Ending parking subsidies will result
in dramatic transit increase

Albert H. Perdon
Assistant General Manager of Planning and Communications
Southern California Rapid Transit District

March 5, 1988


There is a parking problem. Many people still think that the problem is having to park more than 6 car lengths from their ultimate destination. The real problem is something else entirely. The real problem is that we have so much land devoted to parking that it can be given away free.

I will discuss some of the specifics of the problem. I will tell you what we are trying to do about it at RTD, and will give you some of our thoughts about strategies and tactics that might be pursued in order to solve the problem.


There are several facets to the parking problem, but all have to do with forcing the supply too high and/or the price too low. Let us call this the "basic parking problem."

One prominent misconception is that too little parking is a cause of traffic congestion. The basis of this fallacy may be the cruising that takes place when on-street parking is tight, when drivers drive around looking for a free space. Even in this case, the problem is not a lack of parking. Rather it is that the market for parking is chaotic; free parking adjacent to high price parking, or parking priced too favorably for all day parking. The main culprit in the chaotic parking market is usually on-street parking that is too cheap.

The solution to this problem is an orderly and predictable market for parking. If one knew -- before even beginning a trip -- that the price for parking at the destination is assured and predictable, and high enough that there would be space available, the cruising would be eliminated. If the price is closely related to the fair market value of providing the space, many people would decide to travel another way. They might share a ride, or take transit, or even walk, even in Los Angeles.

So the reality is that one of the major causes of street congestion is too much parking at too low a price.

Let us look at the ways the basic parking problem is manifested in different circumstances:

Low density areas

In low density areas, residential and commercial developments are constructed with too much parking space everywhere. There is no lack of parking at all. Of course these areas won't support any useful level of local transit. At best, the residents that work downtown can drive to a park-ride lot and take an express bus.

High density residential areas

In high density residential areas, every new apartment building has one or more floors devoted to parking. Whatever street parking space remains after the curb is cut up for driveways is generally unmetered. This results in long term curb parking, and few opportunities for short term parking.

High density commercial abutting low density residential

The political problem of parking is most acute where high intensity commercial uses border single family residential areas. When workers in the offices park in adjacent residential neighborhoods, the parking problem is called "spillover". When high intensity land uses border residential areas with free on-street parking, spillover is inevitable. This is the situation that seems to be driving the parking/planning debate. So far, all that the city planners have come up with are proposals to require developers to include more free parking.


There are a number of things we are doing on the parking issue:

Parking is perhaps the single most important issue for transit. But it isn't the only issue. I will mention a couple of other things RTD is doing.


Uncovering the Cost of Parking

Of first importance is to get the cost of parking out in the open. Make it clear to everyone what the costs are. Then make it possible for people to avoid the costs if they don't need the parking.

One of the major obstacles to providing affordable housing is the requirement that builders construct parking spaces whether they will be wanted by the tenants or not. Making the rental of parking optional would lower the overall rent of people who must or would depend on transit, more than compensating them for somewhat higher fares. A further advantage of this approach to affordable housing is that it would be indistinguishable from higher cost housing (where an auto owner rents parking spaces).

An advantage to apartment owners is that parking is not subject to rent control (at least not in Los Angeles). It is clearly in their interest to separate parking rent from apartment rent.

Rather than forcing everyone to have a residential parking space, a system like Tokyo's could be set up; whoever buys a car must first prove possession of a parking space. Those with no need for parking would not have to pay for it, not even indirectly in the form of housing rent.

By "unbundling" the price of parking from the price of apartment or office rental, less parking will be wanted by the ultimate consumers, and so less parking development expense need be imposed on builders.

Third Party Support for Fares

A long term goal is to get subsidies out of transportation entirely. Transit could stand very nicely on its own in an urban environment, because it is inherently a very efficient mode of travel.

But we know automobile subsidies aren't going to disappear any time soon. The last sixty years or so have been spent building the costs of the auto into everything else. The subsidies are thoroughly imbedded in the infrastructure of our cities, and in the mental framework of our society. There will be a lot of resistance to making the auto stand on its own economically.

While we are trying to reduce auto subsidies, we have to build transit capacity. We believe that there are some strong forces that will require it: dwindling petroleum supplies, the need for stronger regional economies, and the need to abate air pollution.

We have to build up the transit systems now, without waiting for auto subsidies to be eliminated. And we can't build capacity without building ridership at the same time. We can't obtain rapidly growing resources anywhere but from the riders. This means that the fares must be high enough that incremental additions of patronage are self-financing. For this purpose, "high enough" means that the fares of the people on a full bus must be high enough to pay for the operation of the bus. A full bus that costs $70 an hour to run must be taking in $70 in fares each hour.

This leads directly to the conclusion that we must get the riders' fares supported, until such time as they don't have a highly subsidized alternative.

In order to build ridership while raising fares, we have to get third parties to help riders pay their fares. This is the way automobile use is made affordable. The third parties are primarily the employers and the retailers.

We are approaching employers in three ways. One is to get their employees who want to use transit to ask for equal treatment. The second way is to seek ordinances, or even state laws, that relieve employers from existing coercive laws and ordinances that force auto dependence on society. We are thus helping business to become more profitable -- they are wasting a lot of money subsidizing automobiles. Furthermore, legislation should help employers to do what is right without having to worry that their competitors will gain an edge by avoiding responsibility.

The third approach to employers is to offer our assistance to the ones that would like to serve the transit needs of their employees. In particular, we want to provide good information about routes and service, and convenient sales of passes and other fare media.

We have a parallel set of approaches to retailers. Our goal is to get them to segregate their cost of providing parking from the price of goods and services they sell. If they validate parking, we want them to validate transit rides too.

If necessary, we would seek ordinances requiring commercial property owners to provide "transit validations" through arrangements with tenants or lessees. All retail establishments, such as restaurants, grocery stores, etc., would offer their customers a rebate for their cost of access by transit. This would be in an amount that approximates the rebate offered for parking. If parking is provided "free" then the transit rebate should approximate the calculated cost of providing free parking, up to the full price of traveling by transit.

To show our appreciation, we will use the advertising space inside of our buses to tell riders which businesses want their patronage enough to validate their fares.

Equality Now

Our primary strategy is to use the equality argument to gain equal financial support for transit users (and better treatment of walkers and bicyclists as well). If employers or retailers accept the equality argument, but decide to reduce their subsidies of auto users to the level given to transit riders, fine. That is a valid response. But we are going to be very insistent that they accept the equality argument. We are going to pound away on it until society eliminates discrimination against people because of their choice of mode.

The Neighborhood Parking Management Association

The "neighborhoods" and the "homeowners" are the victims of current public policy that has created the political problem of parking. At the same time, property owners are contributing to their own problem. Naturally, the property owners would like to protect what they have always had, and don't want to pay for what has always been free. Do they own the street space? Should they be given title to it at below market rates, as the parking permit systems suggest? Any solution to the problem of parking must recognize and deal with the homeowner perspective.

Within the past few years, Los Angeles has adopted the neighborhood parking permit system as an antidote to neighborhood spillover. It is only partially successful. Commuters consider residential permits unfair, and even residents find them a mixed blessing. When residents have occasional needs for many spaces -- for a party for example -- there is a mad scramble to borrow permits from neighbors, and later to return them.

It might be better to put pay parking in the neighborhoods, priced high enough to avoid inundation by all day parkers from nearby businesses, but low enough for short term visits by friends. This would allow the pricing of on-street space to be consistent with nearby off-street parking.

Many impacted neighborhoods might not welcome metered spaces. They might take the view that their taxes pay for the streets, and they should not have to feed meters as well.

But what if they were to become sellers as well as buyers of parking spaces? Suppose that the property owners were given a right to form neighborhood associations to rent out the spaces to all comers? The Neighborhood Parking Management Association would pay fees to the City for enforcement and for other street related services, and for rent of the capital investment. They would be allowed to set the fees, buy devices to collect the charges, and distribute the gains.

What would be the effects of these associations? Clearly, one effect would be to eliminate the conflict with commuters. Suddenly the commuters would be valued customers. Local residents would use their driveways to keep curb space available for "paying customers." There would be efforts to "time share" the curb space, by setting pricing structures that distinguish between hours of high and low demand. People that have frequent parties would no longer be regarded as pariahs.

It will be realized very quickly that the typical parking meter is an obsolete device. Better devices will be found, which will accept credit cards as well as coinage, and which will handle highly variable and specific rates set for location or time of the day or week.

In the United States we cherish the free market system for the efficient way that it allocates resources for the necessities of life, like food, housing and clothing. Once a fair and free market is in place for parking spaces as well, much of what today is considered to be "the parking problem" will miraculously disappear.

Target Audience

This is going to be a broad campaign, but there will be some specific emphases. Last month we had a fare hearing, and I made some of the same points made here. The emphasis was on getting employers and retailers and others to help the farepayers, because transit operators are unlikely to receive the governmental support received in the past, and the farebox is going to become more important again. In the little package of information we gave out to the citizens at the hearing, we included a one-page broadside entitled "Are Transit Riders Treated Fairly?" It suggested some of the ways that they are discriminated against, and what needs to be done. The target audience was the have-nots.

While I believe this was the morally correct position to take, I don't think the changes we are seeking are going to come about solely through alignment with the have-nots.

We will have to align ourselves with a so far undefined group in urban society: the people of the middle class who have a choice, and choose to drive because somebody else is paying a large share of their costs of driving alone. They are sensitive to costs, they don't love their cars, but they don't have to use transit either.

Equal treatment has a special appeal to Americans, and it can be a powerful impetus for change if the appeal is made to groups that are able and willing to demand their rights.

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