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Free Parking Keeps People In Cars

Apparently, people love their cars. And people love driving. Who knew? When surveyed, most commuters – even when offered the same tax benefits at $225 a month – would not trade in their car for public transit. Congress recently decided to give commuters the same paybacks whether saving money while using public transit or driving, and it seemed to have little effect, as drivers continue to receive free parking privileges. Take those away and they might change their tune.

Free Parking
© The Jared Wilcurt for openphoto.net

TransitCenter conducted a study in five major U.S. metropolitan areas regarding travel choices in response to such benefits. Washington (D.C.), Miami (Florida), New York (New York), San Francisco (California), and Seattle (Washington) were chosen, and their commuters’ choices analyzed. The data did not favor public transit in any measurable way.

In 2014, when driving saw a bigger benefit than public transit ($255 to $130), driving saw a rise in numbers. In 2016, when both choices see the same benefit at $255, driving is still projected to and seeing a rise. In fact, the only situation where driving sees a decrease while public transit rises is if the benefits remained equal and driver’s parking privileges were eliminated. Basically, offering incentives to take public transit just is not enough.

Transit Benefits Effects
source: TransitCenter.org

There are other studies to corroborate these results. Two scholars at Virginia Tech conducted research in 2014 and found that commuters in Washington, D.C., preferred to drive to work despite whatever benefits there may be. In a world without benefits, driving commuters will increase and public transit riders will decrease. The same patterns and results held true in Baltimore (Maryland), Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), Newark (New Jersey), and New York (New York).

Driving vs Public Transit
source: Andrea Hamre 2016

Overall, both authorities concluded that the only way to increase public transport ridership while decreasing drivers is to eliminate parking benefits. “Overall, this study lends further support to the notion that public transport subsidies seem to be rendered less effective when offered in the presence of car parking subsidies,” writes Andrea Hamre of Virginia Tech. Hamre and colleague Ralph Buehler collaborated on the Virginia Tech studies and are considered transport scholars.

TransitCenter goes as far as to say that commuter parking benefits “subsidize traffic congestion” in their 2014 report.

It seems that offering commuters incentive to use public transportation just is not enough. In order to truly change the minds and decisions of commuters, cities must simultaneously create disincentives to drive and park.


About the Author

is a working father in New York City by way of Sarasota, Florida. He is a public transportation enthusiast, clean air advocate, lifetime recycler and frequent panderer. He also reluctantly tended to his family's compost heap for many formative years. He hopes to one day leave his daughter with a safer, healthier environment than when she was born - which shouldn't be hard since she was born in Queens, New York.

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