No, There Is Not an “Affordable Parking Crisis”

The green areas on this map are used for nothing but storing cars. That’s not enough, according to a recent Denver Post column. Image: Ryan Keeney

Channeling Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, the Denver Post ran a column in its Sunday edition titled “Make downtown Denver parking great again.” No joke.

Forget all the evidence that the more parking you build, the more traffic you get and the more expensive everything else becomes. What Denver really needs, according to author Teresa Keegan, is more cheap car storage.

In fairness to Keegan, who works for the Denver courts system, she’s probably not the only person who thinks that Denver needs more free parking. It’s really the Post’s fault for publishing drivel and trying to pass it off as informed opinion.

So let’s pick it apart. From Keegan’s piece:

The city’s downtown worker bees are increasingly suffering from sticker shock as the price of parking increases steadily and sometimes dramatically. Even well-paid employees are beginning to balk at the situation, given that two years of monthly downtown parking fees would pay for a really nice seven-day Caribbean cruise.

Actually, the median monthly rate for a garage parking space downtown rose from $160 in 2007 to $175 in 2014, according to the Downtown Denver Partnership [PDF]. That’s on par with the national rate of inflation. If workers are “beginning to balk” at driving, as Keegan claims, it’s not because parking is suddenly becoming more expensive.

More to the point, downtown parking shouldn’t be cheap, because it’s expensive to build and maintain and takes up a lot of scarce space. If the people who use parking don’t pay for its full costs, then everyone else will end up paying instead. Denver Public Works explains it well: “Parking is never free. Even when parking seems free, we pay for the costs of parking maintenance and real estate through higher prices, housing costs and rents.”

If, as Keegan complains, available on-street parking spaces are hard to find, the problem is that the price is too low. When the price of on-street spaces is aligned with demand, spaces will become available. Here’s how parking policy expert Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, illustrates the situation:

Screen Shot 2016-10-03 at 2.13.25 PM
Donald Shoup’s illustration of “right-priced” curb parking. Image: Access Magazine

Continues Keegan:

Council members could at least consider city-subsidized parking. Of course, no citizen wants to pay more in taxes, but a good case can be made that a series of strategically located, reasonably priced parking garages would benefit not just workers but everyone who ventures downtown, locals and tourists alike.

Nope, you really can’t make a good case for subsidized parking. Notice how you don’t hear about cities like Seattle or San Francisco spending millions to build new public parking garages. That’s because they’ve figured out that subsidizing parking would mess up their goals to promote transit, biking, and walking.

Keegan argues that transit and biking just aren’t “feasible” options. But to make those modes more appealing, you have to stop prioritizing cars and parking. If Denver went on a big parking spending spree, buses would get bogged down in car traffic, carving out space for protected bike lanes would become more difficult, and the city would become less walkable.

Cities do not succeed by prioritizing parking. Some American cities have figured that out, but apparently it’s still news to the Post.

  • TakeFive

    For starters, I really, really don’t want the Denver Post censoring either liberal, conservative or any other content of ideas as I treasure the free flow of different viewpoints and perspectives. I sometimes wonder if (some) urbanists don’t want to take a different page out of the Book of Trump: “Build one of then thar yuuge walls in a five mile radius around the D&F Tower. That’ll keep out all those nasty people and their cars.”

    Suggesting that available on-street parking spaces are priced too low widely misses the mark of what Keegan wanted. Demand-based parking prices may be fine for the liberal elites with plenty of jingle in their pockets but not so much for the average Joe.

    • surly trucker

      If the ‘average Joe’ needs more jingle in his pocket, he should ride a bike! Bikes are rad and cheap to operate (runs on burritos!). 🙂

      • TakeFive

        LOL, I have nothing against bikes. They might not always be practical or a viable option but I’ve certainly spent countless hours on trails, especially the High Line and Cherry creek trails.

    • Tattler

      In the journalism business, it’s not good practice to go ahead and publish any silly, rambling piece of writing that comes your way. Any self-respecting media outlet should have a critical eye about what it decides to print. That’s not “censorship.”

      • TakeFive

        I see… and should we let conservatives be the judge of what is silly? Or should that be strictly the prerogative of liberals?

        • Tattler

          Trust me, the Denver Post already rejects submissions and doesn’t publish everything that crosses their desk.

          Ideology is not the central issue here. The question here is whether a piece about city transportation systems is grounded in basic knowledge of how city transportation systems function. Unfortunately, it looks like the editorial staff at the Denver Post lacks the requisite expertise to make basic judgments about what merits publication when it comes to these topics.

          • TakeFive

            Since you received a couple of “cheers,” just to make sure I hadn’t lost my mind or my memory I reread the Keaton article. Ahh, fortunately I have done neither.

            You may wish or think perhaps by default that it was about “transportation systems” but aside from one brief paragraph it decidedly was not. It was a piece about parking and parking garages.

            Keegan gives a nice if brief history of parking and in explaining her thinking even uses a couple of other cities, one in Germany and Kansas City as examples. It was actually reasonably well written.

            You might also be surprised by what a (scientific) poll of her article might indicate about the majority of Denver residents.

            That’s not to say it is a good or sound idea, more that I don’t want the Denver Post being the arbiter for what is or isn’t… when reasonably people can disagree.

          • Tattler

            Parking and parking garages are a huge part of the transportation system. Read some Shoup sometime.

    • MT

      Average Joe already had to pay market price for his car and his home, why should we subsidize his parking space?

      Demand based parking prices have worked incredibly well where they have been tried. You can save your jingle by walking a couple extra blocks to a street where there is less demand. Prices also go down when demand is low. Often the average price becomes lower when the prices are variable because demand is only high at certain times and places, many places get cheaper rates.

      You may not like “liberal elites” but there are people who are experts in this area.

      • TakeFive

        I wouldn’t know what “Joe” paid for his car or if he bought a home or what he paid for it.

        So far as subsidies go I happen to be a yuuge fan of transit but you talk about yuuge subsidies… wowser. Based on your logic should I rethink my attraction to transit?

        • MT

          You seem to think we should subsidize his parking space because he’s not “liberal elite” with lots of money. If that is the argument for subsidizing parking, he apparently deserves a subsidy for absolutely everything he ever desires.

          • TakeFive

            Actually I never made such claims but if you want to wildly go there… tis a free country. Average “Joe’s” is a substitute for all manner of everyday people. If you can’t identify or empathize… that is fine.

          • MT

            “Demand-based parking prices may work well for the liberal elites (and others) with plenty of jingle in their pockets but not so much for the average Joe.”

            So, parking costs should be subsidized because, why? I see no justification. Joe has to pay for his car, he has to pay for insurance, he has to pay for fuel, he has to pay for maintenance, why do we pay for storage of his car?

            I also gave plenty of info on why demand based pricing is actually good for the average person. Keeps spots open so they are always available, cheaper spots are available, average prices often get lower than current prices…

          • TakeFive

            OK, but public parking including garages (which I’m not in favor of) is a rather cheap subsidy. The concocted arguments suggesting otherwise are very weak. And whatever a city/county/state/country subsidizes (a ton of stuff) is for the benefit of whom? Generally the everyday person, is it not?

          • MT

            How would garages be a cheap subsidy? They are incredibly expensive to build, and if they were to be offered at a cheap subsidized price instead of the market rate for parking, the city would continue losing money on it year after year. Plus the city would lose out on businesses or homes that could have been built on that valuable piece of land, and the tax revenue from them. I can’t fathom how it would be in any way cheap.

            So yeah, government spends money on things to benefit its citizens, average Joe’s. The real question, is spending public money to provide free or cheap parking beneficial to the people of the city? Is that something worth spending our money on?

            What’s the benefit of providing all that parking? More traffic, more pollution, more people killed in the streets. Less land available for homes and businesses. Less people walking or biking because the streets are too dangerous and unpleasant. Less money available to provide transit service to those who don’t or can’t drive. What’s the upside for the city and its people?

  • sebra leaves

    Take San Francisco SFMTA please, we don’t want them. In SF where the whole anti parking anti car movement got a head start, the anti car brigade was the first team to start the gentrification process and pave the way for developers to kick residents and merchants out of town and pave the way for “dense luxury housing.

    First they claimed, “parking isn’t free, (sound familiar?) They convinced many people rely on them for transportation. Then the raised transit fees and cut service. Many small businesses left town for more hospitable pastures. Many low income people were kicked out of their homes as the rents soared. Those who kept their cars are living in them and others are living in “tent cities” on the sidewalks.

    If I were to advise the citizens of any city I would say. Stop them at “parking isn’t free.” If they get away with taking your car, they will come after you job and your home next.

    Now the citizens who are left are engaged in a battle royal with the SFMTA and City Hall to preserve what is left of our city and our right to stay here. STOP THEM WHILE YOU CAN. Defend your parking rights!

    • BHG

      “Parking rights”. Hilarious!

    • TakeFive

      You interestingly articulate a sad scene playing out in too many places.

      One of the big ironies – at least in Denver – is that those (with money) provide plenty of parking. Whether it’s the office building tower, the Pepsi Center, DPAC, the Convention Center, Auraria, etc there’s no particular shortage of parking.

  • dufflepud

    “It’s really the Post’s fault for publishing drivel and trying to pass it off as informed opinion.”

    Streetsblog publishes a lot of great stuff, but this is not the sort of language that wins people to a cause. You and I may disagree with Keegan, but we ought to do so on the merits. And here, two competing version of Denver are on offer: one that subsidizes car travel and one promotes walkability while subsidizing mass transit. The more effective argument, I think, explains why we should support one subsidy over the other.

    To that end, the following is not an argument, it’s merely a restatement of the premise:

    “Nope, you really can’t make a good case for subsidized parking. Notice how you don’t hear about cities like Seattle or San Francisco spending millions to build new public parking garages. That’s because they’ve figured out that subsidizing parking would mess up their goals to promote transit, biking, and walking.”

    To paraphrase only slightly, “We shouldn’t subsidize parking because the goal is getting people to take transit.” That’s fine if the reason for the goal is self-evident. But to folks like Keegan, it isn’t.

    So if the goal is to prove that getting people out of their cars and into transit is a good thing, urbanists need to explain why. Otherwise, it’s just preaching to the choir. We need to offer a vision of walkable, transit-first cities as superior to what’s on offer now. That’s totally doable. Chuck Marohn over at Strong Towns does it well. So do Market Urbanism, Daniel Kay Hertz, and Aaron Renn. What they share is a vision of what a good city can be and why we should desire it over the alternative. Attacks like the one here, on the other hand, alienate precisely the people who must be convinced, so we really ought to strive for more inclusive rhetoric.

    • David B

      This is a great, polite critique. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen some comments in the past asserting that Streetsblog is an echo chamber; I do think it’s more than that, but certainly there’s a danger of thinking your readers all make the same assumptions, when we clearly do not. I happen to agree with the assumptions of this article, but it would be much more powerful if it explored why non-car transit is better for a city, or even cited some articles that did.

    • TakeFive

      Thank you. I often have to remind my conservative friends that “shooting the messenger” is not a substantive argument.


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