Parking Shortages Don’t Encourage Shopping

As I’ve said before, the part of people’s brains that understands things like supply, demand, and shortages seems to turn off when the subject turns to street parking. Here in DC, for example, we turn our parking meters off and have free parking downtown on Saturdays. People like convenient parking spaces. They’re valuable. And when you set the price of a valuable commodity at zero, you get parking shortages. Which is what we have on Saturdays in key retail corridors. Perversely, the stated reason for this policy of guaranteed shortages is that it’s supposed to encourage people to come downtown to shop:

But [David] Catania and outgoing member Carol Schwartz both spoke passionately about free Saturday parking as an incentive to draw suburban residents into DC to shop and eat, and to encourage DC residents to stay in the District on weekends to spend their dollars. It might be a compelling argument, except for one thing: there’s never any available street parking downtown or in busy neighborhood retail districts on weekend afternoons and evenings.

Schwartz introduced and passed a ban on Saturday parking fees in 1997. “We get money when people come into DC to eat or shop, or DC residents stay to eat,” she said. “I asked people, ‘Why do you go to the suburbs?’ They said, ‘They’ve got free parking.’”

That might have been true in 1997, but not today. People go downtown because of the great restaurants, exciting nightlife, and walkable shopping streets. If you just want to drive to a big box store, the suburbs will win out every time. The nice restaurants downtown all run valet services. If free parking really deters so many people, why are these restaurants packed while the valets are charging $10 for parking during dinner?


Unless we want to blanket our city with surface parking lots (a very bad idea!) downtown businesses can never compete with suburban businesses on the basis of pure parking convenience. But downtown locations have other advantages. But be all that as it may, the best parking-related thing you can do for downtown businesses is to park pricing rationally. You don’t want the fee to be so high that nobody’s using the spaces. But you want it to be high enough that people can generally find a space where they’re trying to go. This isn’t about discouraging people from driving or parking, it’s about ensuring that parking is done efficiently. That kind of performance parking will reduce traffic on the streets (fewer people searching for parking spots) and be better for business. But there’s desperate need to educate the business community, because politicians are often being responsive to what business owners are telling them. One possibility would be to earmark a share of the parking fees in any given area to go to the local BID or something else along those lines.