Commuter car parking

The Parliament of New South Wales is asking about commuter car parking.

Terms of Reference

That the Committee inquire into and report on commuter car parking in NSW, including:

  1. The effectiveness of current state government policies and programs covering commuter car parking;
  2. Processes for selecting the location of commuter car parks;
  3. The potential for restricted access or user pays commuter car parks;
  4. Consideration of alternative modes of first mile/last mile travel, including point to point transport, active transport and on demand buses; and
  5. Any other related matters.

This is my response …


It is my pleasure to provide information to the New South Wales Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Infrastructure regarding Commuter Car Parking. I am Foundation Professor in Transport Engineering at the University of Sydney, with more than 25 years experience in the field in the United States. While I cannot comment on individual car parks or their location, as the appropriate designs are usually context-specific, I can provide some general background and ways of thinking about the question.

The problem of commuter car parking is more generally the problem of accessing public transport stations, sometimes referred to as the “last mile” or “first and last mile” problem. While having fast, direct, frequent, and reliable public transport service is important, being able to get to that service is also critical. The travel times involved in accessing transit stations at either end are often as long as the time spent moving aboard the transit vehicle.

There are a variety of means that can be used to access public transport service, including walk, bike (including both traditional privately owned bikes and electric bikes (e-bikes) and bikes from newer bike-sharing and e-bike sharing systems), taxi (including ride-hailing like Uber), other public transport (like local bus or multi-party ride sharing vehicle), as a car passenger (‘Kiss and Ride’), or as a car driver (park-and-ride). (One can imagine other modes as well (e.g. car-sharing (like GoGet or CarNextDoor, but those are usually less practical). The best choice varies by individual and location, and most public transport stations will have a mix of arrival modes.

Historically, dating from the age of trams and stream railways, public transport was accessed primarily on foot. For this reason tram lines were spaced closely together (say every half-mile (or 800m)) so that walking to stops was convenient. Older suburbs in cities like Sydney developed around this transport mode, and had the residential population density to support frequent public transport service by tram, train, and later bus. Walk had and continues to have numerous advantages over other access modes, as it is low cost and has no environmental externalities.

Location efficiency (land use) with Walk and Bike Access

In a transit-based city, public transport and land use have historically evolved together, and new transit lines should be complemented with appropriate land development (and vice versa). Everyone in such places everyone can walk to public transport.

From a cost per commuter perspective, walk and bike are the least expensive modes, both for the traveler and for society as a whole. The advantage of bikes over walking is their larger catchment area. Biking (at 20 km/h) allows coverage of about 16 times the area of walking (at 5 km/h). This implies significantly more customers in the same amount of time, and should be strongly encouraged. The disadvantage is that bikes are sightlier costlier than walk as a mode to support, as bikes will require secure parking and safe access paths (walking of course requires sidewalks, which generally already exist, unlike separated bike lanes in NSW), as well as a supportive rather than hostile public policy environment. Nevertheless, the cost of bike storage is significantly lower than the cost of park-and-ride for automobiles. The Dutch are the world’s experts at bicycle transport and bike-and-ride, and many lessons about how best to do this can be learned by studying practice in the Netherlands.

Another cost-effective way to increase the catchment area of public transport is to construct entrances at each end of the station. Long platforms take nearly 2 minutes to traverse, so travellers who live, say, south of a station with an entrance at the north end may need to walk the length of the platform before entering the station, and then, depending on the preferred car to optimise their exit, may need to walk back again (an extra four minutes), which could be reduced with a second platform entrance. (They may need to walk another 2 minutes depending on their final destination vis-a-vis the exit at their destination station.)  This could be repeated on the evening commute, resulting in up to 12 minutes of lost time per day because of inconvenient entrances and exits.

Stationless bikesharing is becoming hugely popular in China, and Reddy-Go has introduced the service to Sydney. The advantage of such a system is that bikes will be located near frequent origins and destinations, and tend to cluster at stations. By encouraging bike access or egress, they make transit more desirable as a mode for more people.  Storage areas for shared bikes need to be set aside, clearly designated, and enforced should this become popular in order to ensure these bikes do not interfere with pedestrian access.

Bicycle parking at Train Station in Houton, Netherlands
Bicycle parking at Train Station in Houton, Netherlands


Pick-up and Drop-off.

The earliest pick-up and drop-off at transit stations date from the earliest days of the motorcar and suburban railway stations, have evolved into what are referred to as “kiss-and-ride”, whereby the driver (typically a spouse, parent, or child) drops off their family member at a transit station, and then proceed onto their final destination (after exchanging affections). (The mirror trip is logistically more complex and includes pick-ups in the evening, before returning home).  This is more efficient than park-and-ride as it avoids the need for parking at the station, and the costs of an extra vehicle for the household. While the multi-car family has resulted in this type of trip becoming less popular, saving time for the traveler chauffeuring the passenger at the cost of higher parking and car ownership costs, this type of trip may see an upsurge.  The advent of app-summoned taxis and their equivalent (Uber, Lyft, and so on) can provide access to or egress from transit stations, complementing transit service. Lyft, the main US competitor to Uber, reports that transit stops are their most popular category of destination.  While this is an added cost, more expensive than walking, biking, or well-used buses, one can imagine with the emergence of autonomous vehicles the costs will drop and this will become more popular, especially in lower density suburban areas.


Newer suburbs developed in the age of the automobile, and while many have grown to include train and bus services, the car is a far more dominant mode in these areas in terms of market share, and transit access is more difficult on foot because of the greater spacing between stations and lines and lower density of residential development. In these areas park-and-ride lots (commuter car parks) have been constructed.

The advantage of commuter car parks lies in basic geometry. It takes about 28 square meters to store a parked car on a surface lot (including access lanes, etc.), or about 360 cars/hectare. For a fully occupied 1 hectare lot, if every one of those parked cars carried 1 person, that produces 360 public transport boardings from that station in the morning (and 360 boardings elsewhere in the evening, assuming symmetry). That hectare generates 720 daily public transport trips.

In contrast, let’s say we had zero commuter car park spaces, and those car users could not otherwise access the station because of distance and lack of other access modes. Instead we had transit-oriented development. Let’s further assume that adjacent land uses have a 50% public transport mode share for work trips and 0% for non-work trips. We would need 720 resident workers on that hectare to have a similar number of public transport trips generated. Since only half the population works, we are looking at 1440 total persons on that ha of land to generate as many trips as transit oriented development. The point is not that anyone should (or shouldn’t) build a structure with a 1 ha footprint housing 1440 people, just that park-and-ride generates a large number of riders that cannot be easily made up with low-density transit-oriented development.

Low, or even medium, density residential development around the station will not enable as many public transport users as the park-and-ride lot. Now that doesn’t mean it is cost-effective to build a park-and-ride lot, which depends on the value of land, on maintenance costs, whether park-and-ride spaces are given away for free or can be charged for, and levels of demand. It certainly doesn’t mean it is cost-effective to construct a parking structure, which cost on the order of $50,000 per space (amortised that is about $5000 per space per year, or $20 per space per work day)

Even after accounting for construction, surface parking lots are far from cost-free, maintenance costs are surprisingly high: in Minnesota, a 288-stall lot generated $AU 43,000 per year in maintenance costs which amounts to a subsidy of at least $AU 147 per parked car per year. (Divide by occupancy, the share of spaces used daily, for the actual subsidy, which is higher), or at least $AU 0.58 per day per car. While most of Australia can avoid the snow plowing costs of Minnesota, lighting and other maintenance issues remain.

If the charge for car parks were free, this adds to the cross-subsidy from people who walk to public transport to people who drive to public transport. To speed revenue collection, parking should be paid for with Opal cards. The rate should be set separately for each lot as costs, demands, and conditions vary.

As the market evolves over time, surface park-and-ride lots can be thought of as a land bank, which can be developed at higher intensities when conditions warrant. The simplest way to ensure land is developed to the highest and best use, be that park-and-ride surface lots, structured parking, or more intensive land development is to place it in the hands of organisations with the right incentives. This may require allowing the transit service provider to develop land adjacent to and above (and below) stations. Land value capture techniques (like the land value tax and joint development, among others) can be used to ensure that the transit system benefits from the land value uplift created by transit services.

Trains running alongside freeways and freeway express/bus rapid transit lanes are especially appropriate for park-and-ride, as the drivers converging on downtown can be persuaded to divert to transit upstream of the city and avoid downtown parking costs (and the resulting congestion between their diversion point and the city).


Update: May 23, 2018

The Final Report is now available.

Seven hours in New York City

I was briefly in New York yesterday. By briefly I mean I left Minneapolis when it was daylight, and returned and it was still daylight. This is of course much easier to accomplish when you are near the summer solstice, but still it suggests the technical feasibility, though definitely not the desirability, of cross-continental commutes.

On the Minneapolis side, things went very smoothly. I left my house at 5:45 AM, caught the bus at 5:53, was at the LRT by 6:00, caught the ~6:03 LRT to the airport and was there by 6:20. Security was quick, the weather was good, the 8:05 flight was on-time.

Some comments on transportation in America’s largest city.

For a city with so many airline passengers, and presumably airline profits, some of the airport terminals (JFK Terminal 2) are still quite dumpy (Yes there is a plan to fix this). One would think that if there were competitive owners of each different airport (and each terminal), they would have to compete for customers (both passengers and airlines) by differentiating quality (presumably upwards). Though there has been some terminal modernization, New York is far behind the rest of western (and eastern) civilization in this arena.

Second, there is not good transit access from the airports to the City. New York, with the US’s largest subway system has had more than 50 years since the dawn of the jet age to connect its airports to its transit system successfully, and seems to have failed to avail itself. (I am aware of JFK’s AirTrain, it seems to require a separate charge from the transit system and a transfer, surely someone could figure out how to bundle that. It also required taking the subway with 33 stops to my Midtown destination). This is not an unknown problem, and solutions are proposed for LaGuardia (via Bus, apparently the train proposal was shelved) and JFK (at about $10B, which seems excessive, but this is NYC).

At any rate, someone else was paying for my surface transportation, so I was in a car. (Which I realize makes me part of the problem, not the solution, but also gives me the perspective of enlightened commentators such as Dorothy Rabinowitz. Yet I did not notice any problems with CitiBikes on my brief stay. There were some bicycles darting in and out of traffic, but that was because cars were not moving and bikes could). On the way in I also got to hear the political philosophy of my driver (a well-educated Russian immigrant from over 30 years ago), who is probably best described as a Peter King Republican, which probably would not have happened on a subway train. The driver seemed to be of the belief that bus lanes were a bad idea because they delayed cars, and in general was opposed to the Bloomberg administration. He also thought most of the works were badly managed and timed poorly (this I agree with) so the Unions could flex their power, and that trucks should only enter the city at night. Of course where you stand depend on where you sit.

Third, New York has far more street traffic congestion than it should. Of course it is crowded, and it probably shouldn’t build more highways, but it doesn’t manage scarce roadspace the way a well-managed city would.

  • On the way in to the city, one of the lanes on the Queens Midtown Expressway was blocked so someone (1 person) could sweep the shoulder, with a broom, in the middle of the day. To be charitable, maybe there was recent broken glass that required cleaning, but this seemed far more substantial cleaning than the debris from a fender-bender. The queues formed by the lane closure were several miles in length.
  • Why is on-street parking permitted in the middle of the day on both sides of the street on major congested streets (37th Street)? This seems to be more than loading/unloading and more than temporary construction crews.
  • And why is don’t block the box not enforced. This would seem a perfect opportunity to use red light running cameras to ticket people who block cross-traffic on the red light.

This is even before considering what economists normally think about when they say pricing, some form of congestion charge, which has been proposed and not implemented because the winners could not bring themselves to pay off the losers.

Fourth, why is there congestion at the airport on a clear day with as perfect weather as one could ask for? Leaving LaGuardia, we boarded the plane on-time and the plane was 17th for take-off with about 40 minutes of ground wait. We landed “on time”, meaning the airline (Delta) built in 45 minutes of ground delay into the schedule to ensure “on time” arrivals. If the schedule is such that the same flights are repeated daily (an approximation), then our plane would take off at the same time every day regardless (unless it was worse due to weather). Which means, we could have been scheduled a half-hour later and not waited in the plane on the ground. This is a simple coordination problem that could be solved with reservation pricing. I suspect this is a problem because there are competing airlines which want to offer the same departure time (~6:45 pm), but a monopoly airport. In a different airport a dominant (hub) airline might internalize the delay costs. See Daniel (1995) on Congestion Pricing and Capacity of Large Hub Airports: A Bottleneck Model with Stochastic Queues.

Lots of Parking in Minneapolis

Why pay more to park on the road
Why pay more to park on the road

A reporter asked: How much parking is there in Minneapolis? This is not a question for which there is a well-sourced answer.

Downtown Parking: There are nearly 25,000 parking spaces in 38 parking lots and ramps throughout downtown,

In the City there are 7000 metered spaces:

Minneapolis Municipal Parking System has 17 parking ramps and 7 lots
These Ramps and Lots encompass over 20,000 parking spaces. (Subtracting this from the first estimate suggests only 5,000 parking spaces are private).

Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners. By David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axhausen.

Outside of downtown requires estimating.

On street-unmetered parking? The City has 1100 miles of street . (I think this excludes state and county roads, I am not sure about park roads, but this is most of them). My guess is 200 spaces per mile (@ ~26 feet per car). If there were no “no parking restrictions” this gives 220,000 on-street spaces (The vast majority of which are unmetered).

Off-street private parking. There are 155,155 households. If each one has 1 off-street space (some have 2 or 3, some have 0), that would be 155,155 off-street spaces in residential areas. I would guess based on national data about twice as many in commercial areas. Roughly every car has to have a space at home, work, and shop.

In short there are lots of parking.

Does anyone have a better estimate?


No Parking and De-Signing Streets |

I have a new post @ No Parking and De-Signing Streets :

“Why is the default assumption that we give away scarce public right-of-way for the free storage of private vehicles?”

No Parking and De-Signing Streets

NoParkingI was traveling down St. Anthony Boulevard with my then 3 year old daughter. She was learning her alphabet and noted the P on a lot of street signs. Every time she saw it, she shared her observations. “P with a slash through it”, “P with a slash through it”, “P with a slash through it”, “P with a slash through it”, … “P with a slash through it”.Well, this is one of the joys of parenthood, teaching reading and the alphabet through road signs. But it brings up a relevant policy question:Why is the default assumption that we give away scarce public right-of-way for the free storage of private vehicles?

That is, the default assumption could be no on-street parking except where permitted, which would result in fewer signs on St. Anthony Boulevard, and more elsewhere.

There are three aspects of this:

  1. Scarceness of public right-of-way. Are you not complaining of congestion? Are you not complaining of the cost of maintenance? If we make streets wide enough to store vehicles, we increase their construction and maintenance costs.
  2. Storage of vehicles. Might we store private vehicles on private land? Would this not increase the cost of private vehicles (i.e. by removing one of the subsidies we do provide to cars)? Would that not diminish the amount of private vehicles (demand curves are downward sloping).
  3. Free. If you do want to store private vehicles on public land, at least charge for it. This does not require meters, it could involve permits with enforcement.

Now I know we don’t want large areas of surface parking lots either, and if we have already built roads that are too wide for the purpose of moving vehicles, we might as well use them for storage, they aren’t earning interest doing anything else. But we are not done building and rebuilding roads, why are we building them with the intent of using roadspace for vehicle storage?


Perhaps it should be obvious where parking is permitted (the road is marked as one lane and more than say 15′), and where it is prohibited (freeways, right lanes narrower than 15′). Perhaps we need only sign when parking restrictions differ by time of day (no parking in peak hours). Perhaps we can paint the curb instead of putting up ugly signs. Perhaps we can change paving materials.

Certainly there are technological solutions with augmented reality which would overlay virtual signs on the environment, and if we all walk around with Google glasses, or their future equivalent, this might eventually happen. And certainly driverless cars will have a lot of this pre-programmed. But given the time it takes to fully deploy these advanced technologies, we are probably 30 years out before we can remove regulatory signs from our environment wholesale. There should be some intermediate solutions that can help us de-sign our streets.

Mis-structuring employee parking charges: An example from a local university

Cross-posted from Mis-structuring employee parking charges: An example from a local university

Mis-structuring employee parking charges: An example from a local university


Parking in a structure is the quintessential private good. It is excludable (no pay, no park), and it is rivalrous (if I park in a space, you cannot). Someone at Metropolitan State University does not understand this, and is instead trying to get all employees and students to pay for a parking structure at the St. Paul campus, whether they use it or not (transforming this into a club good). The attached images show the memo of the proposedpolicy.



See particularly Section 6:

“Parking fees for all employees, irrespective of their office location, (resident and community faculty, staff, and administrators) are mandatory …

The estimated annual parking fee for full-time staff and faculty is $400 per year … The anticipated rate for students will be $10.50 per credit. … “

So if you take the bus to the Midway campus (nowhere near the main St. Paul campus), you still subsidize parking in St. Paul. If you pay for parking in downtown Minneapolis and walk to the Minneapolis campus via the Skyways, you will subsidize a parking ramp in St. Paul. If you take an online course (distance learning), you still subsidize parking in St. Paul.

Leaving aside the urban design aspects for now (see below) and the creation of a fortress campus, this is so misguided from an economics perspective I don’t know where to begin.

(1) Why is Metropolitan State University in the parking business? Is this a core part of their mission? Shouldn’t they contract with someone to build and operate the ramp and charge parkers (students and staff) market rates? If they need to subsidize staff to work where it is more expensive (or lose people), they can pay them more. (I realize other universities have parking as well, but they charge users directly, and don’t charge non-users, since parking is profitable.) If they lose students from their St. Paul campus, that might indicate they have a bad location.

(2) Why don’t they charge people who want to buy parking contracts directly, or charge people who use it on an ad hoc basis directly, instead of charging everyone? The incentives they are creating will encourage more people to drive to campus rather than fewer.

(3) Why doesn’t Metro State have a subsidized transit program (like U-Pass) for their staff and students?

(4) Why doesn’t Metro State work with Metro Transit to coordinate service with class schedules. The longer-term plan seems to be providing BRT or LRT on the Gateway Corridor, with a stop at Mounds Boulevard (on either 3rd or 7th depending on which alternative is picked), easily accessed from campus.

(5) If the neighborhood is concerned about student (or staff) parking on public streets, why don’t they start putting meters on the street (maybe exempting residents who pay for a seasonal pass), and make some money for the neighborhood. Parking benefit districts are a logical and positive response to parking spillover.

Now to the urban design aspects. Metropolitan State almost has a quad (with a driveway in the middle, but that is easily remedied). It actually has nice architecture on the St. Paul campus. Why muck that up with a parking ramp? You could see from their existing surface lot how the campus might naturally extend across Maria Avenue, and later across Bates Avenue. If you must build something, do it underground rather than wasting precious above ground space that could be used for better purposes. Stored cars need no natural light.

Yes, parkers should pay for parking. No, non-parkers should not pay for parking. No, parking costs are not the same everywhere, nor should the prices be. No, St. Paul does not require more parking ramps.

Disclosure: I have a family member who is an employee of Metropolitan State University. These views are my own.

Linklist: June 18, 2012

NY Times: Experimental Campaigns Pay Drivers to Avoid Rush-Hour Traffic

[This idea has been around for a while in various forms. The problem is, it can be gamed (I won’t drive in peak hour, pay me … even though I wouldn’t have anyway), and who pays for the carrot.]

Places: Design Observer gives us some recent book reviews: Reviews: ReThinking a Lot, Reinventing the Automobile

Two views on Transit in Apple Maps: Greater Greater Washington: Apple dropping Google Transit is actually good for transit and Cocoanetics Public Transit in iOS 6

Linklist: May 22, 2012

NYT: Big Data Troves Stay Forbidden:

” In the future, he said, the conference should not accept papers from authors who did not make their data public. He was greeted by applause from the audience.
In February, Dr. Huberman had published a letter in the journal Nature warning that privately held data was threatening the very basis of scientific research. ‘If another set of data does not validate results obtained with private data,’ he asked, ‘how do we know if it is because they are not universal or the authors made a mistake?'”

In the “be careful what you wish for department” … NYT: George Lucas’s Plans in Marin:

“But after spending years and millions of dollars, Mr. Lucas abruptly canceled plans recently for the third, and most likely last, major expansion, citing community opposition. An emotional statement posted online said Lucasfilm would build instead in a place ‘that sees us as a creative asset, not as an evil empire.’
If the announcement took Marin by surprise, it was nothing compared with what came next. Mr. Lucas said he would sell the land to a developer to bring ‘low income housing’ here.”

TOLLROADSnews: Traffic congestion dropped off 30% in 2011 INRIX says – weak economy, higher gas prices :

“2011 saw a dramatic drop in traffic congestion in the US – 30% fewer hours wasted in congested traffic according to INRIX, the nation’s leading provider of traffic data. The 2011 improvement is only outmatched in the years since INRIX has been measuring congestion by the financial crisis year of 2008, when congestion dropped 34%. In 2009 congestion was up 1% and 2010 saw a 10% regrowth of congestion.

[I call ‘Bullshit’. There may have been a methodological problem they are calling a trend.]

Wired: SpaceX In Orbit – Successful Launch of Falcon 9 Rocket :

“CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — The second time’s the charm for SpaceX. This morning at 3:44 a.m. EDT the company’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral. After a faulty valve led to an aborted launch on Saturday, today’s successful flight marks the third of the Falcon 9 rocket, the second flight of the Dragon capsule, and the first flight for a commercial spacecraft bound for the International Space Station (ISS).”

Kottke: Douche parking: “I can’t tell if the app featured in this video is imaginary or not, but it’s a great theoretical solution to the problem of douche parking. Douche parking is basically parking like a douche, and is way more prevalent in Russia than in the US. The Village feels publicly shaming is the best way to deal with douches. Unfortunately, one trait of douches is an inability to be shamed.”

Matt Kahn @ Environmental and Urban Economics: New UCLA Research Suggests that Men Should Not Bike:

“A study by researchers at the UCLA School of Nursing has found that serious male cyclists may experience hormonal imbalances that could affect their reproductive health. “

Mobile Showroom


By occupying metered parking spaces on Oak Street, General Motors has set up a mobile showroom for its Chevy line in Minneapolis. Is this guerrilla marketing or standard business behavior (I haven’t seen it before)? Is it legal? Should the city charge more for parking if it is going to be used like this?
It seems clever, since this is right before graduation, and many graduating students will be in the market for new cars.

Linklist: March 16, 2012

Two related points, the first from Pedestrian Observations in Surreptitious Underfunding Not all “transit” funding is really for transit and the second from Getting Around Minneapolis in Do Bloomington, don’t mind the Pedestrian Barriers Not all “pedestrian” funding is really for pedestrians.

Two related points from San Francisco, where land is scarce: Wired: Scoot Bringing Zipcar-like Electric Scooters to San Francisco and NY Times: Program Aims to Make the Streets of San Francisco Easier to Park On [It is easier to park because it is more expensive, so fewer people do so for as long, instead they rent electric scooters, which won’t require a full standard parking space. Are the parking meters equipped to handle electric scooters? ]

Finally, Aaron Renn in points out The Sorry State of American Transport