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City Beautiful 21 » Administration, Biking, Carrboro, Parking, Pricing, Public Transit, Reader Mailbag » Email Question From a Reader: Parking Pricing and Equity

Email Question From a Reader: Parking Pricing and Equity

In response to my last post on why Performance Parking Pricing is better than greater enforcement of 2-hour parking limits, I received an outstanding response from a reader via email.  Here are some key excerpts:

Hey Patrick.  I have been closely following the discussions about parking in Carrboro.  I subscribe to your CityBeautiful21 blog and I have watched all the recent archived video of Board of Aldermen meetings where parking was discussed.
I’m concerned that you have not addressed the impact [of parking pricing] on less wealthy citizens of Carrboro.   Since our bus system is not yet full service, particularly during nights and weekends, even folks who live in southern Carrboro often must drive to downtown…Your assumption that text enabled cell phones or smart phones would be available to most potential parkers is part of this issue.

You may have a solution to this problem but I have not heard a solution discussed. One idea that comes to mind would be a parking decal made available (one per in-town residence) to allow free parking, at least for some duration.  This has the advantage of favoring Carrboro residents since they already pay for development of parking facilities through their property taxes.

If such a decal would undercut the revenue stream needed to support a system like ParkMe, perhaps it could be reserved for citizens in financial need. Well thanks for listening.  I have great hopes that Carrboro will proactively address parking.  I understand that this is a key ingredient to making “small town urban” work well.

First, it’s wonderful to get such thoughtful feedback on a post. There are several good points the reader raises here; let’s take them one by one.

Parking Pricing Affects People of Different Incomes in Different Ways

This may seem patently obvious, but it’s worth being clear about it. Lower-income individuals are more impacted by parking pricing than higher-income individuals, especially if they lack alternative ways to access destinations that have priced parking. Therefore, if we are concerned about treating all citizens equally, then it is reasonable and healthy to ask if adding parking pricing to downtown Carrboro can be done in an equitable manner.

Addressing Equity: Are There Ways to Avoid Paying to Park, or to Pay Less to Park?

First, if parking pricing affects lower-income individuals more than higher-income ones, is there a way for a lower-income individual to avoid paying to park while still coming downtown?

Under Performance Parking Pricing, the answer is a big YES.  Remember the primary principle of Performance Parking Pricing: charge the LOWEST PRICE POSSIBLE that keeps at least 15% of the parking spaces in a group empty and available, INCLUDING ZERO dollars per unit of time.

For those who wish to avoid parking costs downtown, the first strategy is to drive downtown at a time when demand for lots leaves them more than 15% empty even when unpriced, because at those times, low-demand lots should be FREE.  Below is a lot in Chapel Hill that is priced from 8 am to 6 pm on Saturdays, and this is at about 11 am on a Saturday morning.  If this lot were in a Performance Parking Pricing system, it would be a prime candidate to lower the hourly rate, perhaps to zero, on Saturdays around lunchtime.

Underused Chapel Hill Parking Lot

Underused Chapel Hill Parking Lot

But time-shifting of a trip is not the only way to avoid or lower parking costs downtown.  Under a Performance Parking Pricing system, it is likely (and appropriate) that parking prices should vary by lot.  The lot across the street from the Station and Armadillo Grill will surely be fuller most evenings than the West Weaver St and Town Hall lots. Accordingly, if either of these lots have more than a 15% vacancy rate, they should be unpriced, and someone who wishes to avoid a parking charge simply walks a few extra blocks to their destination.

Addressing Equity: Improving Non-Auto Access to Downtown Carrboro

The reader gets at an additional part of the solution to equity concerns when he states:

“Since our bus system is not yet full service, particularly during nights and weekends, even folks who live in southern Carrboro often must drive to downtown…”

He is getting at another issue that we will need to address to improve access to downtown- the fact that bus service to and from downtown Carrboro at night and on the weekends is limited compared to its weekday, rush hour levels of service.  There are a few things we can do to improve this situation that could be the subject of several subsequent blog posts, so I will leave those details to another day.  However, Performance Parking Pricing can bring revenue to the table to help pay for extending transit services later and adding route frequency, or to help invest in safer bike routes into the downtown core.

Our local transit service today is very good for a US system in a medium-sized community.  However, if we want to take it to the next level of success, getting a wider service span across the day to 10:00 or 11:00 pm on most routes would help a lot.  Fortunately, Chapel Hill Transit is already working on this, with the following improvements recommended in the budget for the coming year:

  • Extended weekday evening trips on the CM, CW, D and J bus routes
  • Later trips for the F route
  • Earlier hours for the Saturday JN route
  • Additional Saturday hours for the CM and CW routes


Another Advantage for Performance Pricing Parking: More Equitable Than Flat-Rate Parking

What is interesting about the equity question and parking is that having flat-rate parking, such as $1/hour regardless of demand for spaces, takes away the two opportunities for equity above that involve time-shifting or choosing a lower-priced lot. This is another reason to figure out how to start charging for parking in Carrboro under a Performance Parking Pricing format rather than a flat-rate, maximum-hour limited format.

Technology and Equity: Can We Make Performance Pricing Parking Work Without Tripping Over the Digital Divide?

Parking Zone Signage in Asheville

Parking Zone Signage in Asheville

Another issue raised by the reader is whether or not a system that relies heavily on phone technology to pay for parking is exclusionary of lower-income individuals who are less likely to own smartphones.  This is a good question. Fortunately, many of the systems sold by vendors who produce parking technology have recognized this issue, and have worked to create systems that combine pay-by-smartphone apps with pay-by-text solutions, as well as on-street kiosks offering pay-by-credit card and pay-by-cash choices as well.

The sign at the right from Asheville even has a phone number you can call and speak to someone to facilitate payment in case you do not have a smartphone.

Over the long term, the trend towards all phones being smartphones is also likely to eliminate gaps in access and narrow the digital divide. I just checked with my wireless provider’s website and found that smartphones by Apple, Nokia, Samsung, and Blackberry were all available for less than $1.00 with a two-year contract. The chart below on smartphone market penetration by age and income also seems to support that we are headed this way.

Smartphone Use by Age Group and Income

Smartphone Use by Age Group and Income


Looking at this chart, it seems like age is a much more powerful predictor of smartphone usage than income.

Is There a Role for Decals Regarding Parking In Downtown Lots?  I Don’t Think So

Finally, the reader asks if having decals for town citizens, either for all citizens or limited by income, that would allow some form of limited free parking– would be an alternative we should consider.  My initial assessment is that the other ways of addressing the equity questions I discuss above are more efficient at providing choice and opportunity in allowing low-income individuals to minimize parking costs, and also minimize the management burden and costs of the town.

The experience in other (UCSD) communities (U of FL) that are in or adjacent to college towns also suggest that with many households moving in and out each year, the distribution of decals to residents creates the opportunity for a black market in parking decals to emerge where local residents who can obtain a permit may actually “rent” it to higher-income individuals or to students who would park downtown for longer periods of time than desired, perhaps to commute to campus.

Given the concerns the Aldermen have voiced regarding park and riders coming to downtown after the pricing of Chapel Hill Transit lots begins in August, this decal approach would seem to be in conflict with strategies designed to manage any spillover effects from Carrboro Plaza / Jones Ferry Rd to downtown.

Bottom Line: Equity Is Possible Under Performance Parking Pricing; The Reader Is Right About Improving Alternatives and Making Sure Payment is Accessible

It was a joy to get such thoughtful feedback on a post.  It encouraged me to think in greater depth about the issue, and to look at it through a prism that many of us hold dear in Carrboro.

I think it is clear that Performance Parking Pricing could be implemented in Carrboro without having serious equity impacts because of the choices it provides in terms of motorists having access to different lots at different times at different prices, that for the near term, will almost certainly be FREE at least part of the time. If some of the revenue from a Performance Parking System could be dedicated to support transit and bike access to downtown from lower-income neighborhoods, then the equity proposition of this program looks even better.

The reader is absolutely correct that we need more alternatives to get to downtown at more hours so that those who have strong financial incentives to avoid parking costs have choices available to them, and that while smartphone technology is great, we need to ensure that there are other ways to pay for parking that don’t require you to own an expensive, latest-model phone. I commend him for putting this topic on the table!

In closing, while I certainly encourage anyone to join the discussion in the comments, I know that others may wish to submit comments by email.  To make that easier, and to avoid spam for me and you, I’ve set up a contact form as part of the site, now available here.

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Filed under: Administration, Biking, Carrboro, Parking, Pricing, Public Transit, Reader Mailbag · Tags: ,

4 Responses to "Email Question From a Reader: Parking Pricing and Equity"

  1. blakeR says:

    Patrick, while Performance Parking Pricing does seem more equitable than our current system, I hardly think your first point — that poorer people can walk farther — is a very good solution to the reader’s equity concern. Returning to the decal possibility, would it not be possible to issue them yearly to families under a certain income range? That would a) lessen the amount on the streets and b) allow for a smaller black market, the profits of which would go to said disadvantaged family if they decide they’d rather have the money in pocket and pay for parking like everyone else. This is not well thought-out btw, just off the top of my head.

    1. Parker says:

      blakeR, it would not work to simply issue decals to families under a certain income level. First there is the issue of income verification. How exactly do you know what a family’s income is? Carrboro would not want to be in the business of verifying income. A decal could perhaps be tied to some verifiable criteria, such as food stamp qualification etc.

      Another concern would be publically marking the recipient as low income. If only low income people have a decal, then those folks would be driving around with a sign on their car saying “I have a low income.” A solution would be to offer decals for sale that provide, for example, 30 minutes of free parking. Many would be willing to pay a substantial amount for such a decal, but it could also be offered without charge to those who can’t afford it.

      I don’t know if such a decal would be easy to integrate into Performance Parking Pricing. It might complicate enforcement but Patrick may have an answer to that question.

  2. Patrick says:

    Good discussion. Let’s put Blake’s question into the context of another place, in this case, Southpoint Mall. Is there anywhere in the Southpoint Mall parking lot that is “too far,” by whichever criteria we might use– for anyone that is physically able to walk to the stores there? (I’m putting aside the question of wheelchair users as the mall already has designated spaces for those individuals, as required by law)

    View Larger Map

  3. Patrick says:

    The reason I ask is that Downtown Carrboro is actually a little smaller in total footprint than the mall (orange line), its massive parking field (red lines), and its stormwater detention pond (outlying red lines), whose presence is dictated mostly by the parking. I did this in Google Earth and an image editor:

    Carrboro Downtown and Southpoint Mall Footprint

    You’ll notice that you can walk from the West Weaver Lot to Cat’s Cradle, Carr Mill, and the future Shelton Station location without ever leaving the mall itself, and can reach the Laurel St lot within the parking field.

    What I’m also trying to put on the table in this discussion is that the town should have a conscious discussion about how much it needs to be involved in subsidizing the transportation mode that contributes the most to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, congests the downtown and limits capacity to bring in other shoppers, visitors, diners, and showgoers, reinforces suburban land use patterns, caps our ability to build a broad, deep, local business sector, and ties up precious and limited land in a small urban grid for vehicle storage instead of more businesses, housing (both market rate and workforce/affordable units) and things like libraries — in our downtown.

    It’s probably obvious by now but I think we should be minimizing subsidies to downtown auto use, and using pricing to help us do that in a way that supports parking space turnover for businesses while protecting against downtown becoming a park-ride location to UNC.

    This is a values conversation, and Blake is describing a position where we might elevate approach achieving 100% equality of access by putting less emphasis on having parking as easy to find as possible downtown for business patrons and the costs to the town of managing a program to verify incomes and distribute decals.

    I’m looking at it from the point of view that we have several lots close to downtown which are used at varying rates at different times, and that walking from any of them to any part of downtown is not (in my opinion) an undue burden that one might undertake to lower their parking costs or avoid them altogether, and that there are other ways (ride a bus or bike, come downtown at a different time) to lower parking costs for anyone at any income level under a Performance Parking System.

    I think the other piece that is compelling in this thread is whether Parking Performance Pricing could be implemented under a condition of the first 30 minutes are free. I will do some research to follow up on this question.

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