Chart of the Day: Parking Prices in US Metros vs. Transit Usage

Via the peerless City Observatory, here’s a new report that measures the relative cost of downtown parking in US metros. (Note: I’m not sure if they used Minneapolis, Saint Paul, or both for this study…)

You can see the chart here, with Minneapolis-Saint Paul highlighted:


Click on image for link to interactive version.

The report’s authors followed up the chart with an admittedly unrefined analysis of the connection between the price of parking and transit usage:

In the United States, the majority of commuters travel alone by private automobile to their place of work.  But in some places–in large cities, and in dense downtowns–more people travel by transit, bicycle or walk to work.  It’s worth asking why more people don’t drive:  after all the cost of car ownership is essentially the same everywhere in the US.  The short answer is that in cities, parking isn’t free. And when parking isn’t free, more people take transit or other modes of transportation.

To see just how strong an explanation that parking prices provide for transit use, we’ve plotted the number of transit trips per capita in each of the largest metropolitan areas against the typical price of a month of parking in the city center.  Each data point represents a single metropolitan area.  There’s a very strong positive correlation between transit rides per capita and parking rates.  Cities with higher parking rates have more transit rides per capita than cities with lower parking rates.  The statistical correlation between the two measures is extremely strong:  the coefficient of determination (R2) is .83, suggesting that parking rates statistically explain 83 percent of the variation in transit use among cities.

Here’s the chart they mention, with the Twin Cities highlighted:


Click on image for the link to the interactive version.

The resulting relationship convinces me that, if we want to begin shifting our cities’ travel patterns, it’s crucial to make paid parking the default expectation in transit-friendly areas. There’s no getting around it, in my opinion. The chart shows that you can’t have it both ways; in other words, you cannot have good transit usage and free parking in urban areas. Or, as Joe Cortwright at City Observatory suggests, “there is much more opportunity to influence travel behavior by pricing than we commonly appreciate […] pricing of parking in some metropolitan areas is doing is correcting for the market failure of not pricing roads.”

Another takeaway for me is that all parking is relative. What constitutes a “parking problem” in different cities, whether parking is expensive and/or difficult, varies tremendously from city to city.  I call this “the Relativity Rule of parking,” that parking is infinitely variable and always depends on local context.

The Relatively Rule comes with something I call the “Complaint Creativity Corollary”, which states that it is always possible to complain about parking, no matter where you are or how cheap and easy it is to store your car. I would bet that even in Oklahoma City, which ranks the lowest on this list (and by funny coincident, the birthplace of the parking meter) people can find ways to complain about parking.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.