Street Parking is Public Space Too


The last few weeks we’ve talked a lot about using our common urban spaces as effectively as possible. And this got me thinking about Restricted Parking Zones (RPZs). I can certainly see the appeal of RPZs. If you’re a homeowner in a bustling neighborhood, you want to have some assurance that you, your family, and friends can park within a reasonable walking distance of your home. But it’s important to note that this is an explicit example of limiting the use of a common good to a particular minority group. In fact, the SDOT RPZ website clearly states this at the top of the page. There are certainly policy tools for managing demand of common goods. But Seattle’s RPZs strikes me as an incredibly inefficient way of doing so.

The basic premise of RPZs is that they exempt residents (and their guests) from other parking restrictions in an area (2- hour limits; No Parking After 5; etc.). But, other than tradition, I’m not sure there’s any rationale for why residents have more right than others to park on certain city streets. RPZs are enacted when particular attractions, such as a nice park, a hospital, or a cluster of shops and restaurants, entice people to come to a particular area. In general we put in public infrastructure (highways, buses, sidewalks) to make it possible for everyone to access these goods and services, lowering transaction costs and encouraging economic growth. I’m not sure why public parking spaces are any different.

If anything, it seems that residents deserve access to street parking less than others. Usually the success of these attractions is dependent on a wide market area. Pike/Pine’s bar and restaurant caliber would not be nearly so high if only Capitol Hill residents went there. As a resident these attractions benefit me because, not only do I personally have easy access to better amenities, but property values go up because of increased demand in the area. It may be harder for me to park on my street, but if that is the case, I have every right to build additional parking on my property to mitigate that. Or, if I don’t prefer the amenities, I can sell my property and move elsewhere, still capturing the additional profit from the increased demand of the neighborhood. RPZ’s essentially hinder this economic growth by increasing access to an area (providing parking) to those that need it least (those within walking distance). It’s an incredibly inefficient system. For example, when the city builds a large new park, they often limit access to public parking on the streets around that park, and then have to spend additional public funds to build parking within the park itself so that it is accessible to all taxpayers.

Ironically, in similar situations that don’t involve traditional single family neighborhoods we often do the exact opposite. Realizing that using public funds to make a neighborhood more attractive (literally) disproportionately benefits individuals in that neighborhood, we often tax those properties to rebalance the costs and benefits. This is exactly how they plan to pay for any cost overruns on the viaduct project in downtown Seattle.

Personally I think we should manage residential parking the same way we should manage all parking, using market rates. (Note: RPZs do have a cost but at $65 every 2 years it is far below market rate and may not even cover monitoring costs. Also, only residents can purchase them.) Just like transit, set up some kind of system for buying various parking packages (single use, daily, monthly, etc.). The revenues from this could be used to mitigate gentrification issues, which is probably the larger issue at play in increasingly attractive neighborhoods.


One thought on “Street Parking is Public Space Too

  1. I’m glad you brought up the relationship between making neighborhoods attractive and gentrification. It doesn’t get discusses enough in built environment fields, I think, because it’s such a difficult problem to solve in a capitalist framework.

    I took an urban anthropology class a few years ago and, at the end of the last class, the professor said, “So what causes gentrification? The increasing speed of the movement of capital.” It was surprisingly, refreshingly matter-of-fact.

    That may be the sine qua non of gentrification. Because rational owners extract the maximum rent from property,* in the long term, profits from land are returned to the owner in the form of rents. In pre-modern human settlements, I guess, when a new park or new road was built, the cost of moving socially and financially was so great that “in the long term” meant maybe a generation or more. Whereas now residential leases are 12 months, 6 months, or just month-to-month and the cost of moving is cheaper, meaning there are more competitors for that more productive land you’re renting with the nice, new park a block away.

    Redistribution of unexpected gain and losses due to government intervention (which I think is what you’re suggesting, but specifically to the case of RPZs) may be the only way to mitigate gentrification in a system of private ownership and fast capital but I can’t conceive of the size of bureaucracy it would take to do that to be effective and fair.


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