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On Parking, Transit and Economic Fairness

December 05, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

A while back I debunked the conservative myth of "empty buses," noting that while sometimes transit runs with few riders and other times with standing room only, a parallel phenomenon affects the right wing's preferred sole mode, roadways: sometimes deserted, sometimes clogged.

What I forgot was another pervasive autocentric inefficiency, one that has few counterparts in the world of transit—empty parking lots. Luckily, Strong Towns blogger Charles Marohn and his nationwide network of car culture critics gave a nice reminder of this hidden-in-plain-sight problem with a Black Friday special showing acres of pavement occupied only by paint stripes 9 feet apart.

And this is no occasional situation, either. Even on the biggest shopping day of the year, when mall lots are jammed, 600 million of the nation's 800 million parking spots must be empty, because there are only 200 million cars to go around.

So what? you might ask. For one thing, we all pay one way or another for this wasted space, much of it publicly owned and the rest so far short of its highest and best use in otherwise high-value urbanized areas that property taxes everywhere else are artificially inflated. To make matters worse, much of this excess parking is the result of government command-and-control zoning regulations.

In quality-of-life terms, parking sprawl adds to the unfriendliness of much of our built environment to folks on foot or two wheels. And parking's opportunity costs and direct economic drain only magnify that of our dense system of state and local roads, which parking serves as terminal space. According to the conservative Tax Foundation, fuel taxes, road tolls and other user fees cover just 32 percent of state and local road spending across the United States.

That's comparable to the share of Twin Cities transit costs defrayed by fares and other revenue, mainly advertising on buses and rail cars. But, wait, there's more: The Tax Foundation found that only 23.6 percent of Minnesota state and local road costs were paid by users, tied for 36th in the country—with Mississippi, no less. In other words, our roadways are much more heavily subsidized not only than the rest of the nation's, but also more heavily than our transit and other modes. For all Minnesota transportation modes combined, including transit and air travel, users pay 29.9 percent of the public costs, for a 6.3 percentage-point difference that is among the widest in the United States.

"Expanding tolls and indexing gasoline taxes for inflation may not be politically popular even though transportation facilities and services are highly popular," the Tax Foundation commented. "Given that transportation spending exists, states should aim to fund as much of it as possible from user-related taxes and fees. Subsidizing highway spending from general revenues creates pressure to increase income or sales taxes, which can be unfair to non-users and undermine economic growth for the state as a whole."

Alex Pareene in Salon offers one reason why government's greatest largesse is lavished on drivers while transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians get the short end of the stick: Most politicians don't know people who use the modes less traveled. Although he focuses on New York, he extends the critique to Minneapolis, which he describes as "a decently dense city that could, and ought to, support a much more extensive mass transit system ... Here again, politicians don't ride the bus, and likely know hardly anyone who does regularly."

But even if our policymakers are cocooned in autocentrism, they should recognize the greater efficiency, economic growth and fairness to be gained from expanding transportation options beyond motorways and parking lots. For proof, they need look no further than a new synthesis of years of study by the University of Minnesota's Transitways Impacts Research Program. Major findings include:

  • Transitway investment is significantly improving access to jobs and workers, particularly benefitting low-wage earners.
  • Transit improves mobility.
  • Development is occurring along new and emerging transit corridors.
  • The marketplace values transit access.
  • People of all incomes benefit from transitway expansion, and those with lower incomes gain the most.
  • The majority of residents and businesses see the value in transit.
  • There is pent-up demand for transit-oriented development in the Twin Cities metropolitan region.
  • Policymakers can maximize the benefits of transitway investment.

Our Metropolitan Council, which serves a seven-county region extending to farm country, drew criticism from Pareene for allegedly favoring suburban transportation priorities over those of the core cities. He somehow ignored the Green Line light-rail link between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns that will launch service next year. And Met Council chair Susan Haigh is pushing a decidedly pro-transit agenda projected to boost the region's economy by billions of dollars more than its costs.

"We have to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population and market preferences of a generation that is driving less and texting more," she told a recent UofM symposium. "Transit is good for business and investment in transit makes good business sense ... We need to be bold and courageous."

Yes, our suburbs have a smattering of park-and-ride facilities to gather transit riders. But in transportation's universal requirement for three things—vehicles, right-of-way and terminals—transit and every mode other than private motoring win the overall efficiency and equity contests hands down.

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  • Randy McLaughlin says:

    December 9, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Purchases of cars and of gasoline are exempt from general sales taxes.  This, in turn, means that the sales tax on everything else, including bicycles, is higher.  So the bicycle owner, for example, is assessed a higher sales tax in order to subsidize the car owner’s purchase.  Can we really consider the full amount of gas tax or motor vehicle tax a user fee when those purchases are exempt from general sales tax?