Is cheap street parking an inalienable right?

Given their reaction when Seattle extended hours and raised rates for street parking last spring, it seems that many people in Seattle would answer “yes” to the above question.  I, however, agree with the position put forth in the Hurds book that street parking should be subject to the laws of supply and demand like any other product.

The opposition’s argument was a compelling one, especially during a challenging economic environment in a city that has sometimes struggled to maintain a vibrant retail core.  The new maximum rate of $4/hour is the most expensive rate in the country (and according to one informed Seattle Times reader possibly the highest in the world.)  Downtown retailers had already been struggling through the Great Recession and the higher parking rates would cause more people to shop at Northgate, U-Village and rather than coming downtown to Pacific Place, Nordstrom and various stores on Pike/Pine.  Not only would it be bad for the economy, but it would also be bad for the environment.  A vibrant retail scene is critical to creating demand for dense, urban neighborhoods that are the model for sustainable cities of the future.  So by crippling downtown retailers, Mayor McGinn and the Seattle City Council are actually working against their stated goal of getting cars off the road by creating a denser, more walkable city.

When analyzing this argument, it’s important to remember that the city does not hold a monopoly on parking and they will seek to maximize their parking revenue within the constraints of the competitive environment.  If they raise rates higher than the market will bear, people will stop parking on the street and they will be forced to lower their prices.  By continuously monitoring parking utilization and readjusting rates, the city should be able to achieve the optimum balance that eliminates “searching” traffic and maximizes their revenue.  The City Council does have a role to play in creating a favorable business environment which will encourage more dense residential development as people see that they can live a car-free (or less car-dependent) life in the city without sacrificing access to the retail amenities that they require .  However, subsidizing street parking at below-market rates is not the most efficient or effective method to do so.  By adjusting street parking rates to maximize revenues, they will have additional funds at their disposal ($8 million in additional revenue was projected for 2011) to dedicate towards economic incentives to retail businesses and/or urban revitalization projects.


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