Conservative Northwest think tanks, I am calling you out.

I want you guys to talk about parking policy. Yeah, you heard me: parking policy.

By my count, there are 5 prominent right-leaning, market-oriented think tanks in the Northwest: Discovery Institute and Washington Policy Center in Seattle; Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia; Cascade Policy Institute in Portland; and Fraser Institute in Vancouver, BC. Each of them prominently features a devotion to free markets in their self-descriptions. Each of them is located in a place where urban land-use issues are hot topics. And some of them produce a prodigious number of documents.

But with a quick Google search I found virtually no parking policy analysis on any of their websites. What gives?

Why don’t free marketeers get engaged in parking policy? You bump into them in debates about land use, property rights, transit development, and so on. But when it comes to parking—where there is obvious market distortion, excessive government regulation, and steep costs to the economy — you rarely hear a peep.

It seems to me that if I were a free marketeer-type, I’d be incensed that the government mandates parking minimums, often set far in excess of actual demand. Parking minimums, which stipulate how much parking a new (or existing) development must provide, are a headache for developers and property owners—and they create serious, if indirect, costs.

I might want to run the government out of the parking business because I wouldn’t want public resources to distort prices and compete with private vendors. So at minimum, I don’t think I’d like public subsidies going to construct parking garages or other parking areas, even near transit centers.

And in that vein, my free marketeer alter ego would evaluate the extent to which curbside parking spaces obstruct market competition. I’d probably want all curbside parking to be metered at whatever rate reflects demand for those spaces. (Better still, would be zero public parking with private sellers providing parking at market prices.) Or, if drivers won’t pay, then perhaps that public space might be better devoted to other types of “freebies”: congestion-easing traffic lanes, HOV lanes, bike lanes, expanded sidewalks, or what have you.

  • Finally, to the extent that the government is going to be in the parking business, if I were a researcher at a free market think tank, I would be a staunch advocate of dynamic parking pricing. Rather than settle for fixed-price parking, I’d want parking prices to respond in real time to supply and demand, just like commodities do in a market environment.

    Unfortunately, the Northwest’s right-leaning think tanks seem to have scarcely touched the issue. I say “scarcely,” but I did actually find a handful of minor items. Here they are:

    • At Washington Policy Center, an article by Paul Guppy analyzing and criticizing Seattle’s commercial parking tax as well as some other policies.
    • A good but incidental mention of the economics behind free parking—and why demand exceeds supply in urban centers — in a Q&A at Fraser Institute.
    • From Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center, testimony from Matt Rosenberg arguing for more publicly-provided parking near Seattle’s ferry terminals. (The Cascadia Center is the Discovery Institute’s locus for issues of urbanism and transportation. It tends to be more idiosyncratic and less ideological than Discovery.)
    • Also from Rosenberg, an article criticizing the City of Chicago for leasing its public parking meters to a private operator. [Note: In comments, below, Matt Rosenberg elaborates on his two articles that I’ve mentioned here.]
    • And finally from Cascadia Center, an article by Linnea Noreen arguing for more public parking in Seattle.
    • short commentary by Steve Buckstein at Cascade Policy Institute arguing against a parking tax proposal for Oregon.
    • A somewhat lengthier annotated piece by John A. Charles, Jr., also at CPI, arguing that Portland’s MAX line has not generated more transit-oriented development because some suburbs don’t allow enough parking. (“All Beaverton has to do is allow the market to work,” he writes.) And another piece by Charles arguing  MAX lines have contributed to sprawl because there is too much parking.

    Near as I can tell, the total contribution of Northwest free market think tanks to parking policy has been either incidental or confined to opposing parking taxes. (And the arguments from Discovery’s Cascadia Center are actually counter to free market principles.) The exception is Charles, at Cascade Policy Institute, who seems to have an ideological framework that is well prepared to engage more deeply on parking policy. But as far as I can tell, there isn’t anything more. There isn’t a consistent application of free market principles to parking policy.

    Now, in fairness, it’s entirely possible that I missed something in my brief search. (If you know of something, please send it my way!) And if so, I will be sincerely delighted to correct my error.

    Delighted, because from my perspective it would be wonderful to harness the institutional power of these conservative think tanks to procure both free market parking and serious parking deregulation. Deregulation could be a valuable tool to improve the region’s sustainability, promote better land use, and encourage density. It could help dismantle decades of social engineering designed to prioritize automobile use at the expense of other forms of travel—often on the public’s dime. And true market pricing could mark a fundamental shift away from car-centric living.

    So where are all the free marketeers? Surely they haven’t avoided the issue because of a conflicting devotion to car-centric culture? Surely they’re not avoiding a principled ideological stand because free market parking is often unpopular?

    In all seriousness, I’m not necessarily accusing these institutions of hypocrisy. There are a lot of policy issues an organization can choose to focus on, and parking may not leap to the top of the list for some of them. Still, parking policy is a hot and current issue and it has remarkably far-reaching effects on our cities and economy.

    In many ways, parking is the unseen hand that shapes our cities. A free market approach to parking can be the tool that shapes cities to favor people rather than cars.