No such thing as a free lunch, or free parking

Planning and infrastructure decisions are a constant source of tension in Bloomington, where the City Council must constantly balance the needs and desires of local businesses with the needs and desires of non-business related persons of various sorts, including bicycling and pedestrian advocates.

To its credit, Bloomington is slowly moving in the direction of making bicycling more convenient. The city has commenced construction on the long-awaited B-Line Trail. This trail will span several blocks through downtown. I also see an increasing number of bike racks at various locales around the city (although, in my opinion, the city's choice of bike rack makes it very difficult to lock one's bike and also to fit multiple numbers of bikes, but perhaps that is a different post).
Parking at City Hall--an example of annoying bike parking (although not as bad as others).

In spite of progress in these areas, the city is constantly dogged by businesses and the Chamber of Commerce*, which advocates increased amounts of parking and an increased ease of parking downtown. The theory, which seems logical, is that ease of parking downtown will allow businesses to flourish. That is, the more easily people can park downtown, the more easily they can arrive at their destination and, thus, buy. Unfortunately, one's gut theories do not always reflect reality.

Parking and vehicular traffic create hidden costs that a government would be ill-advised to support. A study in Ottawa found that nearly 86% of Americans commute to work by car, and of those commuters, 90% have free parking. The study found that this free parking amounts to a subsidy of $1000 for the value of the parking space, adding to $85 billion annually. Without those subsidies, the study concluded that the number of solo commuters would be reduced by 81%**

(Parking, though, is only one component of the amount cars cost society. The cost for building and maintaining US roads amounts to $200 million per day. This adds to about $30 billion spent annually, plus an additional $68 billion per year on highway patrols, traffic management and accident-related policework. These numbers do not reflect the "invisible" costs which include air and noise pollution and accidents).

Bloomington has an exorbitant amount of free street parking, with additional pay-parking garages at various locations throughout the city. I'm going to venture a guess that those garages rarely fill up. Why? Because parking on the street is free. Free street parking results in cars circling to search for the elusive spot. Circling increases traffic and air pollution emissions. Not to mention the danger to others when a driver is focused on finding a place to park rather than the surrounding traffic.

A study in Los Angeles in 1984 found that "in a single year the cruisers in one 15-block neighborhood in Los Angeles spent 100,000 hours wasting 47,000 gallons of fuel and producing 700 tons of carbon dioxide emissions." And a study in 2003 found that curb parking costs 20% of off-street parking, which gives cars an incentive to circle to find a place to park. **

Not every city offers free parking, and neither should Bloomington. Pay parking will decrease downtown traffic and pollution and increase the city's coffers for use on important public works projects. In Old Pasadena, every parking meter generates $1,800 per year. The city uses the money to improve the surrounding neighborhood. And San Diego gives 45% of what it receives from parking meters to improve the security and look of the various neighborhoods.

It is clear that ending free street parking would have advantages for the city (from reduced traffic and the resulting air pollution and wear and tear on the roads), but the city is often under pressure from businesses that believe MORE parking nearby (and maybe more free parking) will increase shopping.

To the contrary, cyclists and pedestrians are better shoppers than car drivers, and in areas where roads are closed to motorized traffic, shops succeed. This is partly because when it is safer, easier, and more enjoyable to travel by bike or foot, shoppers are more willing to linger and run in and out of stores. A shopper who has to run back to move the car or fill the meter every two hours to avoid a ticket is less apt to spend much time downtown.

Studies in Europe have demonstrated this. As the European Commission noted in its study on bicycling: "The equation of 'vitality of commercial enterprises=access by car' is very far from being borne out in the facts. The contribution made by customers who arrive by public transport, bicycle and on foot is greatly underestimated..." ***

In Munster, Germany a study found that drivers were not better customers than those who arrive by bike, foot or public transportation, and, in certain ways, cyclists were the best customers. Cyclists have to buy smaller quantities when they shop (we don't have the space to haul our goods, after all) and, consequently, shop more regularly. As the study noted, more ventures to the store means more exposure to temptation. The study found that cyclists shopped 11 times per month on average, as opposed to 7 times per month for drivers.

Drivers were not such great buyers. In the Munster study, only 25% of drivers left the stores with two or more bags (versus 17% of cyclists), meaning that most drivers do not really need a car to transport their goods. Another form of transportation would be sufficient.

And parking does not increase business profitability. In Bern, a survey of consumers found that the ratio of profitability to parking (using the ratio between the value of the purchases made and the parking area used by the customer) was greater for cyclists: 7500 (euros) per square metre versus the second place cars 6625 (euros) per square metre (I'm too lazy to do the conversion, but you get the idea). Remember, this is the case even though cyclists have to limit the purchases they make because of the difficulty of transporting goods.

Other cities have also discovered that limiting motorized traffic (or banning it altogther) in downtown shopping areas increases visits to shops. Copenhagen, Denmark, for example, closed off one of its largest streets to traffic in the 1960s (Stroget), resulting in increased sales.**** Similarly, Strasbourg, France found that when it closed traffic to its town center (with no other change in the shopping area) visits to the shops increased by 30%.***

All of these studies demonstrate that, despite the claims from the local Chamber of Commerce and other businesses, car traffic and parking will not help local businesses. But increasing bike and foot traffic will. Unfortunately, businesses have the loudest voices (and the deepest pockets).

Other and better solutions exist for Bloomington, and I believe these solutions would have support from the average Bloomingtonian. I would like to see Bloomington's policies, at a minimum, be as fair to bicycles and pedestrians as to cars. Though, considering the damage cars cause, I don't think it is unfair to have policies that are more favorable to other modes of transportation.

In my dreams, I would love to see part of Bloomington (maybe Kirkwood Ave) closed to traffic, as Burlington, Vermont did with Church Street. Burlington closed Church Street and paved the road with bricks. Surrounding parking garages offer free parking for the first two hours, with low rates for the following time. Thus, a trip downtown means parking on the outskirts and walking.

Kirwood Avenue, from IU to Downtown

I would also like to see the rates of street parking rise. London, England, for example, imposed a parking cap in the 1960s and parking is quite expensive (drivers also face a tax for commuting in from outside London, limiting cars downtown).** This money goes to local councils.

And, it should go without saying, I would love to see more money devoted to bicycling infrastructure--more bike lanes and safety features, among other things. As the EU found, measures encouraging bicycles would have such advantages to cities as reducing traffic congestion through a decrease in circling for parking; lower pollution levels and a better traffic flow; space savings and a reduction in roadway investments, which would permit a different use of public space to make downtowns more attractive; and general improvement in the quality of life, including attracting people downtown, particularly families.

There is no such thing as free parking--cars take a toll on our businesses, public infrastructure, and our health. Improving access to downtown for pedestrians and bicyclists is the key to a vibrant Bloomington.

*I feel I should state here that I am a dues paying member of the Chamber, which I love, except for its support of "solutions" that I believe will neither benefit businesses nor Bloomington, like (ehem) I-69. (Have these people ever seen Fort Wayne? Fort Wayne should not be a goal.)
**See E Magazine The High Cost of Free Parking at
***Cycling: The Way Ahead for Towns and Cities, by European Commission.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Well researched and well thought out. Bookmarked.