Subsidized Parking

One noteworthy thing about last week’s Netroots Nation was that I was a bit surprised by how many people’s pre-conference mental image of “Pittsburgh” was of a locus of economic decay. I suppose this shows I’m too deep in the weeds of urban policy issues, but to me “Pittsburgh” referred to the great rust belt urban turnaround story I’d never actually seen with my eyes. And it’s quite a nice place, with a pretty vibrant core area. It’s also a remarkably attractive city, with a great setting among mountains and rivers and an appealing mix of older and newer buildings at a variety of scales. The downtown area, in particular, is a great counterpoint to the notion that everyplace has to be suburbs or else Manhattan.

But one thing I will note is that Pittsburgh, like many American jurisdictions, seems to have trouble thinking straight about parking. There’s a public agency of some kind, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, which does things like brag that “across the board, our rates are lower than any nearby garage.”

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That, however, is the problem. There’s nothing wrong with parking garages — every city has them. And in particular a place like downtown Pittsburgh is going to have them. But a city will have parking garages because the ability to park in a downtown urban area is a valuable thing, it’s something people will pay money for. Consequently, some undeveloped land will be used as open-air parking lots and some developers may build above-ground parking structures and/or large buildings with an underground garage element. But there’s no reason for a city to be providing subsidized, below market rate parking facilities. You provide a public subsidy for something if you think there’s some reason to believe that the market output of the thing is below what’s socially optimal. But while there’s nothing wrong with people driving around, it’s certainly not more socially optimal to encourage additional driving. Subsidized parking is regressive (poor people are less likely to own cars), it causes additional traffic congestion (more cars on the round), it causes more pollution, and it promotes inefficient use of valuable land.