Liberals, Markets and Parking

On Wednesday, as City Council voted to impose parking minimums on larger residential buildings on transit corridors, Commissioner Fritz made a comment to the effect that she had never heard so many Portland liberals argue for using markets.

I was one of the folks arguing for leveraging market forces. In the prior week’s hearing, Commissioner Fish asked my explicitly why I wanted to use a market. The answer I chose was about the ability of markets to expose pricing. We cross-subsidize parking in so many ways (required parking minimums is one way!) that people seldom directly pay the actual price of the parking they use. Making the price apparent is one way to make people think carefully about their mobility choices.

Another answer I could have given is that markets drive efficiency. A true market in parking would make sure that the parking that is demanded will be provided in the lowest cost way. If that means a structure down the street from an apartment building, rather than in the building itself – great. But our zoning system generally makes that illegal. In residential zones, parking can only be accessory to uses on the same site (and Council rejected the Planning and Sustainability Commission recommendation to change that in this circumstance). You can’t sell or rent any excess capacity to your neighbors. I hope we’ll fix that in the Comp Plan update.

While I am more likely to describe myself as progressive rather than liberal, I have no compunctions about using regulations where useful for good policy. But I also understand that markets are very powerful things, and I’m not hesitant to use market forces when they align with good public policy!

5 responses to “Liberals, Markets and Parking”

  1. There are few socialists or Marxists involved in politics in the US, and fewer still with any influence. The mainstream Democratic Party is a capitalist party; just one which is nominally less laissez-faire than the Republican Party (though neither party is immune from using the power of the state to aid friends and constituents).

    Hardly anybody argues for a return to the 1960s or 1970s, when the Interstate Commerce Commission had tremendous power, and when wage and price controls were a dominant feature of the economy. (There are a few of these left, obviously, particularly in agriculture).

    But there are still quite a few people out there who think liberals are crypto-socialists…

  2. I think that an even stronger point (and one directly related to your point about efficiency) is that parking policy is frequently at odds with affordable housing and affordable workspace.

    Parking mandates have the effect of forcing developers to build higher-end housing at prices high enough to justify the exorbitant costs of structured underground parking.

    Unfortunately, for some ‘lefties,’ the stress of a 5-minute hunt for a spot to park a Prius on Division Street is enough to trump empathy for the poor.

  3. “Liberals are for all regulations” is about as ignorant a statement I’ve ever heard. Good-government progressives should be just as vigilant about mis-use of government as they are about its productive use. Does the law or regulation have a specific benefit to promoting public health, safety, or knowledge? If not, it’s probably geared towards protecting a special interest.

  4. I might sum this up by saying this:

    Markets are a *tool*.

    A tool which should be used for our general benefit. They aren’t the only tool. Sometimes they’re the wrong tool. But sometimes they’re the right tool.

    Like all tools, you have to use them correctly: markets have to be designed, and functioning markets can only exist in the context of regulations, which determine what sort of transactions are allowed and when.

    (For instance, in parking, you wouldn’t want to allow fraudulent rent of parking spaces. Or what happened in NY in the early 20th century: “valet” parking where the valets just dumped the cars in random locations on public streets. Markets only work with regulation.)

    Markets are not a magical force of nature. Markets are a tool for public policy.

    (Chris, feel free to reuse any of what I said, though I’d appreciate credit.)

  5. I don’t disagree with your comments on pricing Chris, but on a fundamental level I think Fritz’s question was a non sequitur.

    Portland isn’t communist. It will continue to rely on a mix of free market and government intervention to provide housing as it has in the past. The meaningful question is, how does intervening in the market through parking minimums make the city better? It’s striking how unwilling (or unable) supporters of minimums are to answer that most basic question.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *