A rare opportunity to make an easy decision about parking

Michael Schwartz is the director of Transportation Planning for Ride Report, a policy adviser to Bike Durham, and a Durham resident.
Michael Schwartz is the director of Transportation Planning for Ride Report, a policy adviser to Bike Durham, and a Durham resident.

There is an old saying “Never discuss politics, religion, or parking in polite company.”

OK, I made the third one up, but I think readers understand why I put it in there. Parking is a loaded topic. Some people think we should build new parking decks so everyone who might want to drive to Durham on the most popular night of the year has a spot. Others (myself included) believe parking is going to be less necessary with transit investments, capital improvements that make arriving by transit, bike, or on foot more attractive, the onset of new technologies like dockless bike share and ride-sharing services, and autonomous vehicles. Regardless of where you fall, there is a timely policy decision that can achieve a rare consensus on this topic.

First Baptist Church of Durham, five minutes northeast of City Hall by foot, has been letting city employees park in its lot during weekdays — when there aren’t any churchgoers — for free for a number of years. However, the church has rightly realized that with downtown Durham’s popularity, it can now charge. On March 5, the City Council voted unanimously on consent (i.e., no discussion) to authorize the city manager to execute a lease with the church for the 13 (13!) parcels to be used collectively as a parking lot.

The city is planning to foot the bill and subsidize parking at the leased lot for any employees who still wish to drive: a very generous benefit that comes at a real cost to taxpayers and a significant policy decision. But what if you are a city employee who doesn’t drive to work? You could hold onto the parking spot and have it go unused much of the time or give it up altogether which saves the city money. The problem is that if you give up your space, you are essentially making less than someone with the same salary who drives because their compensation package includes this transportation subsidy while yours does not.

Enter parking cash out, a simple and elegant solution whereby the city offers each employee a transportation budget at the amount of a single parking spot. Each employee has the choice to either use a parking spot with that money or take the “cash” to spend however they like: maybe it’s on bike share, gas money for a carpool driver, using an Uber/Lyft when the weather is particularly hairy, or simply pocketing it. The decision then becomes which is more valuable: a parking space or its cash equivalent. This levels the subsidy playing field between those who drive and those who choose not to, thereby aligning city policies with its sustainability goals (or at least not implementing a policy that works directly against those goals), which were literally passed as the next item at the same meeting.

Parking cash out has been implemented around the country as well as here locally in the Triangle. A number of companies offer transit passes in lieu of parking, particularly in places like downtown Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. The State of California has a mandatory cash out law for all companies with 50 or more employees.

The results are impressive. The California Air Pollution Controls Officer Association reports an average 7.7 percent reduction in miles driven for work in places where cash out has been implemented, with evidence showing as much as a 20 percent reduction in driving in certain situations (note that a reduction in driving per capita is one of Durham's sustainability goals). Since those with the longest commutes are most likely to continue driving, employees with shorter commutes are likely changing modes at an even higher rate.

It is not hard to imagine that some employees may try a new mode of commuting once they have a cash out incentive. The bonus is that every employee who gives up his/her space reduces the demand for parking and the need for new lots while also helping current residents, employees, and shoppers find spaces. This saves the city money through fewer leased spaces, a better benefit for employees that can enhance recruitment versus more suburban employers, and reduced greenhouse gases. If implemented on a larger scale, cash out could be part of a strategy that delays or eliminates the need to build more parking at an enormous long-term cost (~$25K/space) to taxpayers.

The City Council and Mayor Schewel should require City Manager Tom Bonfield to adopt a cash out policy as a condition for allocating money for the parking lease. Indeed, Bloomberg Philanthropies recently selected Durham as a 2018 champion City as part of its Mayors Challenge for its commitment to try innovative and low-cost methods to nudge people away from single occupancy commutes, not to mention those newly passed sustainability goals. Parking cash out is a revenue-neutral (i.e., free) win-win-win solution that everyone can get behind.

Michael Schwartz is the director of Transportation Planning for Ride Report, a policy adviser to Bike Durham, and a Durham resident.