Parking Panacea

Now is the time for Spokane to seize our smart parking future

Caleb Walsh illustration

Parking is a multifaceted challenge faced by urban centers throughout the world. On one hand, people would like to see ample parking that's easily accessible and offered at a low price. On the other hand, parking consumes public space and private property that could be better used to create places where people want to be. On top of that, parking systems are often fragmented and ill-equipped for today's technology, adding to drivers' everyday frustrations.

Our transportation issues may not be as inexorable as in other large cities; our medium-sized urban environment could actually help us develop solutions more quickly. With dramatic changes anticipated from autonomous driving technology, and the promise of smart metering well on its way, forward-thinking leadership and public-private partnerships are needed to position us for civic success.

This requires understanding the nature of the perennial parking problem, and how these dynamics could change in the future. Demand for parking functions more like a gas than a liquid, expanding to fill the space available and condensing when constricted to a smaller volume. In modern American cities, density is dynamism. The farther we are from each other, the less convenient it is to interact; as with economic exchange, social activity creates value. Oceans of underutilized parking destroy civic centers, aided and abetted by outdated municipal minimum parking requirements. According to a University of California-Berkeley study, there are four parking spots in existence for every car in America. That equates to a paved dead zone larger than the state of Connecticut. If parking requirements could be relaxed in favor of better integrated transportation systems, business and property owners could generate more economic value from their existing holdings and everyone would enjoy more efficient, human-centered communities.

Currently, parking is only available on a blind, lottery-style basis. In some studies, about a third of all traffic in urban centers consists of people circling around, searching for places to park. Imagine instead an app that tells you exactly where the nearest spot is available, and how much it costs in response to demand on that day. Such dynamic pricing is capitalism at its best. Instead of heavily subsidizing public parking as we do now, what if we simply priced it at the going rate and reinvested the proceeds where they are most needed? This would ensure availability and significantly reduce the problem of circling. When people have the information they need to make the most convenient and efficient transportation choice available, our entire society wins.

Spokane manifested parking ingenuity when brothers Leo and Vaughn Sanders invented the vertical parking elevator, long before the practice of razing buildings in favor of surface parking lots came into play. Now it is time to move beyond our legacy of parking infrastructure to implement better parking policies that will support smart, integrated parking systems for our urban centers. ♦

Mariah McKay is a fourth-generation daughter of Spokane and a community organizer campaigning for racial, social and economic justice. She currently serves as a public health advocate.

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