Is free parking our inalienable right?

'We want free parking…..' is the petulant tantrum of the rich in Delhi. Read this news…The trader association of one of the most happening, and upmarket area in Delhi – Khan Market has moved the High Court to oppose the orders of the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority to charge for parking. Their plea – this "market complex is visited by high-profile clientele comprising diplomats, politicians, judges, high government officials…."  No one so far has dared to charge for parking in this most car manic area of Delhi in last 60 years!

They have finally said the unsaid in so many words. But we have said this before and saying it again -- car parks have already grabbed more than 10% area of urban Delhi, - close to as much green areas of Delhi. . Daily sale of new cars demands additional land equal to more than 300 football fields that threatens the urban commons at an enormous cost. But the basic rules of economics that bullish demand and scarcity value of land pushing up parking prices do not work in this case as no one pays or pays a pittance. Irony - most bus users pay more in daily fares than cars pay for parking in most parts of Delhi!

This desperate lust for free parking defies the law of the land. The national urban transport policy (NUTP) has said land is valuable in all urban areas and parking occupies a large part of it; recognize this, and levy high parking fee linked to the value of the land to make public transport more attractive. The Supreme Court has also taken on board the user pay principle in Delhi.

It is not just this privileged oasis in Delhi. But all cities that have got funds from the Central government under the urban renewal mission have been asked to reform parking policy as part of transportation reform. Its objective is also clear in the guidelines of the urban development ministry – "Introduce paid parking as a method to dissuade car use and/or raise revenue." The idea is to dampen parking demand and car use, and boost public transport, cycling and walking. The consultants to the city governments are also splattering these principles on the policy documents.  But this has not changed the practice across cities.
What are these dots that still don’t join?

City governments believe that it is their legal obligation to provide endless parking to meet the insatiable demand. Even NUTP is inconsistent on this – while it asks for full cost pricing it also allows bending of building bye laws to supply as much parking as needed!  Cities set generous parking requirements without considering connectivity and accessibility of location. This incites more car use, more emissions. Delhi with only 115 cars per 1000 people allows 3 parking spaces per 100 sq m of commercial area but Tokyo with nearly 400 cars per 1000 people allows 0.5 car spaces per 100 sqm. Tokyo works with low parking requirements, effective pricing, stringent enforcement and penalty and strong public transport connectivity to reduce parking demand. But we miss out on this big picture.

Haven't we seen parking demand dropping in Connaught Place immediately after the metro came? In Hong Kong the office buildings in the central area can have zero to minimal parking as these areas are very well connected with other modes. Residential parking requirements also vary depending on its accessibility. Authorities can decide parking requirements on a case-by-case basis. Cities in the Netherlands have parking standards based on the accessibility of each location.

If our authorities are getting too generous with extra parking spaces at least ask is that the best use of land? The same space could also have a school, affordable housing, or public green spaces! Why do we have to tie up investments with individual and private parking especially for each building? Let the available parking in the neighbourhood be public, common and priced -- park, pay and walk!

Pay? How much? Though the policy makers are beginning to accept that car users must pay the full cost of parking and get no subsidy, they shy away from practising it. Providing cheap parking for them is public good that gets brownie points. The municipal governments see themselves as the parking fee regulator but lack courage to charge full costs to recover land cost, capital costs and maintenance costs of parking spaces.

The pampered car users also take this as a matter of right and hold governments accountable for capping parking fees for consuming public land for personal use. It is not government's obligation to regulate and subsidise parking fees nor is this the legal right of car users to demand so. The onus should be on the parking operators to recover their costs and profits.  The market will find its own level, price will respond to demand to optimizes the use of the scarce parking area, and still ensure that at least 85% of the parking is full during peak hours.

If the government can slacken hold over fuel pricing why not parking fees! City authorities only stand to gain if they understand the revenue potential of free pricing. The lease agreements with the parking operators and its periodic renewal can help municipalities to tap higher revenue from the increased earnings. And that can be used for improved public transport connectivity and other needs. Let the municipalities focus only on design guidelines, enforcement, rules for pricing (variable rates etc), magnitude of penalty, and parking needs of bicycles, buses, autos and trucks.

Globally, governments are rethinking this strategy. Bogota has removed limit on the fees that private parking companies can charge. The increased revenue is used for road maintenance and public transit improvement. Paul Barter who has recently reviewed Asia wide parking policies asks if property rents can be totally market driven and without government control then why parking charges are controlled?

But the biggest disconnect today is the poor understanding of the multiple goals of a parking policy. This is starkly clear from the bizarre fight over parking fees in Delhi where the shopkeepers have asked – how parking can help to lower air pollution! People do not understand the obvious benefits of reducing exhaust pipes through car restraint measures, or the fuel savings. Even in the car centric US, a city like Boston that was unable to meet the clean air standards froze their parking requirements at a level that is only 10 per cent higher than the 1973 level and met the federal clean air standards. In New York very high parking fees and limited parking supply have lowered car ownership far below the average rates in other US cities.  Clearly, the wind of change is blowing.

Should our hearts bleed for the poor little rich man?