In previous posts, we talked about why adding parking doesn’t solve the “parking problem,” and why we need to use pricing to get turnover and create parking availability to actually solve the “parking problem.” One challenge commonly brought up when meters are proposed is the issue of fairness and equity.
“Won’t new meters hurt poor folks?” It makes sense to keep costs down as much as possible for the most low-income people, especially as they are being pushed out of resource-rich areas. The tricky part is that providing parking costs money; it is a subsidy whose benefits skew toward more wealthy people. And the more you drive, the more you benefit.
If we leave the current situation as is, that is a decision to continue today’s inequitable conditions. We put enormous public resources into roads and parking, even though many people do not or cannot drive. You must be wealthy enough to own a car in order to benefit from the vast amounts of free parking.
When it comes to our denser cities, the geometry of our roadways is limited. Our roads can move more people and work better by allocating road space to more efficient travel modes. We can’t all get around by car and still expect our cities to thrive. Yet, to the degree that our communities have been organized around the use of a private automobile, it has led to fewer opportunities for zero vehicle households, and having a car is often a requirement to escape poverty.
Prioritizing driving shifts the costs onto everyone, so that the poorest citizens are essentially subsidizing the wealthiest who are more likely to drive large SUVs and fuel-efficient or electric models that cause major damage to roads but contribute less to their maintenance with the gas tax. The inequities in transportation go back further, as I wrote in a piece on Medium:
The historical inequities of our transportation system go hand-in-hand with the historical inequities in housing. In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein meticulously catalogs the discriminatory housing policies at the local, state, and federal levels that restricted housing opportunities for African-Americans following their emancipation and whose proliferation spread like wildfire in the 1940s. Our discriminatory housing regulations [and White violence], often enforced by police, prevented Black people from living in desirable neighborhoods and restricted them to other neighborhoods — often places with more industry and pollution. There was more demand than supply and Black people ended up paying much more for rental housing than their White counterparts paid in mortgages for nicer homes. They ended up over-crowded and with little savings or investment to pass on to their children, while White folks were building their “nest egg.”
At the same time as the cost of buying a car was dropping significantly, White Americans were fleeing to the suburbs. Yet the jobs remained in the urban centers that White people were abandoning, and getting people to those jobs became a dilemma that needed major transportation dollars. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower delivered the Interstate Highway system, to enhance the ability of our nation’s militia to travel the country. This freeway system also enabled people to live further from urban centers and drive in. Given discriminatory housing practices, this new mobility benefit was essentially limited to White people–and often plowed right through Black neighborhoods, destroying their wealth.
So how do we improve equity for transportation? We focus on providing better access to opportunities and resources in disinvested areas and shift the costs of driving to drivers, rather than the population at large. This includes priced parking, or meters. Priced parking should not be a source of revenue, but a process to better manage access to high demand spaces. However, since certain neighborhoods in cities have experienced growth and pushed long-time residents out, we’re now seeing more people of color living in car-dependent suburban locations. So we must consider equity impacts of every policy enacted, and the fines and fees associated with driving. With the wealth extraction that has destroyed Black neighborhoods for the benefit of White neighborhoods, some form of reparations is needed.
If you work in or with communities that have been marginalized, be sure that you listen to community members who have been advocating on behalf of the community, validate their concerns, and empower them to have decision-making authority. This is often the hardest part within the constraints of many of our bureaucratic systems, but one that we need to work to change. As King, Smart, and Manville write in The Poverty of the Carless, in many places, a combination of better access to cars along with regulation of their use is important to address inequities.
Other policy ideas (many from my piece on Medium) to address equity include the following:
- Unbundled parking. Buildings would not be required to provide parking, but would be required to “unbundle” parking so that only drivers pay for parking spaces. Parking would not be included as part of rent or sale prices.
- Parking cashout. Employers would offer their employees the option of having subsidized parking, subsidized transit, or the cash equivalent of what it costs them to provide parking. This policy is called Parking Cash Out and has been implemented for certain industries in California, Rhode Island, and the City of Santa Monica. Washington, DC has also passed a parking cash out law.
- Non-driving validation. Parking validation programs would also offer the equivalent cash benefits to people who arrive by transit, biking or walking so that those people receive the same discounts as driving customers. Transit operators could design a card reader that gives transit credit/ reimbursement and provide those readers to hospitals, malls, and other places where parking is the only transportation discount offered.
- Manage residential permits. Residential permit parking areas would price permits by the length of the vehicle and by the demand for parking in the area. So if all the spaces are usually full, permit prices go up. If street parking is never congested, prices remain stable or free. This would prevent the problems like Danielle Steel’s 26 parking permits, or at least raise more city revenue. That revenue could go toward a rebate for car-free households or discounts for low-income residents.
- Share street space. Residential streets would have space reserved for car share vehicles, delivery vehicles, pick-up and drop-off, or secure bike parking for residents who don’t own cars.
- Strategic revenue investment. High-demand areas with expensive parking would retain parking revenue locally and use it to provide locally-appropriate amenities. These amenities could include free public WiFi, increased transit service, improved walking and biking infrastructure, public art and lighting, and affordable housing subsidies so that people can continue to live in the neighborhood while it increases in popularity.
- VMT charges. Vehicles would pay to use roads by the mile (a VMT tax), based on their weight (which impacts how much damage they may cause to roads). These fees also would extend to trucks and delivery vehicles.
- Refunds and credits. Cities could provide a tax refund to carless households and/or credits for e-bikes.
- Redirect transportation investments. Our transportation investments at the regional and state level would dedicate more money to areas that have more people and higher needs. This would mean fewer suburban highway projects and more urban transit, regular roadway maintenance, and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure – and possibly more highway removal.
- Equitable fines and fees. Ticket fines would be proportional to a person’s income and the seriousness of the crime, as is done in Finland. This would ensure that tickets are a deterrent to bad behavior for all, without causing financial ruin for low-income drivers.
- Safety before revenue. Fines, fees, and fares would be examined through an equity lens to ensure that there is incentive to prevent people from breaking the law without leading to personal bankruptcy.
Our current inequitable transportation system favors those that are wealthy enough to own and maintain cars, at the expense of those who do not own cars or cannot drive. Lack of access to a vehicle in a car-dependent society exacerbates inequities.
Have you heard of cities implementing more equitable parking policies? What other approaches would improve equity?