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Parking in Westwood Village: an inconvenient truth

BY DONALD SHOUP

Most people view traffic with a mixture of rage and resignation: rage because congestion wastes valuable time, resignation because — well, what can anyone do about it? People have places to go; congestion seems inevitable.

But a surprising amount of traffic isn't caused by people on their way somewhere. Rather, it is caused by those who have already arrived. Streets are clogged, in part, by drivers searching for a place to park.

Several studies have found that cruising for curb parking generates about 30% of the traffic in central business districts. When my students and I studied cruising for parking in Westwood Village, we found the average cruising time was 3.3 minutes, and the average cruising distance half a mile (about 2.5 times around the block).

This may not sound like much, but with 470 parking meters in the Village, and a turnover rate for curb parking of 17 cars per space per day, 8,000 cars park at the curb each weekday. Even a small amount of cruising time for each car adds up to a lot of traffic.

Over the course of a year, the search for curb parking in Westwood Village created about 950,000 excess vehicle miles of travel — equivalent to 38 trips around the Earth, or four trips to the moon. And here's another inconvenient truth: Cruising those 950,000 miles wastes 47,000 gallons of gas and produces 730 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide — in only one small business district.

What causes this astonishing waste? As is often the case, the prices are wrong. A national study of downtown parking found that the average price of curb parking is only 20% that of garage parking, giving drivers a strong incentive to cruise.

To prevent shortages, some cities have begun to adjust their meter rates to produce about an 85% occupancy rate for curb parking. Prices vary by location and the time of day. Drivers can usually find a vacant curb space near their destination, and the search time is zero.

The revenue from such performance-based prices for curb parking is substantial and can be used in the metered neighborhoods to clean and maintain sidewalks, plant trees, improve lighting, remove graffiti, bury utility wires and provide other public improvements.

Redwood City, Calif., for example, sets its downtown meter rates to achieve an 85% occupancy rate for curb parking. Because the city returns the revenue to pay for added public services in the metered district, the downtown area will receive an estimated $1 million a year for increased police protection and cleaner sidewalks.

Westwood Village generates almost a million miles of cruising every year, and downtown Redwood City generates $1 million of meter revenue for added public services. Every city must decide what it wants. If cities want to reduce congestion, clean the air, save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve neighborhoods — and do it all quickly — they should charge the right price for curb parking. Getting that price right will do a world of good.

Shoup, a professor of urban planning, is the author of "The High Cost of Free Parking."

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