Good Riddance, Free Parking Promos!


Earlier today, the City and the Philadelphia Parking Authority announced they will no longer continue to offer free parking promotions in Center City on Wednesday evenings and in Old City on Friday evenings. 

Here’s the announcement, which was made on Park(ing) Day, of all days: 

The City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Parking Authority announced that, due to higher demand and a lack of available on-street parking spaces, the last Wednesday for free meter parking in Center City will be September 28th. Additionally, there will be no free meter parking in Old City on the first Friday of the month. This will result in more parking opportunities for patrons of Center City businesses.

Beginning Wednesday, October 5th and Friday, October 7th and going forward, be sure to pay the meter according to the times on regulation signs on the block where you park.

These promotions started decades ago when city leaders were begging suburbanites to come downtown for dinner and a show to help revive the city’s struggling economy. Due to the desolation of downtown at that time, you can argue that it made some degree of sense for city leaders to give parking away for free as a way to lure consumers. But Center City has been booming for many years now, and the streets are no longer desolate. Continuing to give parking away for free just makes it harder for everyone to find a parking space. 

The promotions also result in cars parked on high-demand streets for much longer than they would otherwise be parked. If given the opportunity, virtually every driver will take maximum advantage of free parking in high demand commercial districts like Center City or Old City, leading to low turnover. This is problematic because curbside parking in commercial districts is intended to benefit restaurants, shops, and other businesses by creating high shopper turnover. 

The basic idea is that consumers will pay to park curbside for maybe 1-2 hours, purchase good and services, then leave so as to pay as little at the curb as possible (because who enjoys paying for parking?), and the process repeats throughout the day, bringing in more customers than would otherwise be possible. The City’s own language even alludes to this dynamic: [Ending the free parking promotions] will result in more parking opportunities for patrons of Center City businesses.

If parking is priced efficiently at the curb, drivers looking to park for longer than 1-2 hours would turn to parking garages or lots to find rates that are more reasonable for the duration of time they want to hang around. It’s the same reason McDonalds has uncomfortable seats and plays upbeat music: to nudge people into decisions that create higher turnover.

It’s also worth highlighting that the Parking Authority shares its revenues with the School District of Philadelphia, so free parking promotions leave money on the table for our students. To be clear, this isn’t going to solve the District’s budgetary woes, but there is certainly a strong case to make for evaluating all public funding streams for glaring inefficiencies such as this.

Finally, because Center City is so congested with auto traffic, some city leaders want to encourage walking, biking, and transit to improve traffic conditions – not to mention the improvements to air quality, public health, and reduced strain on our transportation infrastructure. And yet free parking promotions cut against each of those very worthy goals by encouraging more people to drive downtown.

Today we dance on the grave of free parking promotions in Philadelphia. May they die a swift death and never again return. We've been asking for this change to take place, as have other groups and individuals, and we thank the good people at the City and the Philadelphia Parking Authority for making an important incremental step in creating a more sustainable, multi-modal, 21st Century city.

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