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:

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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.