A few years ago, the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston set what I hope is a record. Beacon Hill is a prosperous residential neighborhood near the central business district. It's quite compact; there are only 983 on-street parking spaces. Residents with parking permits had the exclusive use of these spaces. The city issued the permits for free.
So how many of these parking permits were there? 3,933, or four for every spot.
I have this story from Professor Donald Shoup (The High Cost of Free Parking, 2011 edition, p. 516 and footnotes 31 and 32 on p. 552). After I read it, I started to wonder about the number of active parking permits in my neighborhood in Philadelphia, which is covered by residential parking permit Zone 1.
My neighborhood is essentially the southwest quadrant of William Penn's original plan for the city, centered on Rittenhouse Square. Sometimes it's called Greater Rittenhouse. I've taken to calling it CCRAville, after the Center City Residents' Association, the local civic group.
CCRAville extends south to South Street, but Zone 1 keeps going all the way down to Washington Avenue. The South of South Neighborhood Association looks after the area from South Street to Washington Avenue, which I call SOSNAland.
Both of these groups have recently performed parking inventories. CCRAville found 1,584 Zone 1 spots. SOSNAland, which is larger, found 2,103. So there are 3,687 Zone 1 parking spaces in Zone 1.
And how many parking permits are currently in effect? Take a guess. Go ahead. Get a piece of paper and write your number down.
Okay. I filled out yet another Right to Know request and sent it off to the Philadelphia Parking Authority. A few days later they sent me a note saying they needed a little more time, and a few days after that they sent me the numbers.
As I've said before, I've found my recent interactions with the PPA to be productive and even pleasant. (There was that parking ticket six years ago.)
There are 6,957 Zone 1 parking permits currently active -- roughly two permits for every available Zone 1 spot.
How does that compare to your guess? Were you higher, or lower? Perhaps I influenced you with my story about Beacon Hill. Or maybe you couldn't believe a government agency would invite 12 people to play musical chairs when there were only six chairs.
Where Are the Extra Cars Parked?
One interesting question is where all those extra sticker owners are parking. I think the Beacon Hill story can give us some guidance here. Professor Shoup reports that in 2004 the price of a condominium parking space on Beacon Hill was as high as $167,500 (plus a monthly condo fee and annual property tax). Professor Shoup calculates the annual cost of one of these spots as $11,000. People are willing to pay a lot to be sure of a space.
By contrast, here in Philly in 2015 there is a garage a block from my house that charges $250 a month, or $3,000 a year. I've always thought that was kind of expensive, but it depends on what you compare it to -- $11,000 in Boston, or $35 at the curb in Philadelphia.
At any rate, Mike Axler and I have shown that at least 87 percent of households in CCRAville are not parking on the street in their neighborhood.
Why would you buy a sticker and never use it? The answer is that you can use it occasionally. Every once in a while there's an open spot on my block. If I know I'm going out again in an hour, I may park at the curb instead of putting the car away in the garage. It doesn't happen very often. But it's only $35.
Splitting Zone 1
There's a proposal to split Zone 1 at South Street, so SOSNAland and CCRAville would each have their own parking zones. SOSNAland seems to feel that some of its congestion issues come from CCRAvillers parking south of South. I'm inclined to agree that this happens, but I have no way to size the phenomenon. Personally I'm in favor of the proposal because I think it would make it easier to raise the price of a parking sticker in CCRAville. (There's no particular reason why all the zones in the city should have the same permit price, and yet they do.)
As part of my request to PPA, I asked for a breakout of the number of Zone 1 permits held by residents living in each of the two proposed zones. I combined those numbers with the number of spots in each area to produce these two tables.
Total on-street spots - 3,161
Zone 1 spots - 1,584
Zone 1 permits - 3,863
Total on-street spots - 4,884
Zone 1 spots - 2,103
Zone 1 permits - 3,121
As you can see, CCRAville has 2,000 more stickers than Zone 1 spots, and it seems likely that some of them are parking south of South, although I think the bulk of them are parking off-street.
On the other hand SOSNAland, on its own, has 1,000 more stickers than Zone 1 spots. So splitting Zone 1 into two pieces will not be a panacea. There still won't be enough Zone 1 parking spaces for all the permit holders.
But wait -- SOSNAland is blessed with quite a few parking spaces that are not Zone 1 -- or at least not yet. There are 2,781 of these spots. Some of them are two-hour spots, which means they're not suitable for long-term storage, although they're a good place to park overnight. Many of the spots, though, are uncontrolled -- anybody can park for as long as he or she wants.
The uncontrolled blocks are often completely filled with parked cars. Who owns them? Once again, residents tend to point to outsiders -- for instance, Penn and Drexel students who bring their cars to school and store them for extended periods. I expect this happens, but again I have no way to size the phenomenon.
What if the vast majority of people parking in these uncontrolled spots are actually residents of SOSNAland -- Zone 1 permit holders who can't find a Zone 1 spot, and other residents who choose not to buy a Zone 1 permit?
It would be good to know who's parking there. If you convert these blocks to Zone 1 status, and the people currently parking there either have Zone 1 permits or can easily buy one, then you have gone to a considerable effort and made precisely no progress in controlling parking congestion.
This brings us to an important lesson: Parking permit zones are good at excluding outsiders. When the problem is too many insiders, things get complicated.