One of the opinions I have that the fewest people I know in real life share is that I am usually against free parking. I resisted posting about this for some time, for the reason that I don’t have anything new or enlightening to say on the topic, and also for the reason that I idiosyncratically hate the action of parking, so my view is biased in a very obvious way. Still, I’ve decided to explain my thinking at this point in the hope of letting you know where I’m coming from.
Here is how I see the situation: there’s a lot of valuable land that a city owns. What’s the best use of this land? Is it really free parking spots? One of the reasons it’s funny when Jarvis Cocker sleazes “my favourite parks are car parks” is that this isn’t true of any real person. Today I heard a person complaining about sales taxes going to subsidize public transit – “why must we subsidize the bus if we don’t use it?” If you think so, then why do we subsidize the parkers so heavily?
Of course, the answer as to why we subsidize parkers isn’t mysterious: we want people to come to the area to have a vibrant neighbourhood. Also, we want to make life better for people, and free parking is an amenity that a lot of people enjoy. And I agree with that somewhat. But we should be asking whether this is the best we can do. Realistically, if I go somewhere and parking there is too expensive what I do is not stop going there (and if lots of people actually had that reaction, that’d free up parking spaces anyway), but find another way to get there. As for neighbourhood vibrancy, a big part of that is for the neighbourhood to be walkable and pretty. Clearly, the less car-oriented it is, the more walkable. And, as mentioned, parking spots are basically blight. Dino Buzzati has a great story about how he loves his car but ends up driving it out to the desert because it’s impossible to park in his city. Now, I’ve only spent a couple days in Milan, but it seems not to have suffered from the fact that the city is less car-centric and there are less cars (presumably, they’re all sitting in the desert somewhere). This is to say nothing of the possibility that money from making parking unfree can be used to pay for other good things for citizens. Now, clearly, and I must say this lest Zuuko get on my case, not all of these advantages can be exploited in full at the same time, because some cancel others. But that doesn’t mean all of them aren’t at least somewhat real.
One problem with reducing the supply of free parking without eliminating it would be that the existence of a small amount of free parking spots incentivizes people to circle the block millions of times wasting roadspace, their fuel and parts of their precious lives looking for the unicorn of a free parking spot. This is ridiculously annoying. My guess is congestion pricing for parking spots is a good way to deal with this.