The Outstater: Saving the World one Parking Space at a Time

August 3, 2016

by Craig Ladwig

The summer doldrums, with so many officials out of officialdom, is a good time to put forward some pet public policy positions that, in my opinion, would save the world. One would abolish parking meters as we know them and the other government finance committees.

They loosely follow the “Perlini Rule.” My friend, the late David Perlini, chief of staff for former Fort Wayne Mayor Win Moses, had a sticky note on his desk to remind himself that government shouldn’t design roads but rather build them where people want to go.

And so it should be with parking meters and finance committees.

The parking meter is one of the few functioning pieces of machinery in the world that is essentially the same as when invented 80 years ago. Dr. Donald Shoup, a parking expert and author of “The High Cost of Free Parking,” says that is because it is a machine designed by and for government. He has a better idea:

“I think that the method that we now have for paying for parking is fundamentally wrong, that you have to pay in advance and hope to get back before your time runs out. New technology allows you to pay for just the time you use — like a long-distance telephone call in the old days, you start paying when you start talking and you stop paying when you stop talking. So the new meter technology allows you to pay just for the time you use, and so there’s no overtime ticket. You are simply paying for as long as you are there. When you come back you stop paying.”

Shoup, a professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA, also has a way — and this is pure magic — to free up on-street parking. He suggests, duh, that most municipal governments are more interested in short-term revenue increases than in providing citizens a parking space. He proposes something he calls Goldilocks Pricing (not too high and not too low).

Cities, the professor envisions, could use high-tech meters to adjust the price of individual parking spaces throughout a day and week. He would set the price for parking at the lowest amount the city can charge and still leave one or two vacant spaces on every block at any given time. He cites the example of San Francisco, which five years ago began pricing spaces differently at different times of day:

“Seventeen percent of all prices in San Francisco went down to twenty-five cents an hour in the morning, starting out from two dollars an hour. So although some people claim that this was going to be another money grab for the city, just the opposite happened — that the prices went up in the afternoon but the average price declined by 4 percent.”

The result was that citizen parkers were more likely by magnitudes to find an empty space on a block, and on top of that the more efficiently used spaces produced more revenue for the city.

Which brings us to finance committees. The solution here, also from Fort Wayne, comes in a perverse way from a recent essay by the current mayor, Tom Henry.

His essay was meant to assure citizens that the city’s “legacy” fund, built to provide in emergencies, was in good hands. “We’re not simply throwing money away,” the mayor wrote in explaining that expenditures were being approved by a politically designed funding committee.

Reading that, it occurred to a friend of economic bent and considerable political experience that it might be better to simply throw the money away. He calls his idea “economic development by helicopter.” It also would make redundant TIF districts and the governor’s Regional Cities Initiative.

Here’s how it works: Officials (independently bonded and certified) announce that $100 bills will be dropped from helicopters at random but pre-announced points in the city throughout the year. “The value of the real estate and private property beneath those GPS points would increase (assuming private property is protected) thereby creating jobs and commerce,” the friend says. “In addition, tax revenue languishing in government coffers waiting to be spent on projects without any logical priority could be returned to productive use.”

We can imagine that Perlini, the consummate public servant, would be amused if not necessarily pleased.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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