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.
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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.
- A 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.
Why haven’t we addressed this? Some issues are too boring even for us wonks.
Matt the Engineer
Wait, didn’t you just publish a piece on the bag tax? And your colleague analyzed the impact of removing garbage cans in Seattle? Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure Sightline wrote about these topics too. But parking, which can shape the look, feel, and economy of cities seems like an odd place to draw the “boring” line.
Excellent post! To answer your question, the reason they don’t is that “conservatives” are mostly shills for the fossil-fuel industry. One of our favorites was the think-tank-originated letter to the Nation Association of Evangelicals signed by conservative Christian leaders that said something to the effect of “our Saviour does not require you to take a position on global warming”.Honest libertarian/conservatives do exist, but they are about as common as truly free markets. On our blog, we are necessarily accusing the rest of hypocrisy.
And here I thought Donald Shoup, Mary-Catherine Snyder, and I were the only people obsessed with this topic. Welcome aboard, Eric!I’m a lefty carless type, so maybe you shouldn’t listen to me, but I think if I were a car owner and frequent parker, I would be even *more* inclined to support market pricing for parking, because it would enable me to find a spot more consistently, at only a slightly higher average price than I pay now. (As it stands now, for one thing, private lots can overcharge because street parking undercharges.)The complaints about too little free or underpriced parking are odd. When I go to QFC for a loaf of bread, I expect there will be a loaf waiting there for me. Not because of magic, but because the market sets a price for bread that ensures neither a glut nor a shortage. The same could be done for street parking, but instead it’s made free or underpriced by fiat, and people wonder why it’s always scarce. (Believe me, I recognize that the free market isn’t good for everything, but this? I think a market solution will work. Negative externalities of parking will have to be the next discussion.)One way to get neighborhoods on board with market pricing is to split the revenue between the general fund and a neighborhood fund, so it doesn’t look like a tax grab by the city. I’d like to see Seattle experiment with this idea.
Eric,Good topic. I’m glad you raised it.The Chicago article of mine you link to criticizes the direction of private money in a transpo P3 to non-transpo city budget holes; it takes no issue with the pricing of parking by the private operator. The foot ferry piece of mine you link to simply calls for more parking at the planned new West Seattle foot ferry terminal, compared to no off-street parking at the current West Seattle facility. It doesn’t get into pricing, but I agree it shouldn;t be free. If the question is whether to make it punitively high, that’s debatable. I like the idea of making it easier for people to take transit. It is a matter of time for many potential users. Generally, dynamic parking pricing is desirable policy, along with extensive dynamic pricing of highways and roads through variable electronic tolling (tied to real-time congestion levels) on highways first, and then, wide area pricing through vehicle mileage charges. We have broadly supported and argued for the last two. There are an array of value-add services to metered road use (employing on-board devices) including convenient automated parking charges (no curbside machines, automatic billing, no tickets, but rates escalate sharply as the stay lengthens); and pay-as you-drive insurance, based on miles driven, so that those who drive less, pay less.
Eric de Place
Hi Matt R.,Thanks for the clarifications regarding your articles that I linked to. I’ll add a quick note in the main text of the post.With respect to other forms of vehicle pricing, it sounds like we’re pretty much on the same page. (And I’ve enjoyed reading your work on highway pricing in Crosscut and elsewhere.) Sightline has also argued for many of the same things in the past, particularly pay-as-you-drive insurance.
Trent England (EFF)
Great article. Many government policies today and in the past have caused or exacerbated environmental harms. It’s interesting to think about how the West might have developed without some of the government subsidies and projects that often paid for massive, inefficient development projects. While not focused on environmental issues, Burton Folsom’s book Myth of the Robber Barons is a good jumping off point for thinking about those questions (see particularly his chapter contrasting the government-supported transcontinental railroad with the privately financed and much more successful effort).
Eric,I appreciate your mention of the piece I wrote about westside LRT and government regulation of parking. I don’t think free-marketeers disagree with you much on this point, even if we haven’t written a whole lot on it. There is no reason for the government to own parking garages (as the city of Portland does), and there is no reason to charge anything except market-based pricing for on-street parking. Whether or not privatization of parking would lead to greater transit use or greater density, I can’t say, and I don’t have a preference either, but running parking garages is not a core function of government.Portland routinely takes advantage of motorists by spending more than half the parking revenues subsidizing the streetcar, which is a total boondoggle (streetcar users pay nothing for capital costs and only 2% of operating costs). But that’s what you would expect from a political body. Cities also either mandate too much off-street parking, or limit parking so that development projects don’t even get built. These are solvable problems if we’d allow markets to work.You may know that on Saturday we had a big religious festival in Portland celebrating the latest expansion of light rail out along I-205. It’s hilarious listening to local train advocates talk about “sustainability” and “alternatives to the automobile”, and then go out to the LRT line itself. The entire project is nothing but a series of monster parking lots (priced at “zero”, of course), coincidentally connected by a massively expensive train. There will be no TOD at these LRT stations, and few peds walking to the train; it’s just an attempt to bribe a few upscale suburban motorists onto LRT with free parking. I now think of TriMet as primarily a parking lot operator; they also run trains and buses on the side. Only the government would waste so much money to accomplish so little.John Charles
I have to say “Free Parking” and “Free Markets” have one thing in common: they do not exist. You are correct in pointing out that conservatives ruminate on one non-existent thing, but not the other. There exist various levels of subsidized parking and transportation systems, and various levels of regulated and skewed markets. There is no other possible way to look at parking or markets. To postulate otherwise may be useful in a theoretical economics class, but is an absurdity in reality). I very much look forward to your Christmas season call to action on “Why don’t conservatives talk about Santa Claus?”
Government, as a political animal, is remarkably ill-suited to manage either on- or off-street parking. On the one hand, even if they recognize the role parking plays in development/density/sprawl (a big if), politicians are driven by accountability to constituents. Constituents who have no understanding of parking dynamics beyond the hysterical Chicken-Littling that goes on at the thought of a modest rate increase or one less parking spot. Just mention “market rate” to a politician in reference to parking and, even when the entire budget is circling the drain, you’ll see them visibly shudder. They’ll keep the cost of parking low even as their parking structures operate year after year at a loss. On the other hand, on-street parking is a cash cow, or perhaps more appropriately a Little Red Hen. There’s precious little backbone to be found when arguing for demand-driven or market rate pricing, but a great clamoring of voices when it comes time to allocate the revenue generated. And why form better management policy when a mediocre one generates so many more citations and resulting wealth for city coffers? Even worse, the ranks of most bureaucratic institutions are swollen with robotic “but-that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it”-ers. Suggest a new idea and they pull out a cross and back away repeating chapter and verse of codes that were written in the 1950’s.I don’t know the answer. Parking management requires canny business sense, agility to skirt political pressure, fortitude to face ignorant masses and integrity to manage what may be tremendous resources. There aren’t characters like that in Disney movies or even Marvel Comics and so far, not in private industry either. Locally, we have reams and reams of shelf art proclaiming our commitment to reducing vehicle travel, increasing density, limiting sprawl, etc. But any transportation proposal that might achieve those goals through market-rate pricing, demand-driven management, equal subsidies for alternatives, etc. is looked upon in frank horror. Seems we are interested in a bold path toward a bright new future only if we can drive there and there is plenty of cheap or free parking.