The 2008 – 2012 Chatham Area Transportation Development Plan contains some interesting information describing the relationship between the the availability of free and subsidized parking with low transit use. What’s the connection? When major employers provide free surface or structured parking or pay for employee parking in municipal or private lots, they are they are — very often — encouraging single occupant vehicle commuting. Here’s a snip from a CAT presentation about the plan:
Across the country, interest is generally low among employers in providing transit benefits to employees, and more importantly, for encouraging the use of transit by limiting “free” parking or providing other incentives for alternative transportation modes.
I’m glad the word free is in quotes above because there’s really no such thing as free parking. To be sure, the majority of parking spaces in the city of Savannah do not require motorists to pay additional fees for using them. But that doesn’t mean they are free. It simply means that the cost of building and maintaining parking facilities is folded into other fees, taxes and the prices of goods and services.
And this doesn’t even account for the externalities. Donald Shoup, writing about parking facilities at colleges and universities, poses this question:
The added spaces increase other costs in the transportation system. After all, universities provide new parking options so drivers can use them. We should therefore ask: Do the additional parking spaces increase vehicle travel? If so, how will this added travel increase the external costs of traffic congestion and air pollution? Parking spaces do not create travel, but the clearly enable it.
To his list of externalities I would add the loss of historic structures, damage to the fabric of neighborhoods, and storm water run-off. So, while parking may be advertised as free, we are all paying for it. Even those who don’t drive.
But what does that have to do with public transit? Back to the CAT plan for a moment:
The study team learned that:
- Respondents were not experienced with incentive programs to reduce employee parking
- Organizations do not see pressing need for transit benefits given the availability of parking
- Several public and private agencies provide employees with subsidized rates at public parking facilities
The point is that few major employers offer discounted transit pases or other incentives to use transit, while simultaneously failing to recognize the substantial subsidies they offer automobile commuters in the form of free parking.
What can be done? The CAT plan suggests:
CAT should work with the City of Savannah and Chatham County governments in the development of local policies that:
- Recognize the true cost of parking (to employer and employee) and provide better incentives to use transit as an alternative to personal automobiles
- Consider transit as an important tool in both regional mobility and congestion mitigation
- Strengthen the connection between land use and transportation in planning, zoning policies
- Plan proactively for transit and pedestrian accessibility in site design and roadway design
It’s a tall order, but progress toward these goals would surely help some of our community’s most pressing problems.
A public meeting about the 2008 – 2012 Chatham Area Transportation Development Plan will be held on Feb. 26 from at 7 p.m. in the Second Floor Commissioners’ Room at Old County Courthouse, 124 Bull St. Copies of the presentation and executive summary are available now on the CAT Web site.