Parking Permits and Low-Car Lifestyles

Not everyone can ride a bike.

It’s true and it’s easily a top 5 argument given to oppose policies and projects that either favor alternate modes or ask that people who drive pay more of the social costs of their lifestyles.  But it is also true that most of us can ride a bike, most of us can take a bus, and most of us can walk comfortably for a mile.  It’s also true that 1/3 of Oregon residents don’t even have a driver’s license.

Managing neighborhood parking projects by pricing permits at a near-market rate can provide benefits both to the people who feel they must drive a car and for those who are already driving less or not at all.

The costs of car ownership.

According to the AAA, a small sedan costs (on average) the owner about $4,500 a year, or $12 a day, before any mileage is accounted for.  AAA estimates that driving costs about $0.16 a mile.  For a very car dependent person, someone driving 20,000 miles a year, the cost per mile is almost $0.40 (total cost/miles driven).  Counterintuitively, someone who only drives their car 5000 miles a year will be paying almost $1.00 per mile (although they will pay less total money in the year, the majority of the cost is fixed).  This is for a small sedan, the larger the car, the higher the fixed costs and the more fuel needed.

Currently, where we have them, parking permits in Portland cost $60 a year.  For $0.16 a day (coincidentally the incurred additional cost of driving one mile) you can park your car on the public right of way.  While many car owners say that even $5 a month is an excessive charge, when taken in the context of the total expense of ownership, the cost is negligible.

For a car owner who drives only 5000 miles a year, the cost of a $60 permit adds barely a penny per mile to the cost of operating.  For the car dependent person driving 20K miles a year, the permit adds barely 1/4 of a cent per mile.  A $60 permit is unlikely to change anyone’s behavior or mode share, certainly not the car dependent driver.

The less you drive, the less it makes sense to own.

Conversely, if you already own a car, it makes sense to drive it more!  All those people who can bike, walk, and take the bus, can do the math and see that they’ve already sunk so much into owning a car that it’s kind of dumb not to drive it.  Still, many choose to maintain a car even though they rarely drive it.  Common reasons include concerns about emergency transportation, loss of freedom, the desire to make weekend trips, and grocery shopping.

Market rate permits would change behavior.

Suppose the cost of a neighborhood parking permit was $600 a year.  This is still a fairly fractional cost of ownership.  For the person who drives a lot, it’s an additional cost of $0.03 per mile, but for our low-car household it’s $0.12 cents more a mile, almost as much as the cost of gas.

A household that is keeping a car (or a second car) around for convenience may look at that additional cost and question whether it’s worth it to keep the car.  This isn’t entirely rational, after all, if you’re already paying $4,500 a year to just possess the car, why should $600 make the difference?  I think there are two reasons, one is universal and one is more particular to a city such as Portland.

When you’re paying fixed costs, you don’t notice it.  A certain amount of effort went into setting up the situation one is in and payments are likely automated and budgeted. When a new cost comes along, you take a step back and re-evaluate the situation.  When your car needs $2000 in work, you decide whether it is worth the cost.  Similarly, if we can implement market rate (or closer to market rate) permits in Portland, thousands of our neighbors will take a step back and consider whether the car they keep on the street for beach trips is worth the extra $50 a month to park it there.

Secondly, a low-car household in Portland has options, lots of them.  When I sold my car in 2008 my family was able to take the plunge because we had Zipcar, Trimet, traditional rental cars, and cabs. Now we have access to Zipcar, Getaround, RelayRides, Car2Go, Trimet (with the streetcar loop and orange line added), Curb, Lyft, Uber, traditional rental car, and Spinlister (which gives a household access to cargo and other utility bikes).  Next year, the city will add bike share.

Anecdotally, I have asked people who ride their bikes, but still own a car for trips what they’ll do if they need to buy a $300-600 permit to park.  The answer is usually, sell the car.  When I ask them what they’ll do with a $60 permit cost, the answer is, buy the permit.  The price matters.

The framing will be critical.

I suggest the city craft a particular outreach message to low-car households when a permit district rolls out in their neighborhood.  For $600 a year, you can rent a car every other weekend all summer.  For $600 a year you can spend 50 a month on car share (which is a fair amount of driving).  For $600 a year you can buy a new rain jacket, gloves, and panniers.  For $600 a year you can buy 10 day passes from Trimet a month.

This doesn’t even take into account the savings from getting rid of your car.

The more that we pass the true cost of car ownership and usage onto the beneficiaries (the owners and drivers) the easier it will be for people to make rational decisions about transportation.  The imposition of a market rate parking fee with need-based discounting will not force anyone who “needs” to drive to have to get rid of their car.   What it will do is cause occasional drivers to re-evaluate what they are spending money on and have an opportunity to make a smarter decision.


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