What does a parking spot have to do with social equity? A lot, it turns out.
On an average day, the typical car owner doesn’t give much thought to parking, beyond whether they will luck out and find a spot to park when they reach their destination. We’ve had this luxury - even if it feels like a pain - because for nearly a century, our cities have been oriented around the automobile. In many American cities, up to 98 percent of people own a car. We allocate space for parking, because otherwise how would we go about our lives? It makes sense. Or does it?
It’s estimated that a one lane mile of roadway costs about $2 million tax dollars to build. Add to that maintenance, wages for parking enforcement staff and other costs, and it’s a reminder that free parking isn’t really free. It’s paid for by all of us, through our tax dollars. This subsidy to those who can afford to own a car is of course not only fronted by car owners, who are disproportionately middle-class and upper-class citizens. Lower income people who can’t even afford cars are also making that lucky parking spot you found possible, through the taxes they pay.
People who don’t own cars pay the price for our automobile-centric approach in other ways, too. It is estimated that 30 percent of all traffic is drivers searching for parking spots, circling blocks, wasting fuel, and congesting roadways. Meanwhile, average bus speeds have slowed to their lowest in decades - only 7.58 miles per hour. Lower income communities disproportionately rely on these public forms of transportation, and congested streets are making it more difficult for them to commute. Clogged traffic also lowers the wages of the many gig workers who rely heavily on tips for their living. The longer it takes them to accomplish their delivery, the lower their hourly pay rate drops.
We are looking at changing this urban equation by using hard data to help cities reconfigure parking and curb access. Pilots have shown that when parking priorities are shifted based on actual traffic patterns and curb needs, commercial vehicles such as UPS and FedEx, food-delivery, and ride-hailing services are able to operate more efficiently and safely. Double parking and traffic congestion is reduced by as much as 20 percent. In Columbus, OH, delivery drivers accessing an area with specified stopping areas prevented approximately 9,700 double or illegal parkings.
Parking is also a major contributor to traffic and in turn, greenhouse gas emissions. In one pilot we worked on, traffic caused by drivers searching for parking dropped by more than 20 percent when we changed the way parking was administered. With transportation accounting for 29 percent of United States greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, better street management could contribute to significant reduction in emissions.
This is also an equity issue. Demographic data from the 2000 census showed that minorities are on average exposed to 38 percent higher levels of air pollution than whites in the communities where they live, with most of that pollution related to vehicle traffic. But even on the practical front: when parking turnover is incentivized through payment by the minute, there’s more parking spots for everyone when they need one.
At the end of the day, thinking intelligently about how we can better allocate our curbside space will allow us to cut emissions, create more revenue for cities to reinvest in transportation, make traffic flow better and make our cities more equitable. The lowly curb is often overlooked, but it can play an outsized role in making our cities better places to live.
Learn more in my recent op-ed for StreetsBlog USA on how parking technology can make our cities more equitable...