Tuesday, January 25, 2011

No such thing as free parking

--except in Monopoly

The recent article in the PNJ about parking at UWF has spurred me to share some thoughts on parking.

We live in a culture that cherishes the freedom implied by automobiles. Since the advent of the automobile, we have built our cities around them, easing their use. One thing that we have come to expect is ample, free parking.

But is free parking really free?

Take a look at the recent CRA master plan. Much of downtown is covered with surface parking (shown in purple and red), occupying our prime commercial land. That is land that could house businesses or residences. Businesses that would draw more people downtown, whether to shop or to work. Residences that increase the numbers of people living downtown. Both would contribute to our local economy and support our city services.

If the land were occupied by buildings, walking downtown would be much more pleasant. Consider how appealing walking on Palafox St is, with the variety of window displays to interest you. Compare that to walking on Romana St, past large expanses of parking. Or, a more extreme case, compare it to walking along 9th Ave beside Cordova Mall.

Businesses throughout our community subsidize parking (and, therefore, driving). The business must buy more land than it needs for its actual work and then pays taxes on the land that is taken up by parking.

But we “need” all of that parking. Most people can’t walk or bike to work, and our bus system is inadequate. To reduce the amount of our land dedicated to parking without an uproar, we must reduce the demand for parking. People need an incentive to consider an alternative to just hopping in the car.

What kind of incentive could there be? Many businesses downtown currently pay for parking spaces for their employees. Instead of paying for those spots directly, what if they gave the money to their employees, letting them make the decision for themselves about how much they are willing to pay for the convenience? Alternatively, employers could start paying employees who forgo their parking spot, a little reward for using a different, and mostly likely less convenient, way of getting to work.

I do not expect that such a simple program alone will make much of a dent in our transportation challenges. Nor would it transform our landscape overnight. However, it will be a regular reminder that there are options and there are incentives to try something different. Employees could switch to carpooling, the bus, or other means. People might start asking for a better transit system, and the transit system would have the riders to justify an increase in the service. And better service might draw more folks, and perhaps the number of people driving to work will begin to decrease. With less demand, perhaps businesses won't need to continue to subsidize parking so much.

The oil spill last spring was a horrible reminder of what our collective actions can do to our environment. The devastating results of our dependence on oil should encourage us as a community to step up and take leadership in changing our behavior. Small steps such as this can start the shift.