Parking that can't be found

Khan Market in boulevard Delhi is said to be the most expensive real estate in India, maybe even in the world. But in this richest shopping destination, buyers do not want to pay for parking their vehicles.

The shopkeepers’ association has taken the local city council to court, saying it has the right to free parking. In court, it ridiculed the connection between parking and car restraint—how can pricing of parking spaces bring down car usage in cities? The very idea was farfetched, said its lawyer to the judge. Standing in the court, I could see the judge was also bemused.

This is when Indian cities are desperately jostling for space for parking their growing fleet of personal cars. Just about every street is chock-a-block with cars, so much so that there is no space to walk and there are fights—even shootouts—over parking. This is also when Indian cities are adding huge numbers of vehicles every day on to roads, worsening pollution and congestion, and also adding pieces of hardware, which need to be parked. And this is when space is at a premium in cities and unavailable for most important needs, including housing for the poor.

A car’s requirement for space is not small. Just think: each vehicle we own and use needs to be parked at home, at office and then at shopping space or anywhere else we may need to go. Planners who think of car spaces, therefore, always assume three car spaces for each vehicle. On this basis, the current fleet of vehicles in Delhi already occupies nearly 10 per cent of the urbanised space. The daily registration of cars will need an additional 2.5 million sq m, which is equivalent to 310 international football fields.

Now in fact, the city municipal corporation is desperately looking for more land; it sees all parks in the city as potential parking spaces. It wants to rip them out, build parking lots underneath and turn the top into pretty green museums or shopping arcades. But where will the children play? This is what the statutory authority, of which I am a member, has asked. Nobody wants to answer.

So what does a city do in this situation where cars are growing but land is limited? Can the price of parking reduce car use? Can a parking policy, based on the principle of payment of user charges and no subsidy to the personal vehicle owner, control numbers of vehicles on roads?

First, look at the issue of parking spaces. Should a city provide for more space for parking or restrict parking spaces? In the case of Khan Market, for instance, shopkeepers have demanded free parking for not just their clients but also for their own cars. The court has not accepted the demand; it asked the association to pay the monthly parking rate to the city council. But it has reportedly directed the city to transfer land—currently green land—to construct a multilevel parking structure.

Is more parking the answer to parking crunch? Even if it is, why should the city provide subsidised land for parking vehicles and even subsidise its use? In multilevel parking structures the cost of an equivalent car unit is Rs 6-10 lakh. This does not reflect in parking charges, thanks to Indian-type socialism, where the rich are subsidised in the name of the poor. Using the convenient argument of the middle class burden, policy allows for some 25 per cent of the area for commercial use. It then subsidises each vehicle. But more land is now needed to park the vehicles for the commercialised space.

Demand keeps growing. Policy, therefore, should be to reduce space. Most cities use parking norms to drive this change: they ask developers of buildings to satisfy parking demand. Globally, cities are learning that there is just no way they can plan for parking all cars, so they are working to reduce parking spaces in congested areas, which, in turn, forces people not to drive. In India, cities do have parking norms in municipal byelaws but enforcement is poor and, more importantly, there is a belief that all cars—today’s and tomorrow’s—can be fitted. This will have to change.

One important driver of this change is pricing for parking. An ordinary car needs some 23 sq m to park. In prime locations this space would cost Rs 40,000-Rs 50,000 per month to rent. But the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, for instance, charges some Rs 10 for a day’s parking. Any talk of increasing this is met with the Khan Market-type resistance.

Some cities are, however, finding that if they can price right, then they can also do more that is right. New York’s high parking rates have led to lower car ownership; in Shenzhen an increase in parking fees reduced parking demand by 30 per cent. The list goes on. Needless to say, getting the parking price right will be a powerful incentive for changes in mobility patterns.

Another question is whether parking rates should be raised without adequate public transport—another argument of the Khan Market variety. This means the chicken-and-egg story continues. When is public transport convenient enough to start charging for parking? Or should we stop making connections where they don’t exist?