ANU parking: too damn high?

Parking at the ANU is too cheap. There, I said it. Now that I’ve put just about all off side, I’d like to convince you that 77 cents a day is too little to pay for a car park.

Students who drive often gripe that a parking permit at the ANU is actually a permit to hunt. The price is low and the number of permits issued almost unlimited.  The result is too many drivers chasing too few car parks.

Over the years our sleepy sprawling university has colonized the spaces between its founding buildings. Retaining car parks is a low priority when expansion is concerned.  Car parks don’t generate much money or prestige – research space does. Furthermore, those ultimately entrusted with making the decisions are often the lucky recipients of dedicated parking spaces metres from their office doors.

Various calls have been made for more parking to be made available. And as recently as last year some ANU Students’ Association election tickets campaigned for the cost of parking to be reduced. However what is needed is a radical change, one that at first seems counterintuitive: to introduce market-like pricing to our parking facilities.

We need this because the costs to students and staff are not just the loose change draining out of their pockets. There are lost opportunities and productivity when peak demand for parking means that students miss lectures, tutorials, meetings and sometimes even exams. It’s time students and staff paid for what they got and get what they pay for

There has been an interesting experiment going on across the Pacific in the city of San Francisco, California. As with many American cities, traffic congestion was a serious problem. Parking downtown was virtually impossible. The result was an increasingly dysfunctional city. People simply couldn’t get business done when commuting into central districts.

The city of San Francisco has begun the trial of a radical new idea in city planning. The solution is at once simple and ingenious, to price parking empirically based on whatever price it took to ensure one spare car park on each city block. Prices started at a nominal value and were adjusted in small monthly increments, in a range from 25-cents to $6, until city blocks were just below full.  Despite the reservations of many, it appears that the policy is beginning to pay off. Those willing and able to pay can park closer to their desired location. Others are weighing up the value of taking a walk.

The ANU could learn from the San Francisco experiment. We have a finite amount of space, campus demand outstrips supply and the opportunity costs, although yet unquantified, are substantial. Furthermore there are huge costs to the environment from people unnecessarily driving to university to crawl through car parks in search of a spot. Good vibes and environmental guilt trips go only so far in changing behavior. The long-term prospect is that with some seventeen thousand people on campus, the ANU will never have enough space to satiate peak demand for parking. If you want people to make rational decisions, you have to give them a rational price signal.

Uniform inflexible prices have created a crisis. Simply adjusting the overall permit price will punish everybody just to quell peak demand. If our parking office continues to apply this model, students will have no choice but to buy a permit and try their luck. A lack of flexible market pricing means that there is no information about how valuable a car spot really is.

Parking inspectors are out everyday fining people. Oh, how we love them. Why not leverage their time to also collect regular and accurate statistics on parking use. Fees can be adjusted between car parks for different time windows on different days. Thus we can have an informed pricing structure that ensures that space is always available. For some an extra walk will be worth the lower prices. For others a bit of pocket change will make the hunt a kill.