Why more paving will never create enough parking in the Fan

“Parking shortages” threaten to derail Richmond’s BRT, but in the current paradigm, there will never be enough parking. Aaron Williams has many thoughts on the matter.

Photo by: World Bank Photo Collection

Economics is the study of scarcity

In Richmond, a failed understanding of the scarcity of parking has the potential to derail the GRTC Pulse while sending $24.9 million back to the federal government and undermining the progress of RVA. There are several ways to deal with the presence of scarcity in our lives.

In normal markets, like beer or food, prices are the mechanism that match finite supply with consumers. As prices go up, quantity demanded decreases and quantity supplied increases. As prices go down, quantity demanded increases and quantity supplied decreases. Basically, if an individual is buying goods, they’ll buy more when prices are lower. If an individual is selling goods, they’ll sell more when prices are higher. Prices pull these competing forces into equilibrium where supply equals demand. This model isn’t perfect because of time inconsistencies and differences in information, but it’s pretty dang close for most products.

Why parking is different

This model fits parking, but it requires one more level of sophistication. There are two types of costs: fixed costs and marginal costs. Fixed costs are how much an individual pays regardless of how many goods he or she consumes. Marginal costs are how much an individual pays for each additional good he or she consumes.

On-street parking is financed entirely through fixed costs in the form of taxes. The out-of-pocket marginal cost is nothing more than an occasional parking ticket or a woefully underpriced, optional parking pass1. So an individual who stores a car on Floyd Avenue year-round is paying the same amount for parking as the woman in the nursing home on Allen who doesn’t own a car and the Millennial in Oregon Hill who prefers a fixed-gear bike. When the fixed cost is exponentially greater than the marginal cost, the market falls apart–welcome to East Berlin circa 1980.

Induced Demand

So what is the mechanism that brings the Fan’s parking into equilibrium? Time and inconvenience. There’s more to cost than cash. We mock central planning because East Berliners had to wait all day for a loaf of bread and ten years for a new car, but it’s an apt metaphor for the way we’ve designed our parking system.

So why not just add more parking until this time cost disappears? Adding more spots would lower the time inconvenience in the short term (like a week or a month), but people adapt, demand responds to the lower prices, and more people decide to park on streets in the city. This is called “induced demand” and it is well documented in the study “An Analysis of the Relationship Between Highway Expansion and Congestion in Metropolitan Areas”. In a cost-free environment, inconvenience won’t decrease, but more cars will be able to park. So why is this bad? Because this isn’t a cost-free solution.

More parking has one benefit: more parking. Meanwhile, an 8.5-foot by 18-foot on-street parking spot has at least a $4,000 construction price not including maintenance. There’s also the cost of the real estate and the foregone productive value (opportunity cost) of the space. Additionally, parking increases driving which worsens environmental quality, speeds global warming, drives our oil-centric foreign policy, increases congestion, weakens social structures, endangers pedestrians and cyclists, and rips apart the fabric of cities.

Currently, the elimination of a negligible fraction of parking spots is motivating certain Richmonders to oppose the GRTC Pulse. The opponents suggest spurning more than $40 million of outside investment that has the potential to expedite the core of our public transit system, appreciate property values, and lead to millions of more dollars in economic productivity.

According to a study by Eric Betz, parking covers more area of America than any other one thing. There are 500 million empty parking spots in the U.S. Pavement doesn’t solve the parking problem. This cycle of more supply followed by more demand will persist because the difference between the fixed cost and the marginal cost is so dramatic, and because 80% of Richmond’s population lives in the suburbs. Basically, the only supply-based solution is to pave until the destination isn’t a place worth visiting anymore. Then parking will always be convenient!

The Answer

Changing supply is not the answer, especially when it comes at such a high cost to residents. Instead. pricing solutions and demand solutions are the answer. Pricing needs to be reintroduced into the market. In a perfect world, every spot except for one would be filled on every block. Meters with fluctuating prices can make this perfect world a reality thanks to technology. Furthermore, private parking options can’t compete with highly subsidized “free” parking. If more spots had meters, private alternatives would be able to compete and would become more prevalent. Sure this means some parking decks and lots, but more importantly, home owners would sneak a spot into their back lot and some two car families would switch to one car. Most importantly, some would seek alternatives.

Which brings us back to BRT. As the price of alternatives decreases, people’s demand will shift away from cars. BRT lowers the price of riding the bus because it’s quicker, more predictable, and cool. This means more people on the margin will shift from cars to buses. How many? Estimates on both sides of the argument are close to useless because Richmond hasn’t made a progressive transportation decision in more than 50 years.

Fortunately, subsidies from the federal government and state government have lowered the marginal cost of experimenting with BRT so much that it makes perfect sense to try.

Further Reading

  1. Tickets seem like a ton of money at the time, but $60 divided over two months is $1 a day which is 1/3rd the price of a round trip bus ride. 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Stuart S on said:

    So in summary, expect the BRT to create a parking shortage since increasing the cost of street parking is not part of the plan.

  2. Scudder Wagg on said:

    Aaron, great overview of the economics of parking and the issues of supply and demand for parking in an urban neighborhood like the Fan. I’d just add that when my firm worked on Richmond Connects (the City Transportation Plan) we documented the effective replacement costs for parking in the Fan. Based on the assumptions we made, the land value of a replacement parking space would be $7,000 (assuming $35 per square foot land value which is about the median in the Fan at the time and a 10×20 foot standard space). Then construction cost per space is about $6,000. In all, you’d be looking at $13,000 in capital costs to replace an on-street parking space. If you amortized that over 30 years at prevailing residential mortgage rates you’re looking at nearly $800 a year. If the City is charging only $25 a year for a permit, then they are vastly under pricing the parking at least relative to the replacement cost. As you’ve noted supply and demand are typically much better arbiters of the true cost or value of something but at least this calculation gives people some perspective on the value they are getting from that curb space in front of their house.

  3. Jason on said:

    Well done Aaron, well done.

  4. Chris on said:

    Provide an incentive for people to use the off street parking available behind people’s homes in the Fan and Museum Dist. On my half block alone, 8 parking spaces go unused because homeowners prefer to park in the street than directly behind their home on their property ..The city also pays for alley maintenance. …which gives homeowners access to the back off their homes.

  5. Scott on said:

    This is a very one-dimensional article in that there are a lot of people who have legitimate concerns about the current BRT proposal that do not involve parking. There are a lot of people like myself who are not against BRT, who are for mass transit, but who are very worried about the finances, ridership, and purpose of the current BRT proposal.

  6. @RVAfuture on said:

    The Fan already monetizes parking by issuing parking passes. Also, BRT is a waste because there are already perfectly good buses along the route. People who want BRT because they want “cool” transportation options probably think they are too “cool” for GRTC. Why am I subsidizing someone’s sense of coolness?

  7. RVA Rocks on said:

    There are a number of issues surrounding the BRT plan but I find it interesting that those that write about it seem to have a myopic view and completely ignore 90% of the problems and choose only to focus on the parking because there is no rational response to the laundry list of other problems with GRTC’s plan. It doesn’t just eliminate a LOT of parking but it also eliminates loading zones businesses need for deliveries and for unloading of customers. I went to Theater IV last week and literally a hundred people got off a bus from an assisted living facility. That bus will not unload in front any theater on W Broad because GRTC has taken all the loading zones, no more school buses either. GRTC didn’t understand businesses on W Broad need loading zones? What about the elimination of all the turn lanes? I have’t seen anyone report on the fact that you now have to turn right into residential districts to get to the other side of Broad Street. GRTC didn’t think it might be important to have a turn into Whole Foods? Lowes? The National Theater?” The Convention Center? The Diamond? This will be a traffic nightmare and push traffic onto side and parallel streets on this corridor. What about GRTC’s own mission to use the BRT to serve new and underserved neighborhoods, they didn’t even meet the minimum requirement of their own assessed need to serve new customers. What about that claim that the BRT will serve a “different demographic?” A new bus in a different lane that serves the same route but that is to serve a different demographic, hmmm. that sounds suspicious. I appreciate one guy’s opinion but we shouldn’t call it RVA News and pretend it’s journalism. At least RTD had the sense to call one guy’s opinion an editorial. I saw an email this week that makes total sense. If RVA and GRTC think so much of this plan, let’s mock it up. Let’s block every turn and 1/3 of the traffic lanes, and every parking and loading zone GRTC plans to eventually eliminate; DPW Traffic should be able to use trucks, cones, and school buses to accomplish this task. That was the strategy Berkeley California used to trash their BRT plan and it worked, it was a total debacle and the city of Berkeley rejected the grant money and opted to do a REAL study and implement a plan based on what worked in Berkeley and NOT a grant driven plan to simply capture funds. There are lots ways to improve public transportation in RVA but unfortunately the only plan GRTC considered for BRT is this one. The grant does not require the median running bus lanes so had GRTC not wanted to pave their own lanes with gold they could have more prudently considered a host of other options that didn’t eliminate parking, loading zones, left turns etc.. They could have created dedicated lanes, purchased buses that were smaller so not wider than our existing lanes and easier to fit into our narrow old city infrastructure. GRTC CHOSE not to do that and is now upset most of the neighborhoods along the corridor and almost every business owner. opposes the plan. Personally, I think a plan to create circulator routes connecting folks inside neighborhoods and neighborhoods to other parts of the city makes more sense and we could truly serve the many neighborhoods who need better service. Lucky me, if the BRT succeeds, I’ll be able ride fancy new buses with new technology to the exact same destinations I can access right now on the old curb running buses. Good for you Richmond City, you managed to find a way to spend 54 million dollars on the one thing you already have. Crazy like a fox or just plain crazy, hope we never find out.

  8. Aaron Williams on said:

    Stuart S. – No, changing supply is going to have little effect on the margin. Mode shift could help overcome this small effect.

    Scudder Wagg – That’s great information, thanks for the share.

    @RVAFuture – The passes are negligible, optional, and don’t even put a dent into the cost of parking. Marginal pricing and effective alternatives are needed. BRT will significantly speed up the core of Richmond’s transit which will benefit everyone who rides GRTC. Finally, your coolness argument is silly. Why is faster, more predictable service a waste? Are current bus riders simply not worthy of an enhanced service?

  9. If you want mode shift in transportation, the a BRT is not the answer. BRT’s are traditionally designed for rapid transport between high trafficked locations like an airport and a business district. GRTC is not proposing to connect the airport or the Amtrak station. If you mode shift, then we first need circulators and trolleys to get more people to use transit.Richmond. If you had done a bit more balanced reporting, you would have stumbled on these facts. The entire GRTC system has 28,000 daily riders. The Broad St BRT plan estimate it will serve at best 3500 daily riders. In a City of 217,00 and a metro region of almost a million that is not the right investment to gt more people to ride. GRTC has ignored innovators like the Bottom and Back concepts, has ignored reconstituting a trolley or a circulator. This is a cash grab pure and simple. Some people are upset over the parking and that’s fine. But this debate should be about good planning and governance. We barely got funding this year for our schools. This plan will put residents on the hook for $2M a year moving forward. We should pay teachers and police better wages and fix sidewalks and provide more transit coverage before we need Rapid transit. And if your gonna do a BRT, then at minimum connect the airport.

  10. Richmond for Better Transit on said:

    This is an interesting and complex analysis of parking but offers the normally incomplete view as to why there are so many who oppose the BRT plan. Certainly, parking is an issue, but there are other important concerns that are not mentioned here. Primarily the BRT plan is touted as the first step in an exciting, soon-to-come regional plan. However, there is absolutely no plan or money set aside to expand the BRT into transportation deserts, according to the words of GRTC’s Steve McNally and the City’s Lynne Lancaster.
    The closing of businesses, due to two years of construction and the lack of accessibility to businesses through the removal of left hand turns and closed medians, is not a potential scenario trumped up by a few parking-greedy residents. It is exactly what happened in Cleveland due to their own Health Line. No one wants to see businesses that have created a renaissance on Broad disappear. More importantly, the wealthy Cleveland BRT system has yet to expand into underserved areas as had been promised when it was first proposed. If Cleveland who can afford to won’t expand to neglected areas, why does anyone think that Richmond will- especially since several sources from GRTC and the City have admitted that there are no plans and no money to do so? Expanding and improving our current bus system is more fiscally responsible and should start by breaking into the transportation deserts, and not with an already successful bus route that goes from one middle class Henrico neighborhood to another. The neglected don’t care a hoot for an exciting new bus plan- they just want access to public transportation- and this BRT plan does not include them at all.
    Additionally, and this may seem trivial to those who do not appreciate Old and Historic designations, but huge anachronistic bus stops along the middle of historic Broad Street will rob this beautiful urban area of its charm and appeal, and is a slap in the face to the stewardship that the Old and Historic designation promises. Richmond, we must advocate for real transit solutions and not simply chase a grant for the grant’s sake.

  11. Scudder Wagg on said:

    Carter, I’m not sure what research you are referring to, but of the most significant BRT systems in the US (Cleveland Healthline, Boston Silver Line, San Bernardino sBx, Eugene EmX) only one serves an airport (Boston Silver Line). The general experience with BRT is that it is an upgrade to existing bus service to make it more efficient, more frequent, faster and more reliable. These improvements come about by providing dedicated lanes, regular and frequent service and high-quality stations and buses along corridors with proven ridership and density. This is precisely what Broad Street BRT is trying to do. 3,500 daily riders may not sound great to you, but even the Norfolk Tide Light Rail only carries 4.000 to 5,000 riders per day, and the capital cost of that was over $300 million. As to trolley or circulator services, I would recommend that you do some research, for example by reading the internationally renowned transit consultant Jarrett Walker’s perspective on such services: “People get on a bus because it takes them to (or at least toward) where they’re going. The shorter a route is, the fewer places it goes, and thus the fewer people will tend to get on it. Very short routes, say under 3 mi, tend to do very poorly unless they’re the sole means of reaching a major destination (such a shuttle between a major hospital and a nearby rail station.)” (http://www.humantransit.org/2009/04/seattle-transit-blog-is-reporting-some-grief-from-the-rainier-valley-area-in-southeast-seattle-regarding-king-county-metros.html). If you do a little digging there and at other similar transit focused blogs and sites you’ll find a wealth of information to help explain the challenges of circulator services and the typical problem of under performing airport transit services.

  12. Benjamin Wood on said:

    Fantastic article, Aaron! I wasn’t expecting to read a sound analysis regarding the price mechanism in markets when I hopped over to RVANews, today. What a treat! This is an understanding that people who are trying to solve problems are woefully short of, these days. Thank you for your beautiful explanation.

    As you said, not only would prices in parking drive entrepreneurs to offer better lots and decks, but people would seek alternatives to parking their vehicles for 90% of the day. This would, as you observed, drive more people to bike, ride buses, etc…taking them off the road. It would also provide a financial incentive to use ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft or other conventional taxis, which will take even more vehicles off the road.

    People will complain that this increases the cost of transportation, but – as you astutely observed – the cost of transportation is already being born by the public, whether through taxes to subsidize free parking, extra time looking for spaces, or congestion. Pricing for parking ensures that those who USE the parking pay for it…not the community at large.

    In the next twenty years, autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing services have the potential to take 90% of the cars currently driving off the road. Here’s a great, concise summary of the potential of driverless cars: http://bit.ly/1uMKR89

    Anything Richmond can do to incentivize this future and begin to adapt for it will benefit the city in the long run. Thanks for your outstanding article, Aaron!

  13. Carter Snipes on said:

    I can tell you a first hand experience with Circulators. I was in Savannah this year on vacation with my kids. They have a circulator called The Dot. It’s free, runs on BioFuel from local restaurants and loops the entire historic district. The tagline was “Eat more hush puppies, keep The Dot free.” So clever! It was absolutely an amazing feature for a tourist. And we saw lots of locals riding it too, because it does connect with other bus routes. I’m making the point that this is not the biggest bang for the best investment. I disagree with the blog post you cited about speed being the main point of transit. It’s about ease of use and reliability. I grew up Richmond and I’ve also lived in NYC which has amazing transit. If buses came every 10 minutes and we had routes that any rider could understand within minutes. You would see a lot more people use it to go out of entertainment, tourist activities, daily commute, etc. I support mass transit, but we need to innovate what we have and make it better. Not throw a bunch of money and rush through a plan. Richmond does have a lot of naysayers, who dislike any change. But Like it or not, our city is not good at implementing big ambitious plans at taxpayer expense. think 6th Street Marketplace, Canal Walk, Redskins training camp, Shockoe Stadium. We’re way better at organic, incremental change like you are seeing with the Broad Street and the Arts District. Scott’s Addition and Manchester. Moon shots are great, but only if you have people that know how to implement them. RVA has not been that good at it historically. So I think slow and steady is the prudent move here.

  14. Richmond for Better Transit on said:

    The most concise and articulate condemnation of the BRT plan- as it currently stands from http://urbanhabitat.org/campaigns/transportation-justice-working-group:
    “An Equitable Transit System: Equitable transit conducts a race and class analysis of the system and its investments. It focuses on serving those who rely on transit most, as opposed to serving only the needs of affluent and suburban commuters. It prioritizes investments in existing transit systems over costly highway and transit expansion capital projects that serve relatively few riders. This kind of system is not only the most equitable but is also the most cost-effective and most meaningfully addresses the climate crisis. ”
    Also, this type of financial analysis that bemoans everyone’s tax dollars going to something not everyone uses is quite dangerous. After all, if we apply the same principal to public schools, we would dismantle public education.
    Parking meters in my residential area on West Grace would hurt many of us who live month to month- and maybe mean that some of my neighbors who need a car to get to work in Short Pump would no longer be able to afford having a car.
    Let’s improve what we have, which works really well in some cases, and not focus on the current fad of rapid bus transit. After all, many of us use the Route 6 down Broad and frankly, having bus stations that are in some cases 5-10 apart, insterad of stopping at every intersection, will mean that we get to a bus station faster but with an added long walk in any kind of weather- ultimately not a shorter commute. Stations that are that far apart are particularly hard on the disabled.
    Public transportation is for everyone. A faster bus stopping fewer times is the desire of people who want buses to mimic cars and not act like buses, which should stop for everyone who needs it. Let’s use our money wisely and fairly and start breaking apart the transportation deserts.

  15. Scudder Wagg on said:

    Carter, I’m glad you had a nice visit to Savannah and enjoyed riding their circulator service. Yet again, though, I think you’re overlooking the research and history of such services. Again, I’ll reference Mr. Walker: “Nordahl’s book is also a fine example of the great fallacy of transit tourism. Political leaders frequently take junkets to other cities, ride those cities’ transit systems as tourists, and then come home proposing to build the same kind of service. But our values as tourists are different from our values as commuters: We enjoy riding the Ferris wheel, but that doesn’t mean we’d enjoy commuting on one. There certainly are times when we travel in our home city in a recreational way, with the primary goal of pleasure, but most of the time we really need to get somewhere, because a treasured or necessary part of our lives is on hold until we do.” (http://www.humantransit.org/2009/04/the-disneyland-theory-of-transit.html). Now, you’ve already said you don’t agree with Mr. Walker that speed is the main point of transit. He would agree that speed isn’t the main factor, it’s overall travel time. I presume that you generally look for the fastest way to get to your destination, or can I presume that when you drive to DC you take US Route 1 the whole way? People have lives, they have jobs, they have kids, they have many other obligations and time spent traveling is generally time they can’t get back. With transit what affects that overall transit time is a number of factors: how fast the bus can drive, how often it stops, how frequent the service is (to avoid wait times), how many transfers must be made. I don’t quite understand how you see this as a “moonshot”. This is really a relatively small investment in transit, but hopefully a significant one in showing how transit can be much more useful to a broad portion of the public. And it will improve the lives of those who use Route 6 today by saving them significant time during their daily commutes.

  16. Scudder Wagg on said:

    @Richmond for Better Transit: I find it interesting that you think the “Transportation Justice Working Group” principles are somehow a condemnation of the Broad Street BRT plan. Their principles don’t dramatically conflict with the BRT proposal. Broad Street BRT will improve transit service (i.e. make it faster, more frequent, more reliable and qualitatively better with better shelters and vehicles) for Route 6 which is one of the most well used routes in the GRTC system and presumably most folks who ride it today will want to switch to a service that will save them up to 14 minutes (or 40% of their current travel time). Bus stop spacing is always hard, because you do have a struggle between walking time and bus travel time. Good research from across the globe shows that for rapid transit lines like the Broad Street BRT, spacing of between 0.25 and 0.5 miles is the best trade off between the two.

  17. Richmond for Better Transit on said:

    @Scudder Wagg- the quotation clearly supports the reinvestment and improvement of current lines over “costly transit expansion capital projects,” which is what the BRT is. According to the GRTC’s own desire to attract” new ridership” that is “park and ride”, the Pulse is also a line that is meant to serve suburbanites (as opposed to reaching the 47% of Richmond that does not have easy access- or any- to buses) and links to suburban destinations: ” It focuses on serving those who rely on transit most, as opposed to serving only the needs of affluent and suburban commuters.” 14 minutes are saved if you ride the whole route, Willow Lawn to Rocketts Landing, but otherwise it’s $54 million spent on several minutes only being shaved off the bus ride itself , depending on how long you are on the route, but more time added walking, traveling in a wheelchairs, etc. This is not a good prospect in February, for example. Again, though, people in the transportation deserts will not benefit from the BRT. And businesses will suffer and close up, as they did in Cleveland. I care about those people and the value of their businesses for the community. Bus transit solutions, like the BRT, are not one size fits all. The reality is- based on GRTC and the City- which most BRT supporters are not responding to is that there are no plans and no money allocated to any phases after this initial first phase.

  18. Scudder Wagg on said:

    @Richmond for Better Transit: I can’t make any sense out of your arguement. You say the line is meant to serve suburbanites, but except for the small portion that extend Rocketts Landing (right on the City/County Line) and to Willow Lawn (just beyond the City line), the line serves almost entirely within the City of Richmond. In the same breath, you argue that the line doesn’t serve the 47% of Richmond that doesn’t have easy or any access to buses. Well I hate to burst your bubble, but most of those folks live in the suburbs because suburban jurisdictions like Henrico and Chesterfield refuse to fund much if any bus service to their jurisdictions. So you’re arguing opposite points here. And if you would actually read the BRT materials, the 14 minute time savings is for a ride from downtown to Willow Lawn, not the entire length of the line. While the BRT service will overlap with Route 6 most of the way, there is no direct bus service along the entire BRT route today so it’s impossible to make a comparison regarding the transit travel time from end to end today. Finally, you are correct that the City, GRTC, the Counties, the State, no one has promised to build any phases beyond this section but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. I too hope that transit can be expanded to more places in our region to improved along other corridors so that a larger portion of our regional population can access easy to use and useful transit. Killing Broad Street BRT isn’t going to make that more likely.

  19. Stuart S on said:

    Jeff Speck in “Walkable City” actually wrote in support of curb parking as a buffer between traffic and pedestrians. So I don’t think he would agree that clearing out the roads for more vehicle thoughput is good for walkable urbanism, even for a good cause like this gadgety high speed bus scheme. Imagine how unpleasant the sidewalk seating at Savory Grain (et al) will become when there’s traffic driving in the curb lane at 35mph. Your salad will get blown off your plate.

    Also I’m not sure how the title of this piece relates to the story, it seems like you’re setting up a straw man argument that the FDA wants to pave more parking spaces. Maybe it’s just a non sequitur written by the editor, I don’t know.

    And can somebody clarify, is there even a mechanism for killing the BRT project? I thought it was a done deal and it doesn’t matter if the citizens oppose it. I believe the Urban Design Committee will vote on the final design since it is in the public right of way, but they would be a rubber stamp on this one.

  20. Aaron on said:


    Your first complaint is something I’ve struggled with since hearing the BRT plans. The reduction of parking certainly diminishes comfort and safety – two of Speck’s four key characteristics of walkable streets. I’ve decided winners and losers have to be chosen. Broad is already a miserable walk and many blocks have no parking and already lack safety and comfort.

    Several people have complained that the piece isn’t balanced or it diminishes opposition. That’s fair, but 1) this is just one article in a series of 6 or 7 that I’ve done on BRT 2) I wanted to address the parking issue because it’s so interesting from an economics perspective.

    For reference, here’s my response to FDA’s letter in opposition of BRT:

    Thanks for all of the insightful comments!

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