Spoonful of sugar: 30 ways to make parking fees palatable

Paid on-street parking is among the most useful tools in parking management. But introducing or expanding it is unpopular.

So this edition of Reinventing Parking provides you with thirty promising suggestions for making parking fees popular …

Wait. Cancel that. You can’t make parking fees popular! Of course not!

Below you will find thirty suggestions on the more realistic goal of making parking fees LESS UNPOPULAR.

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There is lots more detail below. But first here is a list of all 30 suggestions.

  1. Think differently and talk differently about on-street parking
  2. Have a good answer to the claim that ‘this is an outrageous entry fee to a place that should be free for everyone’
  3. Proceed one area at a time with local demonstrations
  4. Use trials
  5. Please don't make revenue the goal
  6. Consider 'radical generosity' on parking revenue
  7. Earmark parking revenue to improve public acceptance
  8. Set up a trusted institution to oversee the earmarked parking revenue and how it is spent
  9. Target the benefits both locally AND city-wide
  10. The goal should be parking management, in particular vacancies
  11. Demand-based pricing avoids making elected officials vote on routine price adjustments
  12. Have cheaper parking nearby
  13. Have cheaper times to park too
  14. Talk about charging the LOWEST prices that achieve the goal
  15. Price the parking only where and when it is necessary
  16. Make sure new fees result in visible/tangible improvements
  17. And if the benefits are disappointing, be ready to make adjustments
  18. Point to relatable examples
  19. Learn lessons from relevant paid parking failures too
  20. Point out that badly managed parking is not fair or equitable
  21. Explain that free parking is a terrible way to help the poor
  22. Beware of concern trolling
  23. And DO address real equity concerns!
  24. Note that time limits are not especially fair either
  25. Do abolish time-limits when you introduce parking fees
  26. Choose payment mechanisms with care
  27. Point to other mobility options and how they are being improved
  28. Tips specific to making right-priced residential permits more palatable
  29. Minimize "leakage" and corruption! (of course)
  30. Get a good deal from any private operators of the system

Parking fees are unpopular but often necessary

Well-designed paid parking is often exactly what streets need to overcome parking chaos, nuisance and conflict and to help cities wean themselves away from minimum parking requirements. 

Unfortunately, the unpopularity of parking fees is no joke.

Here is a quote.
In Melbourne, 96% of parking is free to the user, and threats to the protected status of free parking can evoke anger and sometimes overt violence. The ‘Arab Spring’ in the suburb of Yarraville is an example – the installation of parking meters ($1.50 an hour) on a shopping strip led to street protests, banners, vandalism, and other political action. When this failed, councillors were physically attacked at a council meeting. Local traders compared the incident to the Arab Spring – in that, other political channels being exhausted, violence was the only option remaining for “standing up and saying this isn’t right”. The parking meters were switched off.

That was urban planning academic Elizabeth Taylor in her article “Journey into the Immense Heart of Car Parking”. It’s a good read.

Yarraville may have seemed an extreme case but there are places like it all over the world that need well-designed parking fees but are prevented by the political difficulties (to put it mildly).

Huge numbers of municipalities urgently need to do better on this.

So let’s get on with the suggestions.

Some of this is my thinking but I am also drawing on lots of other people’s suggestions too, such as Donald Shoup's most obviously.

1. Think differently and talk differently about on-street parking

This one is a little bit ‘meta’, as they say. But don’t worry, I will get to down-to-earth, practical suggestions soon.

It’s a really bad idea to portray free-of-charge parking as somehow the ‘natural’ state of things.

It just as 'natural' to need to manage an overburdened resource like curbsides in busy areas.

And free parking is only really natural in places where there is hardly any parking demand.

People who say free parking is natural often also says it’s a 'public good'. Assuming they mean that in its proper sense, claiming parking is a public good means: 1) my parking doesn't impact on your parking and 2) that charging a fee to ration it would be way more trouble than it is worth.

Now those claims are sometimes true! But only in places and at times with plenty of empty parking spaces.

Otherwise my parking DOES impact on yours. And charging fees IS worthwhile.

So most urban parking is NOT a public good and keeping it free of charge is NOT natural.

Such parking is an overused common property resource like overburdened village grazing land. It’s under pressure and needs management.

So please push back when anyone claims it is natural to keep on-street parking free-of-charge.

Here is another claim to push back on.

2. Have a good answer to  the claim that ‘this is an outrageous entry fee to a place that should be free for everyone’

When on-street parking fees are proposed near a popular beach or public park someone will inevitably object by saying that the fees are effectively an entry fee for the beach or the park, which must be kept free-of-charge for all.

Hidden in this objection is the car-dependent assumption that going somewhere and driving there are the exact same thing. People who go almost everywhere by car start to think that way.

They don’t say a bus fare to the beach is an outrageous entry fee and the inconsistency doesn’t occur to them.

I think they must be assuming that free on-street parking is the natural thing. So they think of a parking fee is an extra imposition somehow and not part of the cost of their trip like a bus fare.

But we need to defend such parking fees and push back against the “entry fee” objection.

It’s a good start to point out that bus or taxi fares to the beach or park are not free. But we also need to counter the ‘free parking is natural’ idea here too.

Now, if you think that the comments above might not be very persuasive to the kind of person who says parking fees are outrageous entry fees, well you are probably right.

In most of my suggestions today, you mostly won’t persuade the angry ones. But don’t forget all the people out there who are not so angry and are still open to persuasion.

And I am just getting started. None of the suggestions today are killers on their own. But put them all together they should help make parking fees easier to get done.

3. Proceed one area at a time with local demonstrations

One of the beauties of parking management, including parking fees, is it’s local.

This means we can proceed incrementally area by area. You don’t need to cover the whole city at once. In fact please DON’T do that!!

As an example, in January’s Reinventing Parking we heard how Auckland has been using this strategy for its ongoing roll out of parking fees in its streets. Each successful localized implementation eases the fears and helps counter the objections of each subsequent expansion.

4. Use trials

This one is inspired by ‘tactical urbanism’. The idea is use temporary ‘trial’ changes to demonstrate benefits without the need for a final decision initially.

This approach is famously often used for street design changes which almost always include changes to parking.

But a trial-based approach might also be useful for pricing too.

Of course, actually installing parking meters would make for an expensive trial. And it would provoke suspicion that the decision was a forgone conclusion.

So why not try out parking fees with lower capital cost payment options, such as phone-based payments along with human parking attendants, at least temporarily.

Of course, the institutional work to enable a pricing trial would be more complicated than for a street design but still I think this worth considering for cities struggling to get started on parking fees.

Now let’s talk about the goals of on-street parking fees.

5. Please please please don't make revenue the goal

It’s political poison to focus on general revenue.

Of course it is understandable for governments to be interested in revenue. Cities need funds to do important things.

But revenue should be seen as a happy side-effect of good parking management, not its purpose.

No matter what you do, someone will CLAIM that the parking fees are just a cash grab. Don’t make it easier for them!

This suggestion also means not letting revenue considerations influence the specific price-setting and system planning decisions either. Such decisions should be based on parking management goals not revenue ones.

I’ll return to the question of goals a little later. We'll find out exactly which goal within parking management is relevant.

But for now I need to talk some more about the revenue from parking fees. 

6. Consider 'radical generosity' on parking revenue

This is especially relevant if you’re trying to introduce parking fees to new areas, which is the difficult thing.

Here is a bold claim: getting better parking management is more important than getting new revenue from the parking management.

The wider social costs of rotten parking management and its side-effects are huge.

In any case, the city won’t get ANY revenue if parking fees can’t make it through the political process.

And even basic parking management is likely a drain on the coffers if it can't include parking fees.

So why not make a really strenuous effort to prove that parking revenue is not the goal? On-street parking fees offer cities much more value than merely the revenue.

The next few suggestions are relevant and explore how radical generosity might play out in practice.

7. Earmark parking revenue to improve public acceptance 

I should note that earmarking revenue and tying the city’s hands is not ideal.

General revenue is more efficient and often more of a pro-poor use of revenue, but it is usually politically poisonous.

So parking is a case where earmarking is usually needed to sweeten the deal.

But WHAT should any parking revenue surplus be earmarked for?

Here are some earmarking issues to keep in mind.

The benefits need to be salient. In other words, they need to be noticeable and relevant.

Using the funds for something relevant to mobility is one way to be salient.

And you need to please the right groups of people, such as groups who may otherwise veto the fees. Local residents and local businesses are usually examples.

But this also causes dilemmas. Targeting benefits to certain influential groups also has risks. It might alienate others.

For example, one Shoup suggestion is to give local residents special discounts on parking fees. This is possible with any of the modern digital payment options that capture license plates. It would be popular with the locals but might be resented by others.

Possibilities to receive earmarked parking revenue include:
  • Local enhancements, especially those valued by local residents and businesses
  • OR a similar idea but focused more on local accessibility and mobility enhancements.  For example, in the March edition of Reinventing Parking, Tony Jordan explained how parts of Portland, Oregon, are using parking revenue on a program for locals called the "transportation wallet", which is a package of bus credit, streetcar credit, bike-share membership and car-share membership.
  • OR donate the revenue surplus to local charities
  • OR give ratepayers rebates on local taxes 
  • OR simply give a share of the money to every household and business in the area
  • OR maybe even give the whole population tradeable ‘parking credits’ which can be used to pay for parking in the municipality.

You will need a local process to find out which options will go over best in your city.

I never said this was easy, did I?

8. Set up a trusted institution to oversee the earmarked parking revenue and how it is spent

Donald Shoup’s main proposal on this is to set up an institution called a Parking Benefit District which then has responsibility for deciding on how to use the revenue locally to improve local facilities.

This appeals to local residents and local businesses mainly by increasing their democratic input on the use of the funds.

Parking Benefit Districts also aim to increase trust in the financial oversight of the revenue. As always, they  need checks and balances to make sure they live up to this aim.

The idea is slowly spreading and Shoup’s website has much more on PBDs.

9. Target the benefits both locally AND city-wide

There is a dilemma here and I notice that Donald Shoup himself has been wrestling with it over the years.

Some cities earmark parking revenue for public transport. San Francisco for example.

But spending on city-wide systems, like public transport, may not be enough to ease local resistance. Indeed, San Francisco still has a lot of trouble extending parking fees to new streets.

So Shoup has often argued that spending parking revenue locally was best to make sure the benefits are tangible enough for the key local stakeholders to generate enough political support.

But in recent years Prof Shoup has written about potential equity problems with this. If mainly wealthy areas are the ones with the most in-demand on-street parking then keeping earmarked parking revenue very local could worsen geographical disparities in many cases.

So in a June 2018 opinion piece for the New York Times, Shoup offered this suggestion:
To avoid unequal public spending among the parking benefit districts, New York can use what in public finance is called power equalization: Regardless of the revenue each district earns, the city can give every district equal revenue per curb space to pay for added public services.

I am keen to know more about that and how it will work politically and in practice.

Now, let’s get back to that earlier issue of the goals of the parking fees.

10. The goal should be parking management, in particular vacancies 

It harms support for on-street parking fees if the city can’t explain their purpose persuasively.

And it the city itself is not clear about this, the fees are unlikely to get updated wisely. It’s politically difficult to update them if the city can’t point to an easy-to-explain reason to adjust them.

So eventually the city ends up with parking fees that make no positive difference. People then ask, what is the point? They start to assume the purpose is revenue. And they might be right!

So be clear and choose the goal wisely.

The purpose of on-street parking fees needs to be parking management, which means better conditions in the streets.

And the best specific parking management goal to focus on is vacancies. This means aiming to keep a few parking spaces vacant on each section of street.

This goal is based on evidence. We get zero parking search time for on-street parking if the vacancy rate is 15% or better.

But if on-street parking is any more full than that we start to get side-effects – like double parking, illegal parking and excessive searching (or cruising) for parking.

Now, if we want parking fees to create vacancies we need to set the fees with that goal in mind.

This is the demand-based approach to setting the parking fees and more and more cities have started to use this approach, demand-based parking pricing, as advocated by Prof Donald Shoup.

I listed those cities in my June 2018 article on Reinventing Parking: ‘Every city with "Goldilocks" parking fees’. Examples include Calgary and Vancouver in Canada, Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Baltimore and quite a few in the USA.

Demand-based parking pricing has various advantages but today’s focus is on how it eases the unpopularity of parking fees! So the next few suggestions are related to that.

11. Demand-based pricing avoids making elected officials vote on routine price adjustments 

Having city councillors vote whenever parking prices need adjusting is asking for trouble.

It puts them in a difficult position. It casts them as the price-increasing villains.

So avoiding these fights is a big advantage of demand-based fees.

Oh and don't consult the community on routine price changes either. It is predictably unhelpful.

I am not suggesting being undemocratic here! Advocates of demand-based price-setting say YES let’s debate the price-setting approach (and maybe repeat the debate once a decade or so).

But specific price adjustments should be frequent, routine and data driven with no need for any votes by politicians.

For example, the City of Seattle publishes a yearly report about the on-street paid parking occupancy situation and explains the various parking fee adjustments and how they are justified by the data to hit the target of ‘enough’ vacancies. Seattle also relies on this data to modify pricing zones, change priced times and even extend pricing to new locations. In some places they have introduced time-of-day price variations.

Suggestion 12 also relates to demand-based pricing.

12. Have cheaper parking nearby

“Walk a block, save a buck!” is a slogan used by Baltimore’s Parking Authority for its demand-based parking price setting.

Resentment of fees is lessened when people see they can do something to reduce their costs.

So the ability to save money by walking a little is a selling point of this approach to setting parking fees. Take full advantage! Shout about it like Baltimore.

This is actually part of how such parking fees work to improve the situation. On-street parking fees improve a street by nudging some motorists to park off-street or on streets where the parking pressure is lighter.

And this is the crux of an answer to a common objection which says “parking fees won’t work here because we have such rotten public transport”.

Improving mobility options is one of the suggestions later. But in fact most of the ability of on-street parking fees to ease the parking chaos comes from nudging motorists to change WHERE they park, not how they travel. So in most cases, public transport is not necessary to see at least some improvement as a result of parking fees. There is a June 2017 post about that on Reinventing Parking.

By the way, pricing zones need to be made quite small if you want people who are heading to streets with over-burdened high-priced parking to have the option of cheaper parking nearby.

13. Have cheaper times to park too

Giving people options that save money can also mean making parking cheaper at quiet times.

So time-of-day price variations are used by many cities that have demand-based parking fees.

They send the message that you have one more way to pay less: visit off-peak if you can.

14. Talk about charging the LOWEST prices that achieve the goal

Aiming for a low price sounds good, right? No one wants to pay more than necessary.

But we ALSO want effective parking management that actually solves parking problems.

Demand-based setting of parking fees does both. It aims for the lowest price that hits the vacancies target, which is our evidence-based parking management goal.

That might sound too good to be true. But it’s not! It’s inherent in this approach to setting the prices.

Furthermore, demand-based pricing is NOT the revenue maximising strategy! Revenue would be maximised with a much higher vacancy target. This was explained by Donald Shoup in The High Cost of Free Parking.

It’s really important to get this message across to retailers. Understandably they are usually nervous that parking fees will deter customers. They need to understand that demand-based price setting strives not do that.

By the way, this is another reason to have small price zones since it reduces the chance that a price that is right on average for a whole zone might be too high and overdo it on a particular street. Seattle had to split its International District/Chinatown pricing zone for this exact reason. I explained that in an August 2014 post on the Reinventing Parking website.

Aiming for the very lowest price that achieves the vacancy goal is reassurance that the city will try hard not to overdo the fees. Donald Shoup has emphasised this point many times over the years.

Number 15 sends a similar message.

15. Price the parking only where and when it is necessary

When the city is clear about the goal of on-street parking fees, it becomes much clearer where and when fees are needed.

They are ONLY needed at places and times that regularly have full parking for an extended period.

Everywhere else, the right demand-based price for on-street parking is zero.

16. Make sure new fees result in visible/tangible improvements

It can be tempting when starting on parking fees to keep them low to try to reduce the backlash.

But pricing will be seen as a failure if a timid pricing effort means that parking remains saturated and chaotic.

Remember, I said to emphasize parking management goals. This is most credible if people can see obvious results in the streets.

This may also require some complementary efforts on parking enforcement and parking design, which is part of street design,

Fortunately, many parking management improvements start with such an awful situation that the benefits are indeed highly tangible.

17. And if the benefits are disappointing, be ready to make adjustments

Maybe the prices are too low to generate enough vacancies.

Fixing this will be easier if you use demand-based price setting, since the prices will keep changing at each review until they are about right.

Even if you don’t have formal demand-based price setting, you can try to explain that the price needs to be raised again to make enough difference. But it might be difficult.

Also be ready to adjust the priced times and/or the boundaries. You may need to expand or shrink priced areas or adjust price zones like Seattle did.

Suggestions 18 and 19 are obvious perhaps. But here they are anyway.

18. Point to relatable examples

If you are extending parking fees to new places, it is great to be able to point to paid parking successes in a municipality nearby or within your own state or province or country.

It’s less common but sometimes you can point to past successes with paid parking in your own city.

For example, a few years ago Johannesburg had a fairly successful experience with paid on street parking which ended for reasons that had nothing to do with parking management. This experience should make it politically easier for Jo’burg to reintroduce on-street parking fees in the future.

19. Learn lessons from relevant paid parking failures too

If there has been a high profile failure or a high profile rejection of on-street parking fees in your city or nearby, then you probably need to investigate what went wrong and try to avoid the same mistakes.

Any municipality in Melbourne (outside the city centre at least) that tries to implement on-street parking fees needs to know how to avoid repeating Yarraville’s parking experience!

Let’s turn to equity issues now. Equity or fairness will always be a key line of attack on any pricing proposal. It’s understandable and deserves to be taken seriously.

20. Point out that badly managed parking is not fair or equitable

If on-street parking in busy areas is not well managed, who gets the most convenient parking? Usually it’s people who arrive early and park all day. How is that fair?

We also know that weak parking management, with no parking fees, can lead to street chaos, road danger, and congestion. For various reasons, these impacts fall heavily on disadvantaged groups much more than on wealthier people.

But there is more.

Parking chaos and congestion caused by parking mismanagement prompts cities and other governments to devote huge chunks of taxpayer money to easing those problems with supply, such as subsidized parking, road expansions and so on. Such investments benefit high-income motorists much more than low-income people with lower rates of car-ownership. It prompts high parking minimums which harm housing affordability and promote sprawl which hurts the poor too.

It is an equity strength that parking pricing helps prevent those outcomes!

A blanket statement saying ‘parking pricing is inequitable’ is totally inaccurate. Introducing parking fees can often be fairer than the status quo if you think about it a little.

21. Explain that free parking is a terrible way to help the poor

In many cities, cars are owned mainly by households with above average incomes. That is the case in most cities in low-income and middle-income countries and in some districts within high-income cities too. So, on average, parking fees imposed on car users are actually fairer than the prices of food or clothing prices.

Even in car-dependent cities, affluent households tend to drive more than poorer car-owning households. And most of the very poor don’t drive at all.

Here is Michael Manville in a recent Transfers Magazine article talking about congestion pricing but the point applies to parking fees too:
Do free roads help the poor? Poor people have little money, so holding down prices can help them. But poverty is fundamentally a problem of low incomes, not high prices. The ideal anti-poverty program would therefore transfer money to low-income people and let them spend it as they see fit, not selectively lower the price of some goods and hope that poor people want them. Ideal programs aren’t always feasible, of course, and efforts to give poor people money often encounter political resistance. Sometimes keeping prices low is the best we can do. But if lowering prices is the path we take, we should either lower prices only for the poor ... or — if we lower them for everyone — do so only for goods the poor use disproportionately (as we do with transit fares). Free roads, especially at peak hours, satisfy neither of these criteria.
And neither does free parking satisfy those criteria.

22. Beware of concern trolling

Many complaints about the unfairness of parking fees seem to be cover for opposition on other, more self-serving, grounds.

Just be aware of that.  But also be careful accusing anyone.

23. And DO address real equity concerns!

Affordable access IS a strong reason to take action to help poor people reach the things they need.

But it is a weak argument for keeping parking free or cheap for everyone. Doing that can cause huge problems.

Nevertheless, there may often be a case for special measures to help poor motorists when starting parking fees in a new area.

One way might be to offer a certain number of ‘parking credits’ to eligible low-income motorists.

Using part of the parking revenue to help the poor directly is also an option as we will see in a little while.

Using parking revenue to improve services used disproportionately by low-income people is another approach.

Here is one more point specifically about equity issues.

24. Note that time limits are not especially fair either

Some opponents of parking fees will claim that time limits are a fairer way to do the same thing.

Now, time limits ARE OK in some circumstances.

But as parking pressure rises, there is a limit to how short you can make the time limits.

How is a 30 minute or 1 hour time limit fair to people who need to stay for a little longer than that?

Compliance with time limits is always low unless enforcement is fierce. But that enforcement is costly and doesn’t seem very fair to people who get a ticket for being a few minutes late back to their vehicle.

So abolishing time-limits can actually be popular.

This brings me to suggestion 25.

25. Do abolish time-limits when you introduce parking fees

Some parking experts swear by a combination of time limits and fees ... for turnover and perhaps as a 'fail-safe' in case the fees don't get updated often enough or to the right levels to have their full parking management effect.

But if the previous time limits were restrictive and enforcement of them was seen as over-zealous,  abolishing the time limits can be a popular selling point for introducing fees instead.

People often really value having the option to linger over lunch, see a film, or be delayed by an appointment that takes much longer than expected.

It is a shame to miss out on this boost to popularity by keeping the time limits even after the pricing starts.

26. Choose payment mechanisms with care

I won’t go into details but the payment methods for any new parking fees should strive not to irritate anyone.

Or at least try hard not to needlessly add to the inherent irritation of paying for parking.

27. Point to mobility options and how they are being improved

I mentioned earlier the options of parking at some distance and walking and of visiting at off-peak times.

Improving other mobility options also helps a little.

Some objectors will still complain about parking fees no matter how good the options become.

But tangible improvements to public transport, bicycle facilities, to walkability and to the various other mobility services can ease the negativity about parking fees a bit.

It is especially helpful if you time the introduction of pricing to coincide with a significant improvement to one of the alternatives to driving.

28. Tips specific to making right-priced residential permits more palatable

Here are a few small suggestions specific to the difficult task of getting permits priced at more appropriate levels.

Most on-street residential parking permits are incredibly cheap even in dense urban districts where the on-street parking is in very high demand. Ideally, the number of permits should not exceed the available spaces and permit prices should rise until there is no waiting list.

But it is difficult politically to take a privilege away once it has been given.

One way to phase in higher, demand-based permit prices is GRANDFATHERING. This means people with existing permits face the same prices as before (with indexing for inflation). The prices are ‘grandfathered in’. But any new permits are priced at new demand-based rates.

This might seem like discrimination but new residents will know the permit prices they face before deciding to move in. Gradually, as people move in and out of the area, most permits should become market-rate ones.  This has been tried in the West End of Vancouver since 2017.

I want to end with two more suggestions on the issue of trust that parking fees are not being wasted and not going to the wrong people. 

29. Minimize "leakage" and corruption! (of course)

Please make sure the fees system is designed to make corruption and ‘leakage’, which is a euphemism for theft, are very rare.

30. Get a good deal from any private operators of the system

Most cities make use of private sector operators and vendors to set up and often to run the parking fees system.

Citizens want assurances that these deals are value for money.

So be sure to have competitive tenders, not negotiated appointment!

There seems to be a tradition in many places of having a 30:70 revenue sharing arrangement with only 30% to the city.

This is a complicated issue but get good advice. A promising approach is to make sure the operator’s share becomes part of the competition in the bidding process. This came up in the Reinventing Parking edition on India’s on-street parking last year.

Wow. That was 30 suggestions for making on-street parking fees less unpopular. 

Did I forget any? Did I get anything wrong? Please let me know with a comment below. 


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