A Tale of Two Cities’ Parking Policies

As soon as Mayor Bloomberg finally decides to deal with New York City’s shameful and destructive government employee parking abuse situation, all he has to do is steal the simple new parking policy being instituted by Aetna Inc., a major employer in Hartford, Connecticut. The Hartford Courant reports:

Don’t look now, but right under our noses a stealth smart growth policy is taking shape – in the private sector. Who knew? Aetna Inc. will begin charging its employees for parking in 2007.

Beginning Jan. 1, parking fees will apply to all users of Aetna’s garages and executive parking areas. Fees for these two facilities will range from $75 to $200 a month, based on two criteria, parking location and salary level, and will be automatically deducted from paychecks.

Essentially, Aetna has established a market for a scarce commodity – parking – based on convenience and leavened by ability to pay. Beginning in 2008, fees will also be charged to the users of surface parking lots, although those fees have not yet been established. Ultimately every parker will pay, except for drivers and riders of van pools, who will continue to get the best spaces for free.

This is a smart growth policy because it will encourage the use of other, less wasteful commuting options and allow the company to use less land for parked cars. The company will sweeten the deal with larger subsidies for public transportation or van pools ($30 from the current $21 a month) and more biking facilities, which will continue to be free and conveniently located. Indeed, a number of employees plan to start biking, and have asked for more bike racks near the doors to the building. The company plans to provide them; shower and change facilities are already available as part of its fitness center membership.

And if you think it’s a good thing for on-street parking rates to remain cheap, here is a cautionary tale from laid back San Francisco where, apparently, the difference in price between garage parking and street parking is so great, people are now willing to kill for a curbside spot. Literally. The New York Times reports:

Burdened with one of the densest downtowns in the country and a Californian love for moving vehicles, San Franciscans have been shocked in recent months by crimes related to finding places to park, including an attack in September in which a young man was killed trying to defend a spot he had found. More recently, the victims have been parking control officers – do not call them meter maids – who suffered four attacks in late November, and two officers went to a hospital. Over all, 2006 was a dangerous year for those hardy souls handing out tickets here, with 28 attacks, up from 17 in 2005.

All of which has left officials in this otherwise civilized community scrambling to explain, and solve, "parking rage." Psychologists, planners and others familiar with the parking problems say they include underpriced meters and overloaded streets.

Mr. Metcalf added, however, that the density of San Francisco, with an estimated 740,000 residents in 49 square miles, also put in a different category from New York, which is also known for its parking nightmares. "It’s too dense for people to drive easily and not dense enough for really great public transit," he said. "So the result is frustration."

That opinion was seconded by Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, widely considered something of a parking theory guru. (His fans are called Shoupistas.) Professor Shoup said the chronic lack of parking here was a result of a decision to encourage a bustling downtown free of atmosphere-killing parking lots, a phenomenon echoed in other parking-challenged – and popular – cities like Boston, Chicago and New York. "Whenever someone from San Francisco calls to whine about the fact there’s no parking," he said, "I always say, ‘Well, you have to choose, do you want to be more like San Francisco or more like L.A.?’ And that usually ends the conversation."

That said, Professor Shoup noted that San Francisco had some questionable parking policies, namely cheap on-street parking and expensive garages and lots, a dynamic that encourages drivers to look endlessly for meters rather than pay for the privilege of parking off the street. "A lot of the traffic in downtown San Francisco is people looking for curb parking," he said. "And they’re apparently so fed up that they’re willing to assault parking officers to protest the idea of shortage of spaces."