Unparking the City

By João Melhado and Paulo Speroni

[13 min read]

Mobility is an inevitable issue in urban policy discussions, especially during the municipal elections period in Brazil. Urban tolls, subway expansion, bus lanes, and electric scooters are examples of hot topics in the transportation debate. However, little attention is given to one of the most relevant local policies for efficient and equitable urban mobility: public parking.

Combining analytical diagnosis with concrete recommendations, the research “A Cidade Estacionada” (“The Parked City”) focuses its magnifying glass on the curb management in the city of São Paulo. By analyzing the price differences between public and private parking lots and comparing these values with bus fares growth, the study presents an extensive list of social and environmental detrimental externalities caused by mobility policies that favor individual and motorized transportation.

In a country with continental geographical dimensions and regional differences of the same magnitude, it is essential to expand the exercise conducted in the capital of São Paulo to other state capitals. For an in-depth understanding of the country’s overall curb management, we compiled data on public parking fares from all twenty-six Brazilian state capitals and the National Capital, Brasília. The conclusion is straightforward: there is a lot to be done.

Besides the insufficient collection coverage, in most cases, the fares’ values are modest. The average public parking tariff in Brazilian state capitals is only R$ 1.74 for the first hour parked. The maximum price reaches up to R$ 5 in São Paulo, a value that should be even more expensive.

At the same time, a third of state capitals do not even charge drivers a single penny for parking their cars on the streets. All eight examples are located in the North (4), Northeast (3), and Midwest (1) regions, encompassing state capitals among the lowest per capita incomes across the country. These numbers suggest that cities with diminished economic power tend not to charge for street parking. Perhaps, policymakers understand these extra costs as burdens to poor citizens, which directly represents sharp political costs for the pricing implementation. However, this is a fallacious logic, unsustainable by reasons such as the limited access to car ownership, substantial cost differences between street parking rates and transit fares, and various negative externalities from policies that favor the car over public transportation.

Cars vs. Buses: privileging the minority

Reviewing street parking tariffs becomes even more relevant and urgent if compared to transit pricing policies. Among the 27 analyzed cities, only São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro charge more for a parking ticket than for a bus ride. However, the difference is still paltry, less than R$ 0.50. Consequently, considering the total cost of a bus round-trip in comparison to the parking fares, it is much cheaper for citizens to take the car out of the garage (for those wealthy enough to own cars).

In other state capitals, this unequal situation is even worse. While the most impoverished populations, which make up the largest share of transit users, pay an average of R$ 3.99 for a bus ticket, the average fare for street parking, generally used by the wealthiest, is R$ 1.74 – about only 40% of bus fares.

Thought-provokingly, the differences are even more significant in fortuneless state capitals, such as those in the North and Northeast regions. Even though most of them do not even charge drivers for parking their cars in public spaces, bus fares never cost less than R$ 3.45 (Recife) and reach up to R$ 4.25 (Natal).

Inadequate pricing: public addictions, private benefits, collective losses

Why worry so much about a topic that someone might consider minor compared to more popular debates like city tolls or subway lines? Seeing street parking as the “ugly duckling” in the urban mobility debate is a significant mistake.

First, and above all, because curb management impacts extensive areas of the cities. For example, in São Paulo, public parking is estimated to occupy five million square meters, an area equivalent to three times the Ibirapuera park’s size, the most famous urban park in Brazil. Instead of designating these vast spaces for car storage, cities could have better sidewalks, expanded bus lanes, new cycle paths, and other more inclusive mobility alternatives. When we allocate so much space to the car, people who lose out while being squeezed on meager sidewalks or wasting their precious time in crowded public transportation.

Simultaneously, and even more outrageous, some people support their position against pricing street parking by alleging that asphalt spaces are public goods. It is a classic example of argumentative distortion. From an economic standpoint, while used as a parking lot to store a single car, and considering that only one citizen can use it at a given time, the public space becomes rivalrous and excludable, consequently converting itself to a private good. In short, this is a reliable example of the privatization of street space. For this reason, drivers must pay for this privilege, as all newsstands pay for the private use of public space. 

Pricing street parking is essential to reduce the environmental and socioeconomic distortions that gratuity causes. Otherwise, cities continuously encourage individual and motorized transport, thus directly increasing inequality, pollution, congestion, and traffic accidents. It also undermines local retail and services industries. As recent researches explain, only a small percentage of customers who shop at street stores arrive there by car. In Brooklyn, New York City, driver-in customers account for less than 10% of total sales and, in San Francisco, California, they represent only 6%. In these locations, most clients reach local businesses by transit, bicycle, or on foot. Evident in great American cities whose populations have greater purchasing power than most Brazilians, the phenomenon must also reproduce in Brazil, where car ownership is comparatively limited.

Therefore, inadequate street parking pricing leads to an overuse of public space for car storage and diminishes active and collective mobility incentives. While local governments keep subsidizing drivers, there would be a lack of investments in expanded bus lanes, bike paths, public parklets, and safer sidewalks.

Unparking the city: recommendations for a more inclusive curb management

         It is possible to implement a comprehensive curb policy that boosts urban mobility and favors the human community – not just cars. This debate is as essential as other more popular discussions about urban tolls, bus system concessions, or subway networks. Nevertheless, curb management improvements require fewer infrastructure investments, compared to the subway expansion, and little political efforts than the controversial urban toll or bus lane bids.

In this sense, there are four practical measures that any Brazilian city could implement to consolidate more effective and inclusive curb management. In other words, give a better destination to the vast and vital urban space currently over designated for cars.

1. Rethink A Lot

There are countless alternatives to promote a more inclusive occupation of the millions of square meters currently destined for car storage within cities. Broader and safer sidewalks, exclusive lanes for buses and bicycles, living spaces such as parklets, street art, food trucks, and other examples that equitably serve the whole community instead of privileging the individual driver and his/her car.

2. Dynamic pricing instead of a single citywide fare.

Local governments must charge different street parking prices according to the neighborhoods’ economic differences and the parking occupancy rates in specific streets. In wealthier areas and busier times, more expensive are the fares. Otherwise, the driver pays less for parking.

3. Digital collection and law enforcement systems.

Some Brazilian cities have already implemented tech-enabled solutions aiming at a more efficient payment collection and law enforcement. One example is the adoption of cameras attached to police cars, which automatically detect parked vehicle license plates and check payments. Such initiatives facilitate user experience and make enforcement more efficient, thus reducing evasion and increasing revenue collected.

4. Redirect the collected street parking revenues for inclusive mobility policies.

Mostly surplus, street parking revenues should be seen as sources of investment to boost other initiatives in favor of transportation equity. The resources must be directed to expand and improve bus lanes, cycle paths, public parklets, and adequate sidewalks.

*João Melhado holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Columbia University, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Economy from Insper. With an academic focus on cities and technology, he is the author of the study “The Parked City.”

João Melhado holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Columbia University, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Economy from Insper. With an academic focus on cities and technology, he is the author of the study “The Parked City.”

Paulo Vasconi Speroni holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Columbia University and two Bachelor’s Degrees: Social Science from FGV-Rio, and International Relations from PUC-Rio.