It is incontestable that there is a shortage of parking in Indian cities. One only needs to look at the number of vehicles parked on the streets to guess that the number of off-street parking spots in the city is insufficient even without considering the new vehicles added all over the country every year. This being the case, how do we tackle parking shortage?
I propose that there exist four models of parking provision in urban India. The first is direct municipal provision of parking, wherein public spaces are used to provide parking for personal vehicles. This model appears to be particularly popular in Chennai, where the city corporation planned several multi-level parking lots for public use. These parking lots were to be built either on top of bus stands or underneath playgrounds and parks. I am happy to report that the Madras High Court judgment quashing the plan to build parking underneath a playground was upheld in the Supreme Court. The Madras High Court had ruled that the Master Plan had zoned the parcel for open recreational space, and that any other use of that land would be illegal under the Master Plan.
As the Supreme Court judges further argue in this case, there is little public interest in public provision of parking for private vehicles when the cause of the parking shortage is the failure of large commercial businesses in the area to provide sufficient parking. This case also highlights the heavy social cost of providing parking. This cost is incurred not only by government due to construction of costly parking facilities, but also by children, the elderly and users of public transport, who are deprived of the use of public facilities temporarily or permanently in the process.
Of course, the courts in India are famously fickle in their understanding and definition of public interest. While the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court of India have been arguing that underground parking lots cannot be built beneath parks and playgrounds, Bangalore has been making plans to build an underground parking lot beneath the famous Cubbon Park for the benefit of lawyers and judges of the Karnataka High Court. The Karnataka High Court, which has tried to protect Cubbon Park from other wannabe encroachers in the past, seem to have changed its mind since then.
The second model gives private builders incentives (additional FSI) to build parking for public use. This model was tried out in Mumbai a couple of years ago, but rescinded when it was found that the approvals for public parking were mostly in one area of Southern Mumbai. As a result, the parking lots were under-utilized and produced no benefit to the city. Activists suspect that the scheme will only increase traffic due to new homes being built, especially when on-street parking violations are not dealt with firmly. The scheme has now been reintroduced on less favourable terms for builders, but activists remain concerned about the impacts of the scheme.
The third model is the conventional model wherein minimum parking standards are used to ensure that all residential and commercial developments have “sufficient” parking. This is the model that the Supreme Court judges seemed to favour, going by their criticism of large businesses in Chennai which failed to provide the necessary parking. This approach also has the support of the central urban development ministry. But as this news report shows, the standards laid down.for the number of parking spots are quite arbitrary.
As Prof. Don Shoup so convincingly argues, minimum parking standards are destined to fail in serving the larger public interest. For one, it is impossible to meaningfully predict the parking requirement of any given residence or commercial establishment. The number of parking spots needed will depend wholly on the location, the preferences of the residents and visitors and other factors which cannot be known beforehand. This problem can be mitigated to some extent by varying the requirements based on the availability of public transport.
The trouble with minimum parking requirements is that they often create a glut in the parking market, effectively removing the incentive for providers to charge for parking. When parking becomes free, it effectively means that those who walk or use public transit are subsidizing the parking provided for drivers. Since there is no marginal cost to using private transport due to free parking, there is an added incentive to use a private vehicle. Further, because builders are required to provide vast amounts of parking, they might prefer to build in distant greenfield sites where land is cheap, rather than spend on costly underground and multi-storey parking facilities in already developed areas. The resulting suburbanization only adds to the out-of-control growth in the number of motor vehicles.
All the three models I have described above fail precisely because they lay the responsibility of providing parking on either the government or on builders. Drivers are given the luxury of being “entitled” to parking their vehicles at a convenient location. Haphazard on-street parking is considered a “natural consequence” of the failure of commercial establishments and residential complexes to provide parking, thereby neglecting the agency of the driver who parks his vehicle without authorization.
Further, there is an enormous reluctance to accept parking fees that reflect the opportunity cost, investment cost and maintenance cost of parking facilities. For instance, the Supreme Court ruled that apartment complex builders cannot sell stilt-parking separately to apartment owners because it is for the “common use” of the residents. (According to the court’s reasoning, stilt parking is less like a garage and more like a staircase. I fail to understand how parking can be commonly used when only a section of the apartment owners also own vehicles.) What the court failed to grasp is that does little to reduce the profits of builders, but merely redistributes the cost of parking more evenly, i.e. all apartment owners will pay for the parking provided irrespective of whether they use it or not. This is precisely the kind of policy that results in more people buying automobiles.
A similar sentiment prompted the Chennai Corporation to consider regulating parking fees in private parking lots in the city. In Pune, one journalist complains about a private land-owner earning revenue by providing parking to people visiting a famous city park by charging Rs. 10 per hour. The journalist would rather have valuable park land used up for public parking. I calculated that the private land-owner will earn Rs. 36,000 per month by providing 10 parking spaces, which will occupy at least 1000 sq. ft. (In the U.S, one parking space occupies at least 130 sq. ft. For India, I have assumed that one space will occupy 100 sq. ft. and I have also neglected the space occupied by the driveway.) Assuming that one employee is paid Rs. 6,000 per month, the land-owner makes about Rs. 30,000 per month for a plot of 1000 sq. ft. This is well-below prevailing commercial rents for land in Pune.
In Delhi’s Khan Market, a recommendation to convert free parking into paid parking has been stalled in court. The shop-owners have offered to foot a part of the cost of providing parking. However, this doesn’t serve the purpose as all customers end up paying for parking that is used only by a small portion of the clientele. It is important that people using private vehicles bear the full cost of providing parking.
In this post, I have questioned the appropriateness of all existing models of providing parking in India. So what is the alternative? I would propose that an appropriate model for parking provision should be start from the following principles:
1) The task of providing parking primarily belongs to the private sector. The government can permit paid on-street parking where the street space is not required for any other purpose (by street vendors, for example). But the government should not be involved in construction and maintenance of off-street parking lots.
2) Drivers are not entitled to parking. It is their duty to find authorized parking for their vehicles, and the private sector is expected to respond to their demand for parking by building for-profit parking lots. Mizoram’s policy of requiring automobile owners to show proof of parking can be adopted throughout the country.
3) Parking fees should not be regulated, and should be demand-driven, so that there is an incentive for commuters to use other modes of travel instead. At the very minimum, parking fees should meet the opportunity costs, capital costs and O+M costs of the parking facilities. The government should treat parking provision just like any other commercial enterprise.
4) There needs to be strict enforcement of on-street parking rules. Unless unauthorized parking is dealt with severely, the demand for off-street parking will never build up and private builders will not build parking spaces.
5) There should not be an over-reliance of minimum parking requirements in order to provide parking. Standards should take into account the fact that people have varying propensities of owning and using automobiles. Further, the standards should not be based on the assumption of free parking. Rather they should be based on demand for parking with full cost recovery.
6) The use of IT to assist drivers in finding parking spots should be encouraged. This will also minimize the time drivers spend searching for a parking spot.
This is the kind of parking policy that the world-renowned expert on parking policy, Prof. Don Shoup would advocate. His book, The High Cost of Free Parking, has influenced cities around the world to shift towards more market-oriented parking solutions. But most urban areas in developed countries struggle to implement Prof. Shoup’s suggestions because they have already been built with the assumption that parking should be free and plentiful.
India, however, has a tremendous advantage in this regard. It is estimated that 90% of the commercial buildings that will exist by 2050 are yet to be built. Cities like Bombay are preparing themselves for large-scale redevelopment of entire neighbourhoods. If India changes its parking policy today, it can effectively rebuild its cities in a way that does not privilege the interests of automobiles over the interests of the city at large.
UPDATE: Anumita Roychowdhury of the Centre for Science and Environment has also written about the Khan Market case, and she makes a strong argument against free parking and the notion that parking is an entitlement.