On the street where you park

Lawrence Solomon
The Next City
December 1, 1995

Privatizing residential street parking will keep the lilacs blooming, the larks singing and the pavement to a minimum

On my street in downtown Toronto, presumably out of a sense of fair play, the street parking used to alternate every month — one month the parking would be on the east side, the next the west, and so on. The result was bedlam once a month. People forgot to switch and ran out in their bedclothes to avoid getting ticketed. It was worse in winter — people caught colds. And sometimes the schedule changed because of holidays.

This problem of alternating parking is not limited to my district in Toronto, of course. This problem unites English-speaking Canada and French-speaking Canada. This problem thrives south of the border. To help out harried homeowners in New York City, an entrepreneur has been publishing something called "The New York City Alternate Side of the Street Parking Calendar" for more than a decade. The current edition lists 153 days that vehicles don’t have to switch sides.

Canada doesn’t have a similar planning aid. And in my area of Toronto, at least, this system of sharing the misery proved unbearable.

Then somebody got a better idea. Parking would be allowed only on one side, the east side. No more switching back and forth. It was a simple solution to the bedclothes problem. But people were still dissatisfied: Parking was still unpredictable — you couldn’t always count on a nearby parking spot. In fact, you couldn’t always count on a spot being available anywhere.

There was a shortage of parking spots, and to get one you had to wait in line, sometimes for six months. So, the city started rationing the use of street parking. Only one spot per household — if you had a nice, large extended family and needed two cars, a second spot cost six times as much as the first — about the same cost as renting parking privately. This nudged people to move to houses with garages, or to install one, or to build a parking pad on their front lawns.

But that form of rationing still wasn’t enough. So the commissars at city hall issued a new decree — anyone with a garage or with parking on his lot was no longer entitled to inexpensive parking on the city street. Now people with two cars had an extra incentive to build two-car garages, or two-car parking pads, or to move to the suburbs.

Due to conundrums like these, people on the west side of the street decided to convert their front lawns to parking pads. The city gave approval readily, because that side wasn’t used for parking any more, and no one objected on parking grounds. And people on the east side, who didn’t have parking pads, generally liked the trend, since every new pad meant less competition for spots on the east side of the street.

Ah, but people will never leave well enough alone. The saga continues. Now people on the east side want to put in parking pads, and the street is up in arms. When people park on their front yards, it doesn’t free up parking on the street because the driveway is about as wide as the length of a car. So, while the front yard parker gains, his neighbors don’t. In fact, they lose, because they have a bit less flexibility — they now have a smaller pool of parking spots to choose from. As each new request for a parking pad appears, it creates not only opposition, but an incentive for others to stop fighting and join the trend. If nothing is done to stop this trend, most people on both sides will be parking on their front yards. We will have cleared cars from the parking lane on the street, and moved them onto front yards. Put another way, we’ll be seeing more concrete, less lawn and fewer gardens.

The planners have decided to stop this by a crude form of democracy. The dozen or so neighbors just north and just south of any proposed new parking pad get to vote — if 25 per cent turn thumbs down, no pad. But no matter which way the vote goes, we have unhappy parkers.

There’s got to be a better way to do all this and there is. Here’s my planning solution for this and other rationing problems. Like most of my solutions, my approach is pre-Keynesian and very traditional: No eggs get broken. My plan is voluntary, it involves privatizing a commonly held resource, and it involves recognizing property rights and creating competition to minimize the need for regulation.

Of course, the status quo — the chaotic process that I’ve just described that is creating all these parking pads — also involves privatizing a societal resource. But the status quo privatizes without compensation for society. When society okays a parking pad for a homeowner, the street in front of his pad is no longer available to everyone for parking, but only to the homeowner and his visitors for access. Although people don’t think of this as a form of privatization, that little bit of street has been privatized as surely as if Mike Harris had done it through legislation. All the neighbors lose; the one homeowner gains. And his gain can be substantial. In my neighborhood, in fact, because parking is scarce, the permit alone for a pad can be worth $10,000. People often apply for a permit for a pad just before they move, in order to fetch a higher selling price.

This method of allocation of resources is ambiguous and perverse — why should the individual homeowner gain at the community’s expense? This method is also environmentally harmful — that parking pad not only removes green space, its asphalt helps heat up the city, which increases the air conditioning load and may exacerbate global warming. Another effect of removing street parking: Traffic speeds increase. Street parking has a well-known traffic calming effect. Without street parking, the neighborhood streets become thoroughfares for commuters looking for shortcuts around congested main streets.

Instead of this perverse form of privatization, where people have ambiguous rights, I propose we unambiguously privatize the street parking, by selling outright the street parking space outside homes outright to homeowners. The parking spots on the street in front of your home should be yours if you want them. Others, whether pedestrians or vehicles, would retain an easement over the street parking spots. They could cross them freely, but they wouldn’t be able to occupy those spaces without your permission any more than they can park in your driveway without your permission.

Just think how this would revolutionize parking. Imagine that you’re a homeowner, with a 25-foot lot, wide enough for one small car and one large car — and that you could buy the strip of road in front of your house for fair market value, say, $1,000 a linear foot. If you had two cars, you might buy all 25 feet. If you had one small car, you might buy 10 feet, and someone else in the neighborhood, perhaps someone across the street with a larger car, might buy the other 15 feet. Now you would both have secure parking, and no incentive to pave over your front yard. Suddenly, that problem is solved. The city would no longer be destroying our green spaces.

The city would have been paid market value for the piece of street it just sold, so now there’s money in city coffers. Taxpayers aren’t being ripped off, and you would have an incentive to buy a smaller car — especially once it sinks in that every extra foot tacked onto your car cost you an extra $1,000.

But the benefits to society are just beginning. Most likely, you don’t need that spot 24-hours a day and, if you wish, you can make it available to others when you’re not using it, the same way people with unused garages rent them out to people in their neighborhood. You can do this informally — by working out an arrangement with a neighbor — or you can install your very own, personal parking meter, available for use by others during whatever hours you yourself specify, at whatever price you yourself wish to charge. This would also eliminate another problem created by rationing — there’s no system in place for temporary users, such as guests or tradesmen, in neighborhoods with tight parking. My neighbors down the street who are renovating their house were surprised to learn that the city refuses to issue temporary daytime parking permits for the contractors, even though the street has plenty of daytime parking. As a result, one contractor bidding for the job added more than $2,000 to his quote — a great way to make the city more affordable. The contractor who got the job — a different contractor — is routinely ticketed for illegal parking, but thanks to connections at city hall, just as routinely has the tickets torn up — a great way to promote clean government.

Petty corruption aside, privatizing street parking in the way I suggest would ensure that affordable parking was always available for visitors — in economic terms, this resource called street parking would now be allocated efficiently.

People wouldn’t be circling the block waiting for spots to open, or parking illegally too near street corners, or too near the front of other’s driveways. They would be saving themselves time because parking would always be available, and they would be saving society pollution from their exhaust.

Now let’s look at another car problem that neighborhoods face: unwanted traffic from drivers taking shortcuts through neighborhoods. To foil these people, planners have turned neighborhoods into mazes of one-way and wrong-way streets. These mazes are effective at keeping out through traffic, but they also confuse residents and their visitors. I defy anyone who wants to visit me at my home before 9 a.m. any weekday to do so without taking an illegal turn — there is a way, but it took me years to discover it.

For a while, a colleague of mine who lives two blocks away in the same neighborhood often picked me up mornings on the way to regulatory hearings we were attending. It took this lawyer weeks to figure out how to do it legally, but it’s so awkward that he prefers the illegal turn. Another colleague, who has just learned that her neighborhood’s streets are going to be remapped, swears the proposed plan is so confusing that there is no way she will be able to reach her house by car legally.

Neighborhood mazes, of course, are not always enough. So streets get barricaded to add to the misery of street users, and speed bumps get installed to slow down traffic. The upshot of this form of planning is that grown-ups, at any time of day or night, can be seen driving around in circles, and stopping and starting at speed bumps. Merchants on the main streets bordering the neighborhoods also suffer, because their customers often lose easy access to the neighborhood store.

And why?

The main things neighborhoods dislike about drive-through traffic are the noise and the hazard. These drivers take shortcuts because they’re frustrated and in a hurry, and they often exceed the neighborhood speed limit. Now, has anyone asked why legions of drivers traveling from A to B on a main artery would prefer to detour through residential neighborhoods to get to their destination?

They don’t do it for the scenery. They do it out of frustration with clogged arterial roads, out of frustration with a road system that creates bumper-to-bumper traffic. They do it because of incompetent rush-hour traffic management. Planners have failed abjectly here — all we’ve had are feeble efforts such as car pooling, or destructive ones such as freeways or the encouragement of businesses to move away from congested areas. For the most part, planners use congestion to ration the use of the roads.

Yet traffic problems would vanish if we stopped pricing the use of our roads at zero. Charge people for the use of roads — all roads — and watch reason enter this irrational world. The British have taken the first step on this journey — they are in the process of converting all highways to toll roads that will be charging drivers by time of day and by distance traveled. Their next step — which politicians openly say will not be introduced until after the next election — involves congestion charges for the City of London. But in Canada, we haven’t even begun to think of taking these self-evident and necessary steps, despite the enormous benefits that would flow from them.

With time-of-day pricing, fewer cars would be traveling at peak times, more at off-peak. Car pooling would pick up. Public transit’s market share would increase. Detours through neighborhoods won’t be routinely taken to bypass congested traffic because congested traffic would become a thing of the past.


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