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Parking and equity

Whenever people are faced with paying for something that was previously free, equity of policies is cited as a major concern. People who have never before given a thought to the suffering of the poor and destitute will transform into the most caring, passionate activists when it comes to parking. Most people concerned about equity in reference to parking usually miss the big picture. They worry that raising the cost to park will harm poor people. This is a valid concern, but it is not the real equity dilemma. Free parking is a bigger equity concern because everyone pays for it, but you must have enough money to own a car in order to qualify for it. The money that our communities spend to support the use of private automobiles vastly overshadows the transportation expenditures for those with the fewest resources and the greatest needs. In 2011, Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams said that his team calculated that if they were to build their entire existing bike way network from scratch, it would cost about the same as building just one mile of an urban 4-lane roadway.

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, 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.

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 1950, 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.


So what does this have to do with parking and equity? Well, every transportation system has three components: Rights-of-way, vehicles, and terminal capacity. Automobile travel is unusual in three ways: (1) it requires enormous terminal capacity (several spaces per car), (2) drivers rarely pay for terminal capacity (parking is free for 99% of trips), and (3) the cost of parking has been shifted out of the transportation sector into the prices of everything else (Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking). We even see transit agencies using their limited funding to provide parking for cars at stations without charging drivers the amount that it costs to build and maintain the parking.


(image)Every transportation system has 3 components: vehicles, rights-of-way, and terminal capacity.

So who pays for parking when it’s free? Everyone but the motorist. A shopper pays more for groceries as the funds to provide parking must be covered by the store. Housing is more expensive when parking is included — regardless of whether the renter or home buyer has a car. This has generally been accepted because *most* people drive, and any politician who would conceive of shifting the costs of driving onto drivers would risk being run out of town.

Wealthier people own more vehicles, are more likely to drive large SUVs which cause more damage to roads, and are more likely to pay for fuel-efficient vehicles which means they pay less into the roads through gas taxes. Essentially, our poorest citizens are subsidizing the wealthiest when it comes to transportation.


Roads cost a lot of money to build (and maintain), with estimates around $2 million per lane mile. A typical small urban road, with one lane in either direction and parking on both sides would mean that approximately HALF of the budget to construct the roadway (as much as $4 Million per mile!) is going toward providing parking, which is usually free for the motorist.


(image) The cost to build this roadway includes the parking on either side of the street.

As motor fuel tax revenues have declined, other funds have been shifted to cover the cost of providing and maintaining our roadways. Road subsidies push up tax rates, limit our ability to provide other government services, and encourage people to drive. A growing concern among equity-centered advocates is the shift of poverty from transit-accessible locations to areas that are not well-served by transit, also called the suburbanization of poverty. In this case, lower housing costs may be overshadowed by the costs of vehicular travel. And people living in these areas who cannot afford a car will find themselves stranded. It is important that transportation planners provide safe transportation options to all residents.


What would a more equitable transportation system look like? It would be a transportation system where drivers pay their fair share of the road and what it costs to provide parking, with that payment going toward provision of transportation options and housing subsidies to enable residents to continue to live in transit-accessible, walkable, and bikeable neighborhoods in the face of gentrification.


Some more equitable policy ideas include the following:

  • 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.

  • 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 CaliforniaRhode Island, and the City of Santa Monica. Washington, DC has also proposed a parking cash out law.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Residential streets would have space reserved for car share vehicles, pick-up and drop-off, or secure bike parking for residents who don’t own cars.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Parking at the curb would be automated and priced so that high demand areas automatically charge a vehicle for curbside access by the minute (to limit Uber / Lyft / Via drop-off congestion).

  • 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.


Free parking is already hurting poor people in the time lost searching for parking, in the degraded conditions for other safe transportation options, the ticket expenses incurred when they feel forced to park illegally because there is no available parking. When high demand parking is free, you don’t allow people to choose between paying for a convenient space or walking further from a less desirable parking spot. Because every situation and parking need is different, we should price the curb to give people choice. Someone who has a job interview might not normally pay for parking, but if they need to get to that interview, paying for a spot might be worth it. As Michael Manville says, “People who worry about harms to the poor when roads are priced, and not when roads are free, may be worried more about the prices than the poor.”


Finally, some equity advocates think that bicycling is “not for their neighborhoods”; they see riding a bike as an elitist activity because the prominent faces of bike advocacy have historically been stale, pale, and male. Yet, people of color are suffering serious and fatal crashes while walking and riding bikes at rates that are higher than for white people. It benefits the highly inequitable car culture for equity advocates to think that biking is “not for them.” Safe, equitable streets for all should be our goal.

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