Why parking needs more than proof of space

The big idea in urban transport is to get users to pay for parking and suchlike. Not another piece of paper.

The Union government is considering a proposal to make car ownership contingent on the prospective buyer producing an “adequate parking space available certificate.” M Venkaiah Naidu, Union urban development minister stated that he was keen on this and promised to persuade the Union surface transport minister and the state governments on the need to do this. A recent magazine article claims that this is an “absolutely sensible move” as it has been implemented in Sikkim and Mizoram, and has is compulsory in Japan and in one place in South Korea.

Mr Naidu means well, but by itself, the requirement of a parking space certificate will open another source of corruption without doing much to reduce traffic congestion. Anyone who’s visited a local road transport office (RTO) or obtained a pollution under control certificate will know how this works.

But let’s spell it out nevertheless: it is easy to ‘show’ you have adequate parking space because spaces do not have unique identities that are in a common database. It may be necessary to pay someone — a petty official or a person with space — to ‘show’ that you have parking space. Actually, few will take the trouble to do this. It’s more likely that the licencepreneur who owns the photocopying shop next to the RTO will arrange for the parking space available certificate for a small fee. Neither the RTO, nor the traffic police, nor the Union development ministry have the resources to check whether the certified parking space exists in reality or merely in-between folds of red tape.

Needless to say this won’t make a dent in the number of vehicles being purchased. Sikkim and Mizoram are small states with populations and geographies that might even make such a policy workable. In most other places in India, especially in places where traffic congestion is a massive problem, we will just have one more layer of regulation, one more piece of paper to be procured, some more money for petty officials an licencepreneurs.

That said, Mr Naidu is nearly on the mark. The way to reduces incentives for people to purchase and use cars is to charge for parking. Every car parked on public roads not only creates road cholesterol, but also is an implicit, undeserved subsidy to a car owner. The more cars you park on public roads, the greater the subsidy you get from the government. This creates positive incentives for vehicle ownership and use. If we stop rewarding vehicle users for parking on public roads and charge them the market price of the real estate they temporarily occupy, then we will see vehicle use coming down. That, by the way, is what they do not only in Japan, but in almost in every country and city that has sensible urban traffic. It’s not unusual for parking fees to be exhorbitant in central business districts of the world’s cities. In fact, when governments charge market prices for parking in public spaces, more parking space is created as private owners realise there’s good money to be made by creating private parking lots. [Parking availability certificates have reduced car ownership in Japan because parking spaces are available at market prices. See Paul Barter’s blog post.]

The Union and state governments must come to an arrangement on pricing vehicle parking. As Donald Shoup’s research shows, the best way to make the policy work, and get public acceptance, is to ensure that the parking fees collected go to the localities from where it is collected. People are less likely to oppose paid parking if they are convinced that the proceeds from their locality will largely be used to improve that very locality. Funds can be used to finance public transport: from bus services to bus stops, to metro and commuter rail. My colleagues at Takshashila estimate, conservatively, that implementing paid parking on fewer than 10% of Bangalore’s roads can add more than 20% additional revenue to the municipal corporation’s annual budget.

A national policy to make road users pay for parking (or dumping construction material, or hawking) would be a GST-scale reform that Mr Naidu has the opportunity to be the author of. He shouldn’t settle for that red herring called the parking space proof certificate.

Related Post: Eight ways to improve traffic flows in our cities quickly and without spending a lot of money.

Tailpiece: Donald Shoup’s insight:

Drivers want to park free, and that will never change. What can change, however, is that people can want to charge for curb parking. The simplest way to convince people to charge for curb parking in their neighborhood is to dedicate the resulting revenue to paying for added public services in the neighborhood, such as repairing sidewalks, planting street trees, and putting utility wires underground. That is, the city can offer each neighborhood a package that includes both performance-priced curb parking and the added public services financed by the meters. Performance pricing will improve the parking and the revenue will improve the neighborhood. The people who live and work and own property in the neighborhood will see the meter money at work, and the package will be much more popular than meters alone. [Cato Unbound]

An eightfold path to improving urban traffic

There are quick an inexpensive ways to improve traffic flows in our cities

This is a version of an op-ed that appeared in the Bangalore edition of today’s Times of India:
We can approach a solution to the vexed problem of road traffic if we pay attention to one simple concept: flow. It is distressing to see so much of the public debate, civil society angst and government policy follow various red herrings. One the one hand policymakers blame lack of funds, and it is true that the municipal corporation’s entire annual budget is smaller than what is required to upgrade the road network to modern standards. On the other, citizens blame the pyramid of corruption that brazenly siphons off even what little funds are allocated for the purpose. There are also issues of masterplanning, infrastructure design and maintenance.

While there are degrees of truth in all these arguments, what seems to be lost is that conceptually, the problem of traffic is a problem of flow. While more money, less corruption, more infrastructure and better design are indeed medium-term and long-term solutions, they are complex and unlikely to be easily addressed in the churn of India’s democratic politics. Even so, we must push forward on them. However, in the meantime, if we focus on improving flows we can enjoy some respite from the tyranny of traffic almost immediately.

Here is an Eight Fold Path to improving traffic in the short term, without requiring to spends massive amounts of money.

First, and most important, focus on the flow. Do not get mesmerised by road-widening projects that are not only messy but might not improve the situation. Unless a road is of uniform width throughout its length, flow is unlikely to improve much by widening. In fact, uneven road width causes congestion and can actually worsen the situation. Do not widen a road unless you can widen it along its entire length.

Second, remove road cholesterol. In many places almost 40% of the road is unusable because, like clogged arteries, circulation of traffic is choked by various blockages. Potholes, construction materials, parked cars, auto rickshaw stands and street vendors interrupt traffic flow and not only cause congestion points but also endanger safety of motorists and pedestrians. No, this does not mean banning these legitimate activities. Rather, it means regulating them to minimise the impact on traffic flow. Make it compulsory for construction material and debris to be placed in bins, with a fee charged for occupying road space. Make parallel parking compulsory, draw parking lots and assign a serial number to each of them. Move auto-rickshaw stands away from street intersections. Similarly, ensure street vendors occupy designated lots.

Third, get cows and other animals off the road. It should be astounding that a city that connects India to the global economy, and one that suffers so much traffic congestion, tolerates herds of cows on its major roads. Cows might be holy but that does not prevent them from causing congestion and endangering their own lives and the lives of motorists.

Fourth, make all lanes of uniform width. Today, lanes are mostly not marked, and where they are marked, they bisect the available road width. The lack of lane markings and lanes of varying widths create no behavioural triggers for people to drive in a disciplined manner. Lane markings should always be clearly visible and not left to drivers’ imaginations.

Fifth, enforce queuing for right turns. One of the biggest reasons for congestions on major roads is that when vehicles wait to turn right, they do not queue up one behind the other. Instead, they line up side-by-side in an right-turning arc. What this means is that all the vehicles that intend to go straight ahead or turn left are blocked. It doesn’t matter how wide the road is, if right-turning vehicles do not queue up. Barricades can be placed to create a right-turn queue to create this driving behaviour norm.

Sixth, there have to be a lot more directional signs on our roads. Overhead gantries identifying lanes for left, right and straight ahead are necessary. These must be placed well-ahead of the intersection so that vehicles can change lanes much before the intersection.

Seventh, the stop line at intersections must be prominent. Right now its exact position is left to the imagination and discretion of drivers. This makes it impossible for pedestrians to cross safely or other traffic to pass across the junction. The stop line must be a lakshman rekha crossing which should attract severe penalties. Cameras already exist that can enforce this easily.

Eighth, movement of heavy vehicles and tractor-trailors cannot be unrestricted as it is now. Slow moving vehicles such as these not only slow down traffic but also create incentives for illegal and dangerous overtaking by other motorists. If they cannot be limited to certain corridors and certain times, then they must be compelled to move only in the left-most lane. Again, camera footage can be used for penalising offenders without burdening on-ground police personnel.

Finally, although pedestrians ought to have the first right on the road, they are constantly robbed of their safety and dignity. Traffic lights for pedestrian crossings seem to have been designed for Olympic sprinters, as it is almost impossible to cross even a mid-sized road in the ten seconds that are allocated for the purpose. Skybridges and underpasses are impractical if they have steep staircases or are located at unnatural crossing points. At times where traffic lights are sought to be synchronised to create “green channels” and smooth traffic flows, the pedestrian’s rights must not be sacrificed. Give them more time to cross the road; and dissuade them from crossing where they shouldn’t.