Planning experts hope to solve parking scarcity with fewer spaces and higher prices

By Bonnie Eslinger

On busy streets west of the 405, finding a place to park can be an epic challenge.

But some experts say the cure for the Westside’s collective vehicular-induced headache lies in building fewer parking spaces or making public parking more expensive.

The “unbundling” of parking, which treats housing and parking as separate concerns, is an eco- and space-conscious movement to reduce the amount of parking spaces that new developments are required to create and encourage property owners to charge for use of those spaces.

Think of it as the inverse of “if you build it, they will come” — a way to discourage congestion by reducing supply.

Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown said he supports the unbundling of parking in parts of the city that have few homes or are close to mass transit, but cautions that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

“I have kind of a nuanced way of looking at it,” he said. “We should do unbundling in certain places, like downtown, where it won’t affect existing residents. But we need to be more cautious on the boulevards that go through our neighborhoods. If unbundling parking risks sending vehicles into neighborhood streets that are already full, it’s not good.”

The shift away from providing free parking allows local governments to manage existing public stock through market-priced rates, permits and ramped-up parking enforcement. But increased demand for limited spaces also spells opportunity for those who control private parking spots, as well as companies offering technology-based tools that locate parking for drivers willing and able to pay for them.

UCLA Professor of Urban Planning Donald Shoup

UCLA professor of urban planning Donald Shoup, author of the book “The High Cost of Free Parking,” argues that cities should strive to eliminate free parking and roll back off-street parking requirements because more parking only contributes to automobile dependence and traffic congestion.

“The only people who should pay for parking are the drivers,” Shoup told The Argonaut. “It just makes the city worse, because we have the worst traffic congestion and the worst pollution in the country.”

Market pricing can be used to regulate parking and ensure its availability, continued Shoup, who reportedly once told University of British Columbia students that the only thing people hate more than paying for parking is not being able to find it.

“You charge the lowest price the city can charge and still have one or two open spaces on every block,” Shoup said. “If you charge an even lower price, then the spots will always be full and people will say there’s no place to park. If you charge a higher price, then a lot of those spaces will be empty and there won’t be customers for the stores. So it’s a Goldilocks principle — not too high, not too low.”

Although Shoup favors the term “fair market pricing,” there is nothing in his solution to ensure that what the market will bear would be affordable to the majority of Westside drivers. Asked how lower-income residents and workers can cope with the rising costs of parking in popular destinations like trendy Abbot Kinney, Shoup scoffs.

“There aren’t poor people on Abbot Kinney Boulevard; it’s too expensive. Why would they go there? I think free or cheap parking on Abbot Kinney Boulevard is just giving money to people who don’t need it, and you create a lot of traffic congestion,” Shoup said, adding that anyone willing to bike or rideshare can still work or shop without paying
for parking.

“Complaining about the price of parking in one of the most desirable parts of town,” he said, “is kind of like complaining about gravity.”

Shoup also asserts that businesses or residential buildings shouldn’t be required to provide off-street parking, reasoning that people who don’t drive shouldn’t be required to subsidize the cost of those spaces.

But critics concerned about the impacts of new development have called reduced parking requirements a ‘gift to developers’ bundled with wishful thinking that drivers will be eliminated along with the parking.

In 2015, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City and other groups protested city zoning changes that reduced parking requirements for residential development in some parts of the city, predicting traffic and parking problems would only get worse.

Residents also complain that workers who are not provided with parking or are required to pay for it are choosing instead to seek out free parking in nearby residential neighborhoods.

Val Streit lives in the vicinity of UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, and she says hospital employees regularly park their vehicles in front of houses, leaving residents circling their own neighborhood looking for a place to park. Eventually, she and her neighbors successfully petitioned the city for permit parking restrictions, but not before a conversation with a hospital employee who asserted that public streets were fair game.

Ted Braun, a spokesperson for UCLA Medical Center spokesman Ted Braun told The Argonaut that the hospital at Wilshire Boulevard and 16th Street offers 1,300 spaces for 2,400 employees who work various shifts, with only 20% to 25% present at any given time. The hospital charges daytime employees $79 to park during the day and $47 at night.

“We encourage all staff members who commute to work by car to use hospital parking. However, we cannot force our employees to do so, and some staff members will opt to try to find street parking instead,” Braun wrote in an email.

Providing free or lower-cost parking for employees “would be counter-productive to efforts to get more employees out of their cars,” Braun said, adding that the hospital provides incentives for staff who use alternative transportation — and that more than 500 currently take advantage of that program.

Not all employers are so well organized. Near Third Street Promenade, resident Laura Wilson took to YouTube to post videos of uniformed workers taking up parking spaces on her block.

In August, Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole wrote on his blog that the city had reached a “tipping point” on its parking problem and pointed to bikes, buses and the Expo Line light rail expansion as the way out of downtown traffic jams and parking scarcity.

“Ultimately the answer is not to make it easier to drive and park in downtown,” he wrote. “It is to make it easier to use all the other options we are promoting.”

To that end, the city launched a “GoSaMo” marketing campaign to encourage bike share and rideshare.

But for those not willing or able to give up driving, several smartphone apps — including two launched locally last summer — help drivers find and pay for available parking.

Santa Monica-based ParkMe was one of the first on the scene. Launching in December 2012, the app offer reservations for off-street parking as well as real-time help finding metered on-street parking.

SpotHero, which debuted in L.A. in July, offers discounted parking at commercial lots that can be reserved and paid for via the app. The Los Angeles area is one of SpotHero’s fasted growing markets, West Coast General Manager Nate Phillips said.

“Obviously everyone references the traffic in L.A.,” Phillips said. “So that’s a big thing, having a technology solution to alleviate some of that stress. They’re getting to their destination knowing they have a spot reserved.”

Phillips also argues that apps like SpotHero alleviate traffic congestion by reducing the amount of time that drivers spend looking for parking.

The MyLücke parking app helps drivers find and pay for spaces in real time

Also jumping into the parking app business is MyLücke, a local startup that matches drivers with private parking providers — including residents looking to make money off of their dedicated space or driveway.

Founder and CEO Emily Webb, a Malibu resident, said inspiration for the business came from the frustration she felt when she was looking for parking and saw empty driveways and underutilized business lots.

“We do a lot through the commercial side, but we absolutely work with individuals who might want to sell their space at their house,” Webb said.

Anyone thinking of renting out public street parking in Santa Monica, however, should think again. That became illegal after San Francisco-based Monkey Parking announced plans for an app that would allow drivers occupying public spaces to announce and “sell” information about its future availability.

While technology may offer some relief, parking apps are only temporary solutions that “essentially encourage people to drive,” McKeown said.

“Planning looks forward,” he said. “We know the future is heading toward reduced individual car ownership, so building on past needs might not be the best option.”