Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Should There Be Allowed Uses for Parking Spaces?

Over the past few days there have been a few news articles that highlight unintended consequences from poor on-street parking management. Los Angeles is working to eliminate "pop-up" car markets, New York City is pushing food trucks out of midtown, and The City Fix is upset that car share cars don't get subsidized, cheap parking. All of these complaints revolve around the fact that the price of parking at a meter has nothing to do with anything. The prices are too cheap, so entrepreneurial types take advantage of low, low rent, just like Kip and Henry did when they needed a nice place to sunbathe (Skip to 0:49 in the video above).

There are lots of food truck supporters who do not think there is anything wrong with food trucks using street spaces to sell their offerings. The fact that food trucks can park cheaply is a feature, not a bug, so to speak. Yet food trucks do undermine local permanent restaurants. Trucks rarely increase overall foot traffic to New York neighborhoods. The trucks tend to go where people are by design, which also happen to be the same places that have existing delis and restaurants. This isn't necessarily a bad situation, but it isn't ideal. Ultimately, however, existing delis and restaurants have real and valid concerns about food trucks stealing business. These concerns should not be minimized or ignored.

Selling cars from street spaces seems a bit more of an obvious problem, but really the car sellers are taking advantage of the same ability to avoid paying rent as the food trucks. Clayton Lane at City Fix isn't concerned that all street parking is too cheap. He's concerned that his preferred business has to pay reasonable rents to store their equipment. The business model for car sharing makes way more sense with free parking than it does if you have to pay for parking. This does not mean that car share companies should be given free parking and more than it means that any other special group should.

Simply charging market rates for meter parking isn't likely to resolve the policy questions involved with these issues. Here is a story about people living in vans in Los Angeles. Cities generally don't let people live in vehicles on streets. There a quite a few who live in RVs in New York because parking spaces are way cheaper than rent. (Again, see the Bosom Buddies intro.) Perhaps people will be happy to have whatever uses may occur in parking spaces so long as they pay for it, but I doubt it. I suspect only preferred uses, such as food trucks, will have support from various constituents, but don't forget not everyone likes food trucks. They are noisy, they often smell of whatever they are cooking, and sometimes they blow up. Food trucks are great if you like what they are selling, just as buying a car parked on the street if you happen to need to buy a car, or free street parking is great if you live in a van.

I do like food trucks, and I also am concerned about parking management. Almost any commercial activity will value a parking space more than drivers at peak periods.Obviously Will Smith shouldn't be able to live in a trailer in SoHo, right? What if he paid market rates for those parking spaces? How do you set the market price, by demand for parking by motorists or rent per square foot for apartments? In some cases this may be good and in some cases this may be bad, but there are consequences that shouldn't be glossed over. What uses should be allowed is a serious issue for local officials. Do we need a zoning code for parking spaces? I hope not, but perhaps we do.
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