‘India is the country that will benefit most from parking reforms’

Sep 20, 2023 05:06 PM IST

Indian cities have some of the most valuable land on earth. Yet it’s free if you bring a car. And if you don’t have a car, you get nothing, says Donald Shoup

Cities are about moving people. But in India, mobility is stuck in the chaos of private vehicles, mainly cars. These enormous fleets do not have to move to occupy the bulk of road space. Parked just anywhere, cars hog public land -- parks, pavements, blocking access to bus stops, Metro stations and even emergency services. When moving, they clog roads and foul up the air. Yet cities continue to disservice their pedestrians and public transport users by offering free public land or charging car users a pittance for parking.

Donald Shoup is a professor of urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles, and globally, one of the foremost advocates of parking reforms. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Donald Shoup is a professor of urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles, and globally, one of the foremost advocates of parking reforms. (HT Photo)

“You have to pay for valuable things (such as cars). Land is the most valuable thing on earth, and you give it free (for parking). Then you wonder, what’s the problem?” asks Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles, and globally, one of the foremost advocates of parking reforms. His book, The High Cost of Free Parking, makes a convincing case for charging a market rate for on-street parking and returning all parking revenue through additional public services to the neighbourhoods that generate it. In an interview with Shivani Singh, he prescribed the same and more for Indian cities. Edited Excerpts:

In most Indian cities, parking charges are minuscule. Unauthorised slots come free and are claimed as a matter of right if they happen to be outside one’s shop, workplace, or home. Fearing pushback from people, the political class is reluctant to support policies that mandate appropriate parking fees for using public land. How do cities then introduce parking reforms?

First, parking reform has to be made politically acceptable. I have proposed – and several American cities have accepted -- to dedicate the parking revenue to added public services on the metered street (where parking is charged). If you have meters, you have the money to pay for such services on that block. And if you don’t have meters, you don’t get those services. The choice is between free parking, which is hard to find, and the market-priced parking.

Second, what parking fees do you charge? The price to charge is the lowest price the city can charge, and still has one or two curb (on-street) spaces vacant on every block. When the demand is low, the price is low, and when the demand is high, the price is high. So, if you have the policy to charge market or demand-based or dynamic prices and dedicate all the revenue, or most of it, to pay for public services, people living on the block will see that they benefit.

This works well in very dense neighbourhoods such as Manhattan (New York City), where there are 20 residents for every car parking space. I’m sure that’s true of many Indian cities as well. Take one block, find out how many people live there and how many curb parking spaces are available, and have a referendum on two choices. You could either continue with free parking or have paid parking and added public services. Many cities give everybody on the block free transit passes or free Wi-Fi. Others use it to repair sidewalks and plant street trees.

How does one convince people to pay, and pay rationally, for using public space for parking?

The strategy that has worked well, and I was told so by a city councillor, is that if you want to reform parking, don’t mention the word parking. Just ask people what public services are lacking in their neighbourhood. Once you find out, tell them you don’t have money to pay for that. But one way that other cities have done it is to charge market prices for curb parking and spend that revenue to pay for services that people want. So, the process isn’t top-down. It’s the neighbourhood that decides. But what the city has to do is to make the offer.

Also, people must know where the money (parking revenue) is going. If parking revenue is going to pay for transit passes, people (should know) that they pay nothing for transit; the (parking) meters are paying for it. Most residents won’t have to pay anything. Some (the car users) will have to pay for the car parking, but that will be typically, especially in India, higher income people. Also, it would provide parking spaces for visitors and delivery vehicles. You shouldn’t talk about making the residents pay. You have to tell these stakeholders that they should charge for parking from those (people such as delivery vehicle drivers and visitors) not living in that neighbourhood so they can get the revenue.

In India, Bengaluru has started park-and-pay at the Brigade Road business district. Business improvement districts are the perfect place to start. The merchants can see what the occupancy rate of the curb parking is. They know that they will lose customers if the prices are too high. If the spaces are empty, then they will lose business. If there are no open spaces, people will complain because there will be no parking place. So, they have the incentive to get the price right.

In Indian cities, parking lots are packed in shopping areas where the parking charge is a pittance. Many drivers take the spillover to pavements or crowd the adjoining neighbourhoods. In residential areas, most buildings now house multiple families, most of which own multiple cars and park on public land. Many here would rather keep the free parking space outside their home than care about the benefits that parking revenues could bring to their neighbourhood.

If you charge the right price for parking, nobody will have a problem finding a space for the car. There’s no shortage of automobiles, gasoline, and tyres. The only shortage is of parking (space) because you pay for all the other things, but parking is free. People who have several cars and find it difficult to get parking spots have a real problem. But they are only a tiny share of the population. Most people cannot afford multiple cars, or they know they would have a terrible time parking those.

There’s a real problem when what everyone wants adds up to more than there is. When parking is free, slots are hard to find. You have fights, the car gets damaged, or you get a (parking violation) ticket. Indian cities have some of the most valuable land on earth because the density (of population) is so high. Yet it’s free if you bring a car. And if you don’t have a car, you get nothing. There are many more people than cars, and we give the land away free to cars.

The important thing is to tell people that some other cities charge market prices for curb parking and spend the revenue to benefit people -- every person and not just the car owners. If the land is not free for cars, it’ll be much easier to find parking space. It will just be like paying for gasoline, insurance, repair, or the car itself. We have short-circuited the market for parking by saying it ought to be free.

Is good public transport a prerequisite for parking reforms?

It (parking reforms) supports public transit, and it will increase demand for public transit, especially if you give everybody living in a parking benefit district a free transit pass. The money (generated from parking revenue in the district) will go to the transit agency. But it’s not necessary to have a transit to have a parking district.

But in Indian cities, public transport is the weakest link in mobility.

Mismanaged curb parking is the weakest link. It damages the air quality and causes traffic congestion. It’s unfair because it helps high-income people who own cars and does nothing for low-income people who don’t own a car. I think it’s much more important to say that we will charge market prices for curb parking, and everybody will get the same thing: a transit pass. But in addition to that, there’ll be no parking problem. But with free parking, the curb spaces will be full, and people will drive around hunting for parking, adding to traffic that endangers pedestrians and bicyclists. Free curb parking is one of the biggest mistakes that cities have made.

Dense European cities seem wonderful compared to American cities because many were built before the cars came. They charge for car parking in European cities. In parts of London, parking costs over £5 an hour. That’s what it takes to manage curb spaces. The first time I went to Amsterdam was in 1962. It was overrun with cars, just like in any American city. Over the past 50-60 years, they’ve started charging for curb parking, and the city is infinitely better. Indian cities would also be infinitely better if they charged demand-based prices for curb parking and spent the revenue on improving the neighbourhood.

What do you do if your city’s public transport is inadequate?

There are alternatives to mass transit: bicycles, walking, electric scooters, and electric bicycles. It would be better for cities if many people who own old and dirty cars started using these alternatives because parking is too expensive. It will (in turn) allow the city to significantly expand the transit service. It is hard to increase transit networks when there’s so much congestion. The buses are the way to travel, but they’re mired in congested traffic, cars crawling along, many of them looking for parking. Using parking meter revenue to fund public transit is also a new way of financing.

Can variable parking fees be an alternative to road rationing, congestion pricing, or other demand-side management methods that could reduce the number of cars in a city? (Parking, like road space, also demonstrates induced demand -- the more space you provide on the road or for parking, the sooner it gets filled).

Congestion pricing is critical, and cities ought to have it. But charging a parked car is much easier than charging a moving car. We’ve been charging for parked cars for about 100 years, and now the technology (to collect parking fees) is very sophisticated. We have to start with charging the right price for current parking before charging moving cars. Also, politically, it’s much easier to explain to people that if you have paid parking on your street, you will get benefits you never had before.

Many cities in the United States (once the pioneers of mass motorisation) are doing away with parking minimum requirements (rules that mandate a certain number of parking spaces in new buildings). But in India, it is difficult to sell a property if it does not have ample parking slots. And even this ample is never sufficient?

If you have one or two open spaces on every block, you wouldn’t need off-street parking requirements. Developers provide off-street parking because they know customers are willing to pay for it. But when you sell off-street parking, you have no idea how expensive these spaces are. How much does it cost to build the parking space? How does it affect the design of a building? How does the cost of housing increase if you have to include the cost of free parking in the building? And then it drives up the price of everything except parking.

The city planners have no training on how to set parking requirements. They don’t know how much the parking spaces cost. They don’t know how much the parking spaces will earn. They don’t know how it affects the density of the city or air pollution or carbon emissions. If you really are worried about carbon emissions, minimum parking requirements don’t seem to be a good idea because they increase the number of cars.

The key to parking reform is effective enforcement and utmost transparency, which city administrations need to improve.

If parking revenue would benefit the neighbourhood, the residents would insist on stricter enforcement. It’s easy to enforce now with license plate recognition. In Amsterdam, they have these vehicles with cameras on the roof and they drive 30 or 40 miles an hour through the neighbourhood, checking all the license plates. Some cities have progressive parking fines -- the first ticket is a warning, the next maybe $25, and it keeps increasing progressively. They are lenient on people who’ve just made a mistake. India is the country that will benefit most from parking reforms. One city does it right, and other cities will do it too.

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    Shivani Singh leads the Delhi Metro team for Hindustan Times. A journalist for two decades, she writes about cities and urban concerns. She has reported extensively on issues of governance, administrative and social reforms, and education.

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