Freshman year at Temple, I debated my roommate about the need for parking on campus. He wanted more student parking, and for permits to be free or cheap. I thought that the university was right to be charging a fee to students, because it was acting as a responsible environmental steward. With so much public transit nearby, and a walkable cityscape all around, who could be so selfish as to bring their car to Main Campus?
Well, I was wrong.
The hidden truth is Temple does not charge market prices for its parking permits. What may surprise students and faculty alike — with the exception of a few city planning nerds — is that the price of parking is not inflated by a tree-hugging administration, acting from above for the environmental best interests of society. Parking is in fact artificially cheap.
Temple’s website quotes the student price of commuter parking at $100 per month. Believe it or not, this is well below the market price.
In his book “The High Cost of Free Parking,” professor of urban planning at UCLA Donald Shoup explains that — in 1994 dollars — UCLA would have to charge around $124 per month to break even on a spot in its parking garages.
Shoup’s price conservatively values a parking space by giving parking garages an unnaturally long lifespan, assesses interest on borrowed capital for construction at below market rates and does not factor in taxes.
Although there are differences between opportunity costs for land in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, the general picture is the same.
Philadelphia stands in the high-middle portion of the parking cost bell-curve, but does not charge full price. One of the perverse economic realities of parking in the city, if it’s treated this way, is that it not only becomes unfairly cheap to park all day, but it becomes very expensive to park for a short time and in some cases, because long-term parkers are being undercharged, there isn’t a spot available at all. This is a big problem for people who might want to park their car for a short time to buy a large item at a store, or to take a sick person to a hospital, according to former University of Pennsylvania urban planning professor Eric Bruun.
Shoup’s studies of parking have an answer to this. In San Francisco, where some of Shoup’s ideas have been implemented, the city council — with the help of federal funding — has put sensors in the ground to assess market demand for particular spots on the street, and charge prices accordingly. People were charged anywhere between 25 cents to $6.00 for an hour in a parking space. Fees were determined weekly by raising or lowering them just to the point of market equilibrium, the goal being to make 15 percent of spaces vacant at the lowest possible price. Drivers could decide whether they found the prices acceptable, and make decisions about what spots to “buy” for their shopping or work.
Whereas cheap parking created an incentive to drive to work early and stay in a spot all day long, market pricing for parking discourages commuting by car, but keeps spaces open for shoppers whose high turnover is necessary for downtowns to thrive. It is now possible to go to any of San Francisco’s neighborhoods to shop, without fear that there will be no space for one’s car.
If Temple was to charge students and faculty on a market basis for their parking permits, it’s very reasonable — even conservative — to assume a $2 an hour charge. This is the amount considered by City Council for Center City meter rates in 2011, and would be one-third of the ceiling cost of parking in San Francisco. At a $2 per-hour rate, students’ permits would cost $400 per month, assuming an eight-hour parking day and only 25 days on campus. This is more than I paid for my rent when I lived in Philadelphia.
Where would students and faculty park, if this were to happen? Some people would simply pay the rate, and get a permit. Many students and faculty would decide to take public transit, and the increased demand from this new flock of riders would actually make it easier for SEPTA to increase service to the campus. The university would face higher demand for bicycle parking, and would have to meet that demand.
Some students might want to park off campus. Currently, residents of North Philadelphia have often been at odds with students, who sometimes disrespect their neighborhoods, create noise, and, yes, take up valuable parking spaces. One of the goals of offering low-cost parking to commuters at the campus has been to keep these problems to a minimum. With residents of North Philadelphia often between the rock of blight and the hard place of gentrification, allowing neighborhoods themselves to locally assess market fees for their on-street spots would give them the equivalent of “block grants” to fix sidewalks, plant trees and lower property taxes.
On its face, then, it may appear that environmental advocacy on behalf of bikes, trains and buses is about starry-eyed social democracy, but it’s more accurate to say that we’ve socialized that car for the benefit of driving. It’s time for that to change.
James Kennedy is an alumnus of Temple University (Class of ‘09) from the history department. He currently lives in Providence, R.I., but misses Philly.