Matt over at Orphan Road poses some questions about Seattle’s plans to show the available number of parking spots outside of downtown parking garages:

  1. Would knowing the number of stalls available in a parking lot get you off the street any faster?
  2. If E-Park does work, would you expect the number of cars in Seattle to increase due to experiencing less congestion (i.e. induced demand)?
  3. If the answer to #2 is “yes”, is encouraging driving ok in this circumstance? Why?

I’ll attempt some non-authoritative guesses to advance a conversation.

Continued beyond the jump…

1.Let’s establish a theme of using some standard economic concepts, with the most fundamental concept being cost. We know there is an actual dollar cost for paying for parking, and there is a time cost to driving around looking for parking; what is less obvious is that there is an “information cost” for finding where garages are and how empty they are. Reducing that information cost for garages could help some drivers park faster. Presumably, the answer to the question is yes.

As an aside, the most tangible and self-aligning of these “costs” is the price signal of dollars. We can guess, then, that just reducing information costs regarding parking probably will not have a muted effect compared to San Francisco’s far more ambitious plan to move street parking prices with demand is based. That plan is based on a clearer economic model and seems to be more consistent with urban values than just advertising parking information

2. Let’s start with the end of the question: the phrase induced demand. This term is thrown a lot in transportation circles, but we must use it carefully. Building a new highway or other transportation corridor that opens up previously “very, very costly” commute patterns has been shown to induce demand, since the new roads just encourage people to move along the highway corridor.

Clearing just some parking congestion downtown should probably not be view through this lens: it is not a dramatic reduction in the cost of driving downtown. Parking is still expensive and it’s still generally not worth going through downtown on the way to another location. Simply eliminating a driver, or ten drivers, from a given road does not “induce” demand, because — for that road to be a desirable corridor — the demand must already exist. And keep in mind, for many drivers, the cost of taking transit is less than driving as it is, and marginal changes won’t significantly alter that dynamic. With that in mind, even slightly reduced congestion downtown does reduce the cost for most of those who had a potential downtown trip and thus, because the demand curve slopes downward, we would expect some more cars in total to use downtown streets.

3. We must decide two things: a) does efficient movement on streets “encourage” driving?, and b) does the total amount of cars using downtown in a day matter? (Is it not “ok”?)

a) So long as government is tasked with operating streets they should probably operate them as reasonably efficient as possible. Efficient operations of streets may reduce the cost of driving compared to leaving those roads in disarray, but I’m skeptical we should be happily shy from reducing the arbitrary costs of driving such as congestion or the inconvenience that comes from information costs. “Encouraging” policies probably look different: cheap street parking costs, a lack of tolls, and building new highways. So, I don’t think the premise of this question is helpful.

b) From a vehicle-miles-traveled perspective and from an environmental perspective, we shouldn’t be so sure. If the effect of the parking program that the average downtown car is traveling fewer miles and idling less looking for parking spots, the mere existence of an additional car on downtown streets at some time during the day may not be a serious problem. But additional cars may mean additional driving outside of downtown, so we can’t be very conclusive in either direction.

So my answer to Matt’s third question is to reject the premise of the question. My conclusion is I see no terrible harm with increasing the ability to traverse downtown with a car, so long as the major feeders into downtown (such as highways) are not expanded and the transit options are still generally lower cost than most driving. And my point, separate from my conclusion, is that just as we should be skeptical of a new highway’s promise to end congestion, we should be skeptical of our own biases.

Still, while the modest policy from SDOT is probably shouldn’t earn too much ire, it probably also doesn’t deserve much praise. A parking model with better price signals, for example, would result both reduce congestion while bringing up fewer pointed questions from car skeptics like Matt.

27 Replies to “Downtown Parking & Driver Costs”

    1. Oh, put in a call, I say, and then forget to say why.

      PBOT and SmartPark have studied the effects of listing parking spaces available and have apparently also studied flexible parking prices at municipally-owned lots. Dummett is the GM of the SmartPark system and should have information, both anecdotal and official, about the feasibility and net effect on a downtown core from this sort of change.

  1. I agree with Johns assessment of the signage for the big picture. Few drivers will switch driving, knowing they can save a couple of minutes being directed into their favorite parking garage.
    On the other hand, thinking from the garages perspective, it’s probably a huge boon to boost business, at the expense of ‘un-signed’ garages and smaller lots. That may induce lower prices at the now less advertised locations.
    How about this scenario?
    E-Link is finished, the 2 story Mercer Is. garage is open, you’re driving into Seattle and see the big flashing sign.
    “Last Free Parking, Only 12 spots left”.
    I think the race it on to fill them.

      1. Maybe I’m missing your point, but I see two things wrong with your scenario. First, what’s the economic advantage in advertising free parking, and second the City of Mercer Island would like the Mercer Island P&R to be available for MI residents, not drivers from farther out on I-90.

        Back to the original assertion, it seems like a commuter who drives into Seattle for work needs to know where they’re going to park. Either a reserved space in a garage, or a small number of garages or lots near their destination that typically have spaces available. They’re not the people who are trolling for on-street parking.

        Occaisional drivers into the city for business meetings or shopping are the people who would benefit from E-Park. Making it easier to find a space for these people might lead to some induced demand. But isn’t that sort of the point?

      2. I guess my point was this.
        Mercer Island will likely be free parking, just as S.Bel.P&R, and Eastgate are. Drivers will forego paying for parking, if they can park for free and jump on Link for the CBD portion.
        To counter that, Mercer Is/ST may charge for parking, or put in a permit system. Then they are competing with private enterprise trying to do the same thing.
        Looking at Portlands parking, they clearly are in the business of parking garages with their program.
        I wonder if Seattle is trying to follow the same example, and would charge market rates. Right now it appears Seattle is just enlisting a few commercial lots, with more to be added later. The question of fairness to the other lot owners, and who is subsidizing an already ‘for profit’ operation has to be sorted out, against the public good.

  2. Having signage showing the number of available stalls only encourages more automobiles to come in. Most, of course, want the stalls closest to the entrance or exit, never the ones furthest away.

  3. Thanks for taking on my questions. I know considering these issues feels like debating how many angels fit on the head of a pin*, but I found myself unsure of how I feel about the signs and thought I’d explore the issues involved.

    I do have one difference of opinion about your response. You claim the premise of 3a isn’t helpful because it didn’t fall on your list of ““Encouraging” policies”. It’s true that the intent behind E-Park probably isn’t to encourage car travel, but reducing congestion generally does encourage more car travel. Is the difference then one of intent? If I leave my keys in my car and the windows down, I’ve encouraged thieves to steal my car – even if that wasn’t my intent. We should consider all of the possible effects of the policies we design, not just our intended effects.

    * If, say, 0.1% of drivers park one minute faster because of this, and 10% of the extra street capacity is filled back of by induced demand, and 50% of drivers come from outside the city… that’s just not a lot of new driving. But then it’s also not a lot of reduced congestion.

    1. I think efficiency is almost always good. If we think that a parking efficiency program will increase VMT, which is contrary to adopted goals, then we could balance out the effect with fees, like a bump in the commercial parking tax. This way you have less congestion, more predictability for parkers, more revenue, and the same VMT.
      Of course there are other goals, like supporting downtown businesses, that make this more complicated. Maybe for mitigation you could use part of the fee/tax to market downtown buisinesses or reduce non-SOV transportation costs (e.g. additional transit service).

      1. “If we think that a parking efficiency program will increase VMT, which is contrary to adopted goals, then we could balance out the effect with fees, like a bump in the commercial parking tax.”

        I think this gets right to the core of the issue. By swapping time (congestion) for money, we can avoid adding incentives to drive.

    2. Enforcing traffic laws, clearing accidents quickly, or preventing roads from falling into disrepair all reduce vehicle miles traveled compared no action, but I don’t think making current roads operate efficiently constitutes encouraging driving.

      Also, like I said in the post, I don’t think that induced demand is an appropriate term for the effect you describe. This is moving along the demand curve, not shifting it. Lowing prices for phones doesn’t “induce” demand, for example.

      1. I think all of those examples encourage driving, don’t they? At least they prevent circumstances that discourage driving. Note I’m not intending to use “encouraging driving” as a slur, simply as a descriptive functional term. Having a road encourages driving.

        How does adding freeway lanes shift the demand curve? Doesn’t it just increase supply? I see “induced demand” as simply the market responding to more of a free good (more road capacity).

  4. I could see a future where parking garages advertise space and rates on a cell phone app. tied to a map. Thus they would compete with each other for customers who then can choose either a close in and possibly more expensive spot, or a farther out less expensive one.

    Yes Mercer Island P&R would prefer that drivers from Issaquah & Bellevue park in their own P&R’s. But the P&R lot is a public lot and I’d rather know that it was full and not stop to look if I was driving somewhere.

    The sad for cars deal is that as each garage realizes that it’s neighbors are full up the rates are going to rise in real time. Making the last few drivers pay much more. The net effect should be to make it so that there will always be some parking available but it will come at a price.

    Welcome to the information age.

  5. If you’ve ever been a cheap tourist in Seattle, and are stuck with a car, you will welcome any assistance with the parking garage situation, especially something like @Gary recommends.

    I came back on business and rented a car. Since I never drove into town as a resident I had no idea what I was doing, and circled for maybe 20 minutes looking for the cheapest rate at a place open during hours I would need my car.

  6. Might be worthwhile to inject what is probably at least partially behind this idea — attracting people to the downtown core to spend money. Anecdotally, people avoid downtown because of the traffic and parking. Making it incrementally easier for them to find a place to park could attract more shoppers, diners, and patrons. The resulting boost in economic activity should probably be factored into any economic analysis.

  7. This change could be significant step towards market-rate pricing, the benefits of which would far outweigh any of these minor debatable points.

  8. The main problems with cars are the gas they consume and the space they take. Many people shun the garages and circle around for street parking because the garage rate seems ridiculous to them. (Although it’s more common in the neighborhoods than downtown.) There’s no reason not to give them the most accurate parking information. If this measure succeeds in making people more willing to use garages, that’s so much gas that’s not being burned uselessly, and a minor improvement in traffic. The city could simply eliminate street parking — there’s no absolute right to it. (Although you’d still need spaces for deliveries and the handicapped.)

    As for the less traffic encouraging more drivers, one, it’s too small a difference to be noticeable, and two, it’s a switch from paying $1 for street parking to $5 or $10 for garage parking. The (negative) change in price is much more significant to people than the (positive) change of slightly less traffic.

    I don’t really understand what the electronic displays will gain though. Garages already have “lot full” signs. People don’t care if there’s 1 or 5 or 10 spaces available, just if there’s any space available. Ah, but you may want to know if a garage is half empty. That’s easy. On a weekday, it won’t be. On a weekend, it will be. Except the ones adjacent to the Pine Street department stores and malls, which will be pretty full on weekends too.

  9. I have a hard time seeing how a more efficient use of existing resources could be a bad thing.

    Are these parking garages free or below the prices of the private lots? If so putting more people in them could help lower the demand for private lots either lowering prices there, making them less profitable and raising the chances they will sell to a developer or the supply of private lots would have to be lowered again, by selling existing lots.

  10. How much fuel is consumed circling the block? If I knew there was only 1 space, that would inform my thinking about what do do next. ANY THING that eases congestion and solicits more revenue dollars into town is a good thing!

    1. I’m with Lynne here. I don’t drive into the urban core much ever; my car is pretty much for when my arthritis is so bad that the bus won’t work, or going to Fred Meyer Sprawl of Doom to get groceries, kitty litter, etc…stuff that’s hard to carry. That’s it.

      That said, i’ve gone kinda batty looking for parking (and i have handicapped plates, mind) in many places, like on a business trip to Princeton, NJ. It’s a good idea. It cuts down on the wastefulness of circling, and furthermore means the city gets more money from the nice spiffy parking tax or moving traffic into that cavernous CityPark garage under Pacific Place. All these things are socially positive if you ask me; i’d rather people not drive but i know better than to think i can wave a magic wand and Make It So.

  11. I find this dilemma easier to think about after differentiating capacity expansion into a) more of the same components (eg more parking spaces) and b) increases in the efficiency of said components (eg better information about the location of said spaces). Both increase capacity and both reduce the cost of consumption.

    The trick to achieving environmental benefit in this signage situation is to maintain or even increase the total costs to the driver while introducing a discrete efficiency that also reduces the cost of driving. Since signage reduces the time-cost of driving as well as miles driven (a reduction in environmental-cost), and since demand is thereby increased, the policy goal is to ensure that this demand increase is mitigated by other means. A good example is a parking tax. btw – This is the exact same problem cited in the literature around energy efficiency—usually regarding buildings and appliances but also around vehicle efficiency, too.

    Wikipedia offers a comprehendible explanation of induced-demand. In short, it regards long term changes in demand preferences due to changes on the supply side. It’s not about the magnitude of the supply change; it’s about longer-term changes in all the stuff that composes demand.

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