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Land of the Free…Parking

Cheap spaces drive fuel prices up

June 14, 2001 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

President Bush’s answer to soaring gasoline prices and supposed dwindling supplies is to drill for oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Florida coast. But he’d find a much larger source of untapped energy, and a solution to rising family transportation and civic costs, somewhere else entirely: In the zoning and tax codes that make America the land of the free parking place.

Free parking, it turns out, is a powerful cause of the nation’s unquenchable thirst for gasoline. The driving that induces this thirst underlies an array of national concerns, not just rising fuel prices but also global climate change, dependence on foreign oil, tightening traffic snarls, relentless sprawl, and worsening urban smog.

We Americans end more than 90 percent of our car trips in free parking spaces. But they aren’t really free. In fact, as a nation we pay more to store our vehicles during the 23 hours a day when they’re immobile than we do to keep their tanks full.

Fully 50 percent of the cost of parking is paid by employers, businesses drivers patronize, and citizens. Another 40 percent of the cost of parking is paid through rent and mortgages for off-street parking at home. With everybody sharing the cost, it’s no wonder that drivers have almost nothing to gain by leaving their cars at home.

Only about 10 percent of the nation’s parking bill is pay-per-use at meters, lots, or garages. Pay parking is rare because antiquated provisions in zoning and tax codes — along with expansive street designs — bloat the parking supply and glut the market. Most zoning codes require a surplus of parking spaces. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, office buildings are required to provide up to four spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor space. Retail developers devote more space to cars than to merchandise.

The resulting oceans of parking not only invite employees and customers to drive; they also discourage other modes of travel by interposing parking lots between streets and buildings and by separating the destinations people want to reach.

A few communities have recently begun shrinking parking requirements. Portland, Oregon, exempts downtown residential development from required off-street parking. Olympia, Washington, has no minimum parking requirements in its downtown.

A simpler reform: Strike all off-street parking requirements from the law books and leave it to property owners to decide how much parking space to provide. Many owners, especially real estate developers, would put less land into parking and more into buildings, increasing the supply of office space and housing.

Where communities are still being laid out, streets can be narrow, eliminating on-street parking. Olympia plans to build residential streets as skinny as 13 feet in one fast-growing neighborhood — one-third the conventional width and a national record — while Missoula, Montana, Eugene, Oregon; and Kirkland, Washington, have pinched some streets down to 20 or 24 feet.

These changes also work for existing developments. With no parking requirements, the owners of buildings now surrounded by concrete have new choices: they can expand, sell land to others, or turn parking into plazas.

It might take 10 years to absorb excess parking space, but scarcity — and a market — would develop. Free parking would dwindle as higher-value uses take over space currently devoted to car storage. And, as those who choose to drive begin to face the full costs of their decisions, driving would abate.

Finally, the United States could eliminate inequitable tax provisions that favor driving over other transportation. At present, taxes encourage employers to supply free parking by treating it as a nontaxable fringe benefit. Employers may give employees parking worth $175 a month as an untaxed fringe benefit — equivalent to pretax income exceeding $2,500 a year.

“Cashing out” employer-paid parking would further dampen driving. A full-fledged cash-out policy requires that employers who give workers a free parking space also let them choose to receive instead the parking’s dollar value in cash. Tests of this policy in Los Angeles show that as many as two in five commuters take the money and leave their wheels at home. In greater Seattle, the federal government is supporting efforts by local governments to encourage businesses to offer this cash-out.

President Bush could, by shepherding a full-fledged cash-out provision into federal law, save more oil than we’re likely to find in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or off the coast of his brother’s home state.If tens of millions of workers across the country left their cars at home and tacked an extra $2,500 onto their paychecks it would save 2.5 million barrels of oil a day or more than twice what the Department of Energy estimates we can recover from the Alaska refuge. Subjecting parking to the free market so revered by the president and his advisors can render new supplies of oil nearly irrelevant—and safeguard the livability of so many communities.

Alan Durning is executive director of the Seattle-based research center Northwest Environment Watch (www.northwestwatch.org), publisher of This Place on Earth 2001: Guide to a Sustainable Northwest. He can be reached at Alan@northwestwatch.org.

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