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Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
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The Politics of Parking

Five years ago, Chicago parking meters cost 25 cents an hour. The city, desperate for cash, created a “public-private partnership” with Chicago Parking Meters, LLC, a company backed by Morgan Stanley. In exchange for an up-front lump sum of $1.15 billion, Chicago Parking Meters leased 36,000 parking meters for 75 years. Within a year, parking meter rates quadrupled. For 2013, meters cost between $2 an hour and $6.50 an hour, depending on the neighborhood’s proximity to the downtown “Loop” area. The city receives none of those revenues, and it even has to pay the company if a meter is out of service. The $1.2 billion is all gone.

The Chicago deal caused some municipalities to back away from plans to privatize parking, including Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and, in late January, New York City. But other municipalities moved ahead anyway, insisting that their deals would not be another Chicago. So far, it’s a mixed bag. Indianapolis took less money up front and gets a piece of the revenues every year, but the city is still locked into the contract for 50 years, is still liable for broken meters and revenue in the first two years hasn’t met projections. In early March, Cincinnati voted to privatize its meters, claiming the deal would not be another Chicago or Indianapolis. Cincy is locked in for only 30 years. The administration said that if the council didn’t approve the deal, it would lay off 300 police officers and firefighters, and close community centers. These are the kinds of choices with which Americans are left.

If governments can’t figure out how to efficiently provide important functions, turning them over to private firms can be a valid choice. This is something I think about every time I see the dozens of broken parking meters along County Seat Drive in Mineola. But many of these “PPP” deals aren’t about efficiency, but merely desperation for cash. They are actually a kind of payday loan for local governments. Even infamously wily Chicago politicians got totally played when they thought they could out-negotiate the financial giants behind so many of these privatization agreements.

Maybe the worst part of these parking deals in the long run is that governments are locking themselves out of a growing movement to break away from old policies based in the thinking of another century and try some new things that might actually alleviate serious parking problems.

“Circle less. Live more” is the motto of SFpark, San Francisco’s mobile app pilot program designed to give drivers real-time information about available parking spaces. Using wireless sensors, SFpark both monitors available parking and adjusts parking rates in different zones based on demand. This “demand-responsive parking” gives drivers an incentive to park in spaces with lower prices, which are adjusted once a month. Potentially, local businesses will benefit from more customers, and there will be less congestion and air pollution from circling cars. Refinements are being made constantly during the trial phase, which involves about a quarter of the city’s meters.

Land use and zoning decisions on Long Island often devolve into discussions about minimum parking spaces required for a proposed development. However, some cities and suburban centers are instead setting maximum parking spaces for some projects. It’s part of a growing recognition that just adding parking spaces according to a set formula is too inflexible and shortsighted. In a classic case, SAFECO offered suburban headquarters employees a menu of commuting options, including transit subsidies, rideshares and vanpools. Nearly half chose an alternative to driving some of the time, taking hundreds of cars out of the parking hunt every day.

Parking can’t be an afterthought. Getting people in and out is where decisions should start.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: