Beverly Hills Parking Authority is Losing $4 million/yr

Garage facade
A lovely addition to our civic architecture. And it parks cars!

Call us biased, but when your Parking Authority loses $4 million per year and faces a $40 million deficit only eight years down the road, maybe it’s time to re-think our commitment to providing free and highly-subsidized parking for anyone and everyone who chooses to drive. Make that ‘over-provide’: our city has constructed at great expense more than twenty public parking structures, many with excess capacity. Yet we’ve not installed a bike rack in a commercial area in many years. At $200 per, are they simply too cheap to bother?

As Donald Shoup so cogently pointed out, there is no such a thing as free parking. In The High Cost of Free Parking, he walks us though the data to show that we spend extravagantly to over-provide every motorist with an available spot at considerable expense. He figures that a garage space can cost about $40,000, for example, which (on a per sq. foot basis) rivals the cost of constructing a residential condominium. That’s a gift to businesses; they benefit from induced (motor) traffic but get to offload the expense onto the public sector. And we pay in city services.

That dynamic was in stark relief last year when commercial interests in Beverly Hills forced onto the ballot a proposal to mandate 2 hours of free parking at most city parking facilities. Voters agreed. And now that bill is coming due: $5 million per year for the next five years with another $3 million per year for the following three years. That’s what it will cost city coffers to plug the Parking Authority operations budget hole. And that’s just to cover today’s needs.

According to the Parking Authority staff report presented to city council this week, add another $800,000 every year for additional, necessary improvements. To be clear, that amounts to $25 million $40 million by 2020-2021. [See the Parking Authority Operations and Financial Report PowerPoint delivered to City Council.]

The city can’t support it with parking receipts. It comes straight out of the general fund. (Think shortened library hours; outsourced and limited services; and consider the projects that we’d like to fund but that we won’t be able to undertake at all.)

All to accommodate car parking in public garages? Why not charge for parking commensurate with our expense of providing it, you ask? Oops – we can’t. We settled with the ballot initiative folks so we have to provide that 2 hours free. It’s a cost we simply can’t recoup.

The Public Burden of Free Parking

Shoup’s critique is a broadside against the planning & transportation professionals and the policymakers they serve for so single-mindedly upholding parking-as-a-right. Heck, if you’re a motorist, you expect to find a space near where you shop, and you’ll demand it or you’ll take your business elsewhere! At least that’s what policymakers think.

But we overlook the trump card that a city like Beverly Hills holds: it’s a distinctive destination but one marred by congestion, frustration and hassles. If you’re in a car. If you’re on foot, why we’re one of the most walkable communities going, according to the folks who evaluate these things. Yet we keep building garages with yet another one expected in the coming few years on the 200 block South Beverly. That’s the pedestrian district where people already dodge the in & out of the garage that’s already there on that block.

Like many cities, we also force private developers to over-provide parking via parking minimums built into our muni code. While not a cost directly borne by the taxpayers, there is nevertheless a cost; it is just indirect. Shoup inventories and pillories such non-fiscal costs:

Garage elevation
How does this activate the streetscape?
  • Parking minimums limits the available uses for commercial areas because so-called ‘underparked’ spaces can’t be adapted for coffee shops or other high-traffic uses;
  • Each off-street parking spot whittles away at the area available for productive use by converting to storage essentially;
  • Site challenges sometimes force developers to put car parking on the ground floor – the most economically-productive area – simply because they have to put it somewhere; and
  • Ground floor off-street parking (whether public or private) kills the streetscapes that planners tell us to activate.

Public garages, however, are economic and material black holes that devote (and devalue) high-density urban space to storage for cars 24-hours, every day, whether there is a single car to park or not. They’re often single-purpose investments in multi-use areas that are, by definition, multiple purpose. We look askance at the parking moats around malls today because they’re evidently unproductive and unpleasant to navigate, yet the parking structure brings that sensibility right into our downtowns. These civic structures are veritable monuments to misplaced priorities and misallocated capital, yet policymakers celebrate them and even commemorate new garages with a plaque. Garage commemorative plaque

In the old days, it was the library, the city hall, and the auditorium that received such a distinction. How our values have changed: our garages now assume that prominence. Yes, we’ll take your car for about 18 hours a day in any one of our many garages, but if you want to borrow a book, make sure that you check our library hours because it ain’t open as much as it used to be. And compared to other libraries, in form and function, it’s as yesterday as a horse-and-buggy.

Let’s Rediscover Our Priorities: People-Centered Mobility

Parking structures in Beverly Hills business triangle
Parking structures in Beverly Hills business triangle.

Beverly Hills owns a total of 19 structures [inventory]. Just recently we completed a facility at Foothill to serve the city’s commercial and Public Works buildings (no bike racks in evidence near either building). A few years ago went deep into the hole for the garage that serves the Montage Hotel. And now a new garage is being constructed near Crescent & Santa Monica for the Annenberg Center. Surely there will be more garages coming. (Soon, in fact, the number of public parking structures will surpass the number of bike racks available citywide.)

What’s wrong with that picture? Nothing that $25 million can’t fix.

Is it not time that we reevaluated our transportation priorities? How about a few dozen $200 racks to get people to think about riding a bike instead of dragging their iron carcass up those dreadful ramps into a parking structure? How about we install some bike safety facilities on our streets to convince motorists that it’s more convenient to ride a bike on that short-hop shopping errand than, say, to circle my block incessantly, at high speed, to find a street spot on South Beverly?

Cities are beginning to come around to the fact that commerce depends on foot traffic, not motor traffic. We’re now seeing pedestrian-oriented districts studded with new bike racks and often they are already over capacity with people dropping bucks at small shops, coffee shops, brewpubs, and bookstores. But hot here.

It seems that we’re unable or unwilling to think outside the limited and very expensive car parking box that we’ve created for ourselves. Indeed a recent Small Business Task Force findings report seemingly addressed every opportunity to stoke economic activity except alternative modes of transportation. C’mon, guys – isn’t the Chamber hip to the economic impact of new ‘locavore’ shopping districts?

It’s not like there’s not reports and data to show the way. Portland succeeded in shifting 15% of its single car traffic to other modes simply by trying. The UK finds that by doubling their cycling road network and adding 1.3 million cyclists tallies to a whopping $4 billion contribution to the national economy PLUS another $1 billion in bike and accessory sales.  Here at home, Pew finds that policy goals like enhanced safety, increased commerce, greater mobility and better environmental stewardship will be served by refocusing transportation investment. In the most focused of economic development studies, Toronto has seen bike facilities effect such a change that today, more folks arrive by foot and bicycle to the Bloor Street shopping district than in cars, and they visit more often and spend more money too.

Bloor Street is a lesson for the Chamber and our policymakers that we can do it differently if we recognize that we’re no longer in the auto-centric era. As our city begins to mull over installing a few bike racks (at this week’s Council study session) let’s hope that policymakers pick this low-hanging fruit and spend a few thousand bucks at least on some bike racks. The next step is to re-think our plans for more garages, and, eventually, revisit our parking minimums too (Shoup’s bugaboo). The very high parking minimums established by Beverly Hills was oriented toward another era. Today it is a vampire that drains the economic lifeblood from revenue-producing property: every spot that parks a car is about 300 square feet of non-revenue generating space.

That’s why businesses are so eager to offload the parking function onto the taxpayers. And why taxpayers should be eager to shift parking demand to less expensive infrastructure like some bike racks. After all, two hundred bucks parks two bikes. Maybe that’s the answer to our $25 million question, and something that policymakers should consider as they dig deeper into the general fund for the foreseeable future…simply to park cars.