Parking in Los Angeles Creeps into the 21st Century

The Los Angeles Times reports that the City has decided to inject at least a little rationality into its parking policy: in April, the City will begin ExpressPark, which will focus on a 4.5 square-mile zone in the city’s downtown, and will set parking rates based upon demand.

It will use sensors and other technology to measure demand at about 6,000 sidewalk meters and 7,500 spaces in public parking facilities such as the Convention Center.

Officials will adjust the cost of meters based on demand at various times throughout the day and on how long motorists stay in each space. Although the price of most meters will be set once a month, in some areas officials will adjust the rates more frequently based on demand.

One might well ask what has taken so long, although it’s good to see the City’s transportation department leveraging $15 million of federal grants to do it.  ExpressPark is clearly based upon my UCLA colleague Don Shoup’s classic work, The High Cost of Free Parking.  The idea of pricing parking based upon demand involves pretty simple and straightforward economics: if parking price is set to demand, then that also reduces circling around city blocks looking for empty spaces, which increases efficiency.  It also reduces congestion as people no longer double-park in desperation.

Unfortunately, two critical aspects of Shoup’s work do not apply here:

1)  As the title of Shoup’s book suggests, his true aim is free parking: Shoup argues that urban area with parking problems and free parking should price it and use the proceeds to create a “Parking Benefit District,” which will pay for local amenities like neighborhood beautification, parks, landscaping etc.  In downtown Los Angeles, you already pay for parking, so no PBD is contemplated: downtown residents (and there are tens of thousands, contrary to stereotype) will see more available parking, but none of the other amenities.  Shoup often uses the example of Pasadena’s Old Town as an example of what can happen when a neighborhoods moves to price parking, but previously, Old Town used free parking, so the windfall there cannot be replicated.  (This begs the question of whether the parking pricing was the thing that actually revolutionized Old Town, but that’s a different issue).

2)  The real bite to Shoup’s book comes when it gets applied to broader land use policies.  Most municipal zoning codes have bloated parking requirements that have no basis in actual demand, he (correctly) argues.  Developers are forced to construct unnecessary parking spaces, increasing the cost of land and housing, making the density that is a prerequsite for transit more difficult to achieve, and increasing the dependence upon the automobile.  If we let the market price parking for developers, we would have a more efficient and less costly urban form.  Because ExpressPark only will occur in a small area of the city and will not be tied to land use decisions, its impact will be relatively minimal.

The bigger test for the state and the city will come over the next few weeks, as the state Senate considers AB 710 (Skinner), a bill sponsored by the California Infill Builders Association, which will limit municipal parking requirements for transit-oriented developments.  AB 710 could really begin to make a bigger difference.

But this is a start.  Los Angeles has really made a lot of beneficial and important changes to downtown, including an adaptive reuse ordinance that waived a lot of traditional parking requirements.  It’s good to see that someone in the Department of Transportation is keeping their eye on the ball.  Now we need to see these principles outside of downtown.

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Reader Comments

12 Replies to “Parking in Los Angeles Creeps into the 21st Century”

  1. It’s too bad that Los Angeles is not agreeing to devote any dynamic pricing excess revenue (above and beyond what the city would have collected from the static parking rates) to improve neighborhood land use and amenities. This feature, as Shoup argues, is helpful for garnering political support for the new parking policies. San Francisco rolled out their version of Shoup’s plan a few months ago and has been slowly tweaking the prices based on the demand info they’re received. But I’m not sure if the city is actually making more money on parking now, especially given the high tech equipment it takes to get the program up and running (and the fact that they’re pricing for demand management, not for profit). Hopefully these programs will be improved in the future, but it seems critical that they get tied into local land use improvements.

  2. Ah, I’ll try it in parts:

    Jonathan,

    You might not want to get too invested in the “colleague” status of Public Affairs school people. The UCLA School of Public Affairs tends to be an ends-justify-the-means kind of place, whereas in law school means must be justified.

    Prof. Shoup’s type of capitalist state management can be a community bummer, not to mention a jobs killer and a burden on the less well-off.

  3. On the other hand, one thing that appears to help produce a vibrant shopping, dining and walking area in populated Los Angeles County is the availability of free short-term parking in conveniently located structures. You can see it in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Century City, and yes, Old Town Pasadena.

    *Crestfallen* is how a Shoup follower looked to me when I produced a flyer advertising Old Town Pasadena’s 1-1/2 hours free Park & Walk program [http://www.oldpasadena.org/map.asp]. Her idol’s example was not so great. (P.S. The meters in Old Town Pasadena don’t start charging at all until 11 am.)

  4. Living in Texas, I have noticed that one of the attractions for our new neighbors from California, is the abundance of free parking, wide streets and thoroughfares. They love the freedom and relief of being able to enjoy the use of their vehicle without the constant hassle of gridlock, parking and high gasoline taxes. There is plenty of room in Texas for good people who want to work hard, enjoy the good life and escape the putrid and painful ordeal of trying to survive in California.

  5. Gouging parkers at the meter is disrespectful, when it’s the time limits, not the money, that are supposed to promote parking space turnover.  (You want compliance with time limits?  Use license plate scanners like they do in Carmel-by-the-Sea, which offers free curbside parking on all public streets [http://ci.carmel.ca.us/carmel/index.cfm/residents/city-services/transportation-parking/].)

  6. there is a whole huge structure in Downtown L.A. that is hugely underutilized in the evenings.  I’m pretty sure it used to be where jurors parked.  Open it up for free parking, with maybe a shuttle service for safety or to help people get around, and who knows what kind of culture will bloom?

  7. building structures for free short-term parking could be the way if you want people to congregate in commercial districts.  Cars hardly pollute the air anymore (thank you, regulators!), so all you really have to worry about is congestion.  (Ok, trucks still pollute.)  And with free parking structures, which take a lot of that circling-for-parking traffic off the streets, you can get a lot more community.

    In L.A., such structures are a public good worth some investment.

  8. BTW, California state law currently prohibits municipalities from selling neighborhood parking permits for market value … the most a municipality can do is charge a fee to recoup administrative costs. If you want parking to raise money for municipal improvements, get that prohibition repealed.

    [A house or condo does not come with a piece of a public street as part of the deal (check your deed).]

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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