Performance pricing is NOT pricing for "traffic restraint"

Early reactions to proposals for demand-responsive pricing of parking are often plagued by confusion.

When people hear about performance-pricing for the first time, they often confuse it with another (more familiar) parking policy: using high prices to restrict traffic. 

If you are a regular Reinventing Parking reader, then you probably won't make that mistake. But be aware of it whenever you try to explain performance pricing to anyone else. Your audience is likely to jump to the conclusion that you simply mean higher parking prices to limit car use.

Comment threads for articles on Donald Shoup's demand-responsive pricing suggestions often have examples of this misunderstanding. For example, this article prompted this comment:
... If, today, you raise the price of parking in most places (Boston included), you reduce mobility. Somehow public transit has to simultaneously be improved while parking is reduced. ...
Even this supportive comment on the same item blurs the distinction between performance pricing (for vacancies) and pricing to deter car use:
... What policies such as congestion pricing, parking pricing, and road diets do is make people switch from driving to not taking the trip or to taking public transit ...

Now I am not against city-center parking restraint and the fact that it leads to high parking prices. It is often a good idea. But it is NOT performance-pricing! It is something else.

For decades, London has been gradually restricting the supply of parking in order to increase parking prices and reduce traffic. It limited its central-area parking as part of its Travel Demand Management (TDM) policies. Sydney too. In fact, many cities in Europe and Australia do this to some extent. According to ITDP:
Amsterdam, Paris, Zurich and Strasbourg limit how much parking is allowed in new developments based on how far it is to walk to a bus, tram or metro stop. Zurich has made significant investments in new tram and bus lines while making parking more expensive and less convenient.
Seoul is one of the few Asian cities to deliberately limit parking supply in its business districts. In the USA, EPA regulations also prompted a few cities to restrict parking supply, producing high prices in their central business districts (CBDs).

Buildings in Seoul's CBDs have tight limits on the parking spaces they can provide.

Such policies are often a great idea, especially for central areas that are well served by mass transit, but they are not performance pricing.

Now, let's try to be clear about distinctions (and connections) between a) performance pricing and b) using parking as TDM:

1.  The two policies have different aims.

A key claim for performance pricing is indeed that it would reduce traffic. Uh oh... there is fuel for confusion there. But the key to this is its goal of reducing CRUISING for parking. It does NOT aim to reduce car travel itself (although it should help that agenda indirectly in the longer term). By contrast, parking restriction does aim to deter car-based visits to central areas.

2.  The two policies are compatible (this is good but it could also cause confusion)

Parking restrictions nudge off-street parking prices upwards. If such parking restraint were COMBINED with performance-pricing for on-street parking then the on-street parking prices will also be a market outcome and should also rise as supply shrinks. So even though the two policies are not the same thing, they are actually compatible.

In fact, many of the cities that are most urgently in need of on-street parking reform (such as performance pricing or something similar) are those whose CBDs do restrict parking but which still have under-priced on-street parking  (think of the business districts of New York City). This produces a toxic combination of very expensive off-street and very cheap on-street parking, causing extreme levels of cruising for parking. This obviously undermines the benefits of the parking restraint.

San Francisco has also been a case of this! And SFPark is being tried as an answer to the problem. So it is no accident that SFPark is being tried in a city which has a "transit-first" transportation policy that includes parking maximums in the central area.

Unfortunately, this also adds to the confusion. Many people seem to think, "hmmm ... if San Francisco is doing demand-responsive pricing for parking then it must be about restricting cars".

3.  But the two policies need not go together

Many CBDs around the world that restrain parking don't use performance pricing. As mentioned above, some still underprice their parking. Others manage on-street parking quite well but don't use explicit performance pricing. Most of them manage their on-street parking on a zonal basis in order to achieve on-street prices that are similar to, or higher than, the market-based off-street parking. The outcomes of this are probably similar to a simple version of demand-responsive pricing (since the market-based off-street prices are a benchmark) but vacancies are not the explicit target in setting prices.

And cities could certainly do performance pricing even without restricting parking supply. In fact, this is a key point I am trying to make with this post.

4.  Performance-pricing SHOULD be more politically palatable than parking restrictions

Actually, I should say first that even parking restraint CAN be clever politics, at least in city centers and at least compared with some of the other ways to tame traffic. For example, parking restraint is one of the secrets behind Berlin's traffic limitation strategies and was achieved without much political backlash. CBD parking limitation is certainly much more widespread around the world than congestion pricing, for example!

But beyond transit-oriented CBDs, parking restrictions tend to be unpopular. There are many places where it is currently politically impossible to restrict parking supply and to deliberately drive parking prices higher.

This confusion is an obstacle to performance-pricing reform

Now you should be able to see why I have tried so hard to emphasize that performance pricing is NOT the same thing as using parking for travel demand management or traffic restraint.

Performance pricing SHOULD be possible even in places that have no local political appetite for traffic restraint. But not if the two keep getting conflated in people's minds.


  1. All good points! Essentially with performance parking your supply is remaining fixed, but the price fluctuates. It's important to remember that prices may go up or down.

    For example the prime *main street* locations will now have some vacancy where the adjacent sub-prime parking spaces are suddenly filled by long term parking.

    This is the case with a client I'm working with in a suburb of Boston. Overall there will be higher utilization and more cars. But also less cruising and less traffic congestion in the core as employees move to cheaper parking.


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