That could be a good thing! A crisis can open minds to alternatives that were unthinkable before.
A typical news item this week gives a taste. It is from Patna but could be in any Indian city.
PATNA: The parking lots available in the city are not enough to accommodate even 5% of the vehicles registered with the district transport office (DTO). ... commuters say they are forced to park vehicles on the roadside due to lack of sufficient parking space. Priyanka Kumari, a bank employee, argues, "Most of the time I park my vehicle on the roadside due to lack of parking lots. I have been fined twice, but what can I do? When the administration cannot provide parking space, what moral right does it have to impose fine on us?" ... The Patna Municipal Corporation (PMC) is working out plans to solve this problem. "We are thinking of constructing some multi-storied and underground parking lots in the city," said PMC commissioner Pankaj Kumar Pal.
Indian cities have a nasty parking spiral of low prices, high demand and on-street chaos, no commercial supply and desperation for subsidized supply
The current approach is not working. Obviously something has to change. But what?
Let's unravel the spiral in a bit more detail:
- Parking prices are extremely low, if there is charging at all.
- Enforcement is weak and intermittent. The howls of protest in Patna above reflect dismay at being fined for parking as usual.
- Car and motorcycle ownership is rocketing upwards.
- Everyone says that there is a shortage of legitimate places to park near most centres of activity.
- The walking environment is uncomfortable (partly because of all the chaotic parking), so parking three or four hundred metres away is not considered an option by prosperous car owners.
- Despite the local shortages, there is little private investment in off-street parking. It is simply a terrible investment when the competition is cheap or free/illegal parking in streets so no-one is willing to pay much for parking, nor to walk far to reach it.
- So most Indian cities look to American suburban-style parking norms (the local name for minimum parking requirements). These force building developers to create enough parking regardless of returns. They are forced to cross-subsidize their parking from other business activities, which means customers who use no parking space at all are forced to pay for it too. If you think this is a good idea for dense cities, consider the results of 50 years of this for America's inner cities.
- However, there is dismay (and ruthless enforcement) when building owners 'flout the norms' and fail to put much actual parking in the required parking areas. Why would they do that? Motorists are not willing to pay much and anyway often shun off-street parking altogether. So keeping precious built space for parking can seem like a waste. Remember, these are dense cities with high land prices. So it must be very tempting to use the space for something else.
- India's cities are therefore also scrambling to promise to build off-street parking structures themselves. But the pricey land means this is only an option on existing city-owned land (never mind the opportunity cost!) or even under parks. But the costs are still too high when weighed against the low returns.
- City-owned facilities must therefore be heavily subsidized. With every such structure, well-to-do car owners get another regressive subsidy from cash strapped local governments. This is money that could be used for much much better things. So maybe it is a blessing that progress on building such structures is extremely slow. Perhaps failure will force a rethink on parking policy.
Something has to change.
Low on-street prices and weak on-street enforcement are key sources of this nasty spiral. Doing better will require (at least) tackling these sources.
There are signs that various activists and officials in Indian cities agree. Will action follow?