under the direct control of the government. How much should be provided—and for how much?

A couple of days ago, an article appeared in the New York Times by Donald Shoup, author of a book called The High Cost of Free Parking. In order to cut down on the traffic caused by drivers’ circling around waiting for street parking to free up, rather than paying for more expensive private garages, he argues that congested cities should raise parking rates. “A national study of downtown parking found that the average price of curb parking is only 20 percent that of parking in a garage, giving drivers a strong incentive to cruise,” he writes. In other words, cities are subsidizing street parking, which discourages motorists from seeking out market-rate garage spots.

Recently, Montreal decided to increase the price of downtown parking, presumably guided by this logic as well as a desire to increase its revenues. New York may be a case in point but, in Montreal, shoppers have not only a choice between driving or taking public tranport downtown, but also a choice to avoid downtown entirely in favour of suburban shopping malls with ample amounts of free parking. Can tinkering with the prices address the fear of a downtown decline?

In the Times, Shup writes:

Most people view traffic with a mixture of rage and resignation: rage because congestion wastes valuable time, resignation because, well, what can anyone do about it? People have places to go, after all; congestion seems inevitable.
But a surprising amount of traffic isn’t caused by people who are on their way somewhere. Rather, it is caused by those who have already arrived. Streets are clogged, in part, by drivers searching for a place to park.

Several studies have found that cruising for curb parking generates about 30 percent of the traffic in central business districts. In a recent survey conducted by Bruce Schaller in the SoHo district in Manhattan, 28 percent of drivers interviewed while they were stopped at traffic lights said they were searching for curb parking. A similar study conducted by Transportation Alternatives in the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn found that 45 percent of drivers were cruising.

When my students and I studied cruising for parking in a 15-block business district in Los Angeles, we found the average cruising time was 3.3 minutes, and the average cruising distance half a mile (about 2.5 times around the block). This may not sound like much, but with 470 parking meters in the district, and a turnover rate for curb parking of 17 cars per space per day, 8,000 cars park at the curb each weekday. Even a small amount of cruising time for each car adds up to a lot of traffic.

Over the course of a year, the search for curb parking in this 15-block district created about 950,000 excess vehicle miles of travel — equivalent to 38 trips around the earth, or four trips to the moon. And here’s another inconvenient truth about underpriced curb parking: cruising those 950,000 miles wastes 47,000 gallons of gas and produces 730 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. If all this happens in one small business district, imagine the cumulative effect of all cruising in the United States.

What causes this astonishing waste? As is often the case, the prices are wrong. A national study of downtown parking found that the average price of curb parking is only 20 percent that of parking in a garage, giving drivers a strong incentive to cruise. As George Costanza once said on “Seinfeld”: “My father never paid for parking, my mother, my brother, nobody. … It’s like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”

Like George Costanza, drivers often compare parking at the curb to parking in a garage and decide that the price of garage parking is too high. But the truth is that the price of curb parking is too low. Underpriced curb spaces are like rent-controlled apartments: hard to find and, once you do, crazy to give up. This increases the time costs (and therefore the congestion and pollution costs) of cruising.

And, like rent-controlled apartments, underpriced curb spaces go to the lucky more often than they do to the deserving. While the car owner with good timing can enjoy his space free or cheaply for hours or days, others who are late for a meeting or a job interview are left to circle the block, making themselves — and other drivers — miserable. The solution is to set the right price for curb parking.

To prevent shortages, some cities have begun to adjust their meter rates (using trial and error) to produce about an 85 percent occupancy rate for curb parking. The prices vary by location and the time of day. Drivers can usually find a vacant curb space near their destination, and the search time is zero. Cities can adjust the price of curb parking in response to demand to keep roughly one out of every eight spaces vacant throughout the day. Right-priced curb parking can eliminate cruising.

The balance between the varying demand for parking and the fixed supply of curb spaces is the Goldilocks Principle of parking prices: the price is too high if too many spaces are vacant, and too low if no spaces are vacant. But when only a few spaces are vacant, the price is just right, and everyone will see that curb parking is both well used and readily available.

Beyond the transportation and environmental benefits, performance-based prices for curb parking can yield ample revenue. If the city uses a share of this money for added public services on the metered streets, residents and local merchants will be more willing to support charging the right price for curb parking. These funds can be used to clean and maintain sidewalks, plant trees, improve lighting, remove graffiti, bury utility wires and provide other public improvements. Returning the meter revenue generated by a district to the district can persuade residents, merchants and property owners to support right-priced curb parking.

Redwood City, Calif., for example, sets its downtown meter rates to achieve an 85 percent occupancy rate for curb parking (the rates vary by location and time of day, depending on demand). Because the city returns the revenue to pay for added public services in the metered district, the downtown area will receive an estimated $1 million a year for increased police protection and cleaner sidewalks.

The Redwood City merchants and property owners all supported the new policy when they learned what the meter revenue would help pay for, and the City Council adopted it unanimously. Performance-based prices create a few curb vacancies so visitors can easily find a space, the added revenue pays to improve public services, and the improved public services create political support for the performance-based prices.

If cities want to reduce congestion, clean the air, save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve neighborhoods — and do it all quickly — they should charge the right price for curb parking, and spend the resulting revenue to improve local public services.

Getting that price right will do a world of good.

But not every city is New York. In other places, will expensive parking lead people to avoid downtown altogether? An article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times emphasized the importance of parking to downtowns. “One key test for downtown will be the role that parking plays in its evolution,” wrote Cara Mia DiMassa on the revival of downtown Los Angeles. “Several observers said it is hard to find inexpensive, easy parking in the district—and that could harm the push for an active street life in downtown.”

Yes, we should take public transport, and yes, we sometimes do, but without cheap easy-to-find parking, maybe we will end up going to the suburban malls all too often.

This entry was written by Donal Hanley , posted on Saturday March 31 2007at 08:03 pm , filed under Canada, Transportation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

7 Responses to “Parking in the City, At What Price?”

  • Chris says:

    Interesting story. I don’t think higher priced parking would hurt downtown Montreal too badly simply because, unlike most other cities in North America, Montreal has a large amount of people living in the downtown core. Most people from the suburbs don’t bother coming downtown anyway except for special events or for work/school. Pretty much anything they can get downtown they can get more conveniently at a mall (albeit in a much more sterile and uninteresting environment). I say raise the parking fees as high as they can go! The less cars downtown the better.

  • But that’s the thing—the reason why people drive downtown instead of going to a mall is to patronize specific shops and restaurants. I certainly think that parking prices should be high to discourage car use, or at least to reflect the real value of those parking spaces, but at the same time, you can’t ignore reality for the sake of ideology. If people stay away from downtown for whatever reason, it’s the small businesses, not the chain stores, that hurt the most.

    I would be a lot less worried about the effect of high parking rates if there was any sort of improvement to downtown public transit service… but there hasn’t been and won’t be for quite some time.

  • Zvi says:

    Part of the problem in Montreal is that the city is trying to apply their parking rate policies too widely. Downtown and Old Montreal can probably handle large increases in parking rates without much problem, but these increases might significantly damage other less frequented commercial areas. If there are no private off-street alternatives available (ie garages), then one should be cautious about who will be paying the price of raised on-street parking. Will it be only the local merchants and residents? If so, then this is little more than a cash-grab….

    For example, Ave du Parc and Queen Mary in Snowdon have recently had significant increases in the meter rates. Neither of these areas is doing particularly well from an economic point of view, but I cannot see how raising the price of parking will improve much. I don’t really know who is parking on Ave. du Parc (I certainly wouldn’t dare do it), but on Queen Mary it seems to be mostly local residents stopping off on their way to/from home to do a quick shop. Raising the price to $1 for 15 minutes of parking may discourage this kind of behaviour in an already depressed retail market. Presumably these people will be more likely to do their shopping elsewhere (ie in a mall). In fact, I would even go so far as to say that these areas should probably have limited period FREE parking (say up to one hour – which already exists near Queen Mary) to encourage people to “stop and shop”!

    In Italy it is common to allow up to one hour of free parking in many areas. Each car has a little clock on the wind-shield (comes with the vehicle registration) and it is up to the driver to set the time properly. Get caught cheating and it is a stiff fine (100+ Euros). Also, many metered spots have hourly rates which increase with time: you must pay in advance and the first hour is 1 Euro, the second 2 Euros (ie 3 Euros for 2 hours), the third 3 Euros (6 Euros for 3 hours), etc. Typically these parking rates do not apply to local residents who are thereby encouraged NOT TO USE THEIR CARS because they would have to pay for parking elsewhere. The idea is to discourage long-term parking while recognizing that people still may want to use their cars for certain needs.

    Parking certainly is an excellent tool to encourage/discourage certain kinds of travel, but it is important to consider it’s impact on small-scale businesses.

  • Do you really consider Park Avenue and Queen Mary Road to be “depressed” economically? I can’t think of even a single vacant storefront on Queen Mary and the commercial sections of Park (between St. Viateur and Bernard, for instance) seems very healthy to me… and I’m walking along it every day.

    But you’re right that parking increases could really hurt streets like these. The people who drive to Park Avenue come from all over the city but especially the north and west.

  • Jimmy Zoubris says:

    Park Avenue is doing OK., with the busiest area being between (you’re right) St. Viateur and Bernard. This area of the street has been lucky that there are some anchor stores like the SAQ and Jean Coutu. Most of our clientele is from around this area, and the honest truth is that most people from this neighbourhood are very loyal, but we still need those extra clients that come from further. For example, the southern part of Park has established a strong group of carpet stores….the greek fish restaurants are widely known across the city as among the best.
    How much change can you carry in your pocket ? If you get a $42 dollar ticket, won’t that make you crave for the free parking of suburban malls !!!
    Park Avenue has had its ups and downs. In 1992, between Van Horne and Bernard their were 116 empty stores on Park Avenue. This past summer. there were 56. Many of these are now being filled by hassidic jews, who now have many thriving businesses on the street. Just 10 years ago, there were 6 banks on Park, between Park and Bernard ?? Today, there is one. The banks began leaving, coincidentally, with the placement of the reserved bus lane.
    I am all for public transit, but lets be realistic….my client from Vaudreuil or RDP will not take his bike or bus here to buy some paper. (PS we do deliver free in MTL and Laval). The city has to work with the merchants and residents to get more available parking spaces in the area.

  • Jimmy Zoubris says:


    56 empty stores between VanHorne and Mont Royal

  • Zvi says:


    I am very happy that the store fronts are filling in again on Parc, but it is far too early to say whether this will be a permanent change or not. Given the types of businesses which are moving in, I doubt many of them have much “staying power”. I remember a similar situation in my neighbourhood in Haifa: one year there was a wave of new restaurants and cafes which opened up in the area, but by the next year almost all of them were gone. And now the area is literally filled with brothels and crack houses. I don’t expect that Parc will ever be getting this bad, but I am not sure how deep the current rebound goes.

    In my opinion, Parc Ave needs to completely do away with on-street parking! One or two mid-block parking garages (well designed and integrated with the urban fabric of course) could easily handle the existing number of spaces along the major blocks. That is the only way to further expand the curbs and make it a more pleasant pedestrian environment.