Circling for parking is terrible for cities. Let’s put an end to it.

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By connecting drivers to spaces at the start of a trip, tech can help fight the curse of cruising.

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City traffic experts have been studying how much drivers circle for parking since at least 1927. That year an engineer named Hawley Simpson reported that 19 to 34 percent of cars were cruising for a space in Detroit’s retail district. Even then, the great toll that circling took on city congestion was clear: “A sort of ‘mobile’ parking thus arises in that portion of the street which should be devoted to moving traffic,” wrote Simpson.

Circling for parking remains a menace to cities today. The long-term hope, of course, is to dramatically reduce the amount of street parking a city needs, and to free up that public space for people. High-frequency transit systems, complementary ride-hail services, walkable development, and eventually self-driving cars can all get cities closer to that ultimate goal.

But in the nearer term, it’s worth remembering that the vast majority of trips are made by car in the United States. Since every drive ends at a parking space, every extra minute spent circling for that space means more traffic frustration, more wear and tear on local roads, and more damage to the planet. While the parking industry is fully aware that cities want less space for cars, they still have a business to run and customers to satisfy. So as we move towards that car-free utopia, we should be realistic about the huge demand for spaces today and find ways to minimize the impact of parking on traffic and city life right now.

Fixing cruising first means understanding all the factors that contribute to it. Street spots tend to be free or much cheaper than lot or garage spots, creating an economic incentive to circle. A lack of coordination among public and private parking operators — each with their own rules for access and payment — means many potential spots go under-used. And the true cost of parking is bundled into development and therefore hidden from consumers, subverting the forces of an efficient market.

Lack of good data plays a big role, too. Parking operators often don’t know their supply of available spaces, especially in real time. And many cities lack a full inventory of their street-parking spots, making it tough to know where and when a space might open up.

As a result, most navigation apps don’t show drivers how much extra time and money is needed to park once they reach their destination. That’s not especially helpful if you’re planning a trip, unless you have a car that folds up into a briefcase once you get where you’re going. (And if you do have a market-ready fold-up car, please contact us at partners@sidewalklabs.com.) This information gap leads to more circling, loads of frustration, and potentially distracted driving, as people text about their new arrival time or try to find a spot on a parking app.

Technology can help cities find other ways to reduce circling. Digital street inventories give agencies the ability track the rules and supply of street spaces, and channel that information to drivers. And a comprehensive database of public and private parking availability makes it possible to knit together previously fragmented spots into virtual or “shared” lots. Suddenly it’s possible to give drivers parking information at the start of a trip, long before they start to cruise the block.

That change paves the way for some clear short-term benefits:

  • Less circling. If you could type a destination into a navigation app and find, reserve, and pay for a parking space before you leave the house, that means no circling. You can drive right to your spot.
  • More choices. Right now a navigation app might tell you a trip takes 30 minutes, when in fact the true travel time including a search for parking might be closer to 50 minutes — plus, say, $15 for parking. In other words, the true cost of the trip, both in time and money, becomes clearer. Using this insight, some travelers might conclude that ride-hail or public transportation is the better option.
  • Market efficiency. For people who do choose to drive to their destination, the ability to connect drivers with lots or garages can help parking operators offer better services. Drivers often want more than just an empty space; some need extra-large stalls, some want a covered lot or a parking attendant for security. Recognizing these driver preferences can help operators meet this customer demand.

Farther out, a complete digital network of on-street, off-street, public, and private parking spaces could be a springboard to broader quality-of-life improvements and management initiatives:

  • Better land use. On your way to a favorite restaurant downtown, you pass street after street of cars at the curb, but also an arena garage that’s empty half the year. A shared parking network can make these spots available when the home team’s not playing. It also means developers might not have to build as much parking, which lowers the cost of housing and commercial spaces, creating a more affordable and equitable city.
  • Multi-modal planning. While not the only reason to implement demand-based parking pricing, such programs could generate additional revenue, which local leaders could direct back into public transportation or street maintenance. And a shared parking network can help planners assure local retailers that business won’t suffer when street parking gets replaced with bike lanes. (For the record, there’s no evidence it does.)

As Hawley Simpson knew back in 1927, it’s “absurd” to hope for a simple resolution to the “parking evil,” as he called it. “Traffic relief must necessarily come from a series of compromises, based upon a knowledge of all the essential facts, producing steady, if perhaps slow, progress toward betterment,” he wrote. Not even the best tech can offer a quick fix to city parking, but it can help build tools in that ongoing quest — starting now.

This post was originally published on Medium.

September 21, 2016