The High Cost of Parking at Caltech

Like Pasadena as a whole, Caltech’s population is growing, but we cannot expand geographically. This means both Caltech and Pasadena must increase density by building vertically or packing our buildings more closely together. Pasadena, much to the dismay of some long time residents who fondly remember the days when Orange Grove Blvd. actually passed through orange groves, now has six story live-work “transit oriented developments” sprouting up around the major business districts, within walking distance of the light rail. Similarly, Caltech has a new Chemistry building appearing between BBB and Noyes, a new Astronomy building where there used to be a surface parking lot next to Keith Spalding, and a new CS building rising up between Facilities and Avery House. Those new buildings will mean more people, and probably more cars, coming to Caltech every day.  They have to go somewhere, and our neighbors have made it clear to the City that parking them on the street is unacceptable.  Those new commuters will largely be parking in the recently completed subterranean garage under the athletic field.  However, this kind of solution to our parking demand has a cost, and I think we need to understand just how large it is in order to have a reasonable discussion about whether it’s the best solution going forward.

How much does a parking space cost?

According to the Caltech Master Plan and John Onderdonk in Facilities, the costs associated with building and maintaining our four current parking structures look like this:

Construction Costs:
Holliston + Wilson 1 + Wilson 2 $13.8M
California (beneath athletic field): $16.3M
Operational Costs:
Typical Electrical Utility Cost: $120,000/yr
Typical Cleaning Cost: $20,000/yr
Opportunity Costs:
Footprint of above grade structures: 120,000 ft2
Neighboring property Value: $120/ft2
Estimated Replacement Cost: $14.4M

The construction (or capital) cost is the money we had to lay out up front to build the structures.  Operational costs are ongoing expenses associated with using and maintaining the structures.  The opportunity costs are a measure of what we have forgone in exchange for the structures.  We could have built laboratories, student housing, or administrative buildings where they stand.  The opportunity costs listed are only for the above ground Wilson and Holliston parking structures, since we still get to use the athletic field with a parking structure underneath it.  In practice it might be difficult to purchase adjacent land at any price.  In exchange for these investments, the Institute has gotten a total of 2,009 parking spaces:

Parking Spaces:
Wilson 1: 437
Wilson 2: 443
Holliston: 440
California: 689

An unreserved Caltech parking permit currently costs $40/month, or $480/year.  Reserved spots cost more, and should, because they can’t be dynamically re-allocated when you aren’t using them, but for the moment let’s assume all spots are unreserved.

If we want to compare capital (up front) costs to cash flow (operating expenses, and revenue from parking permits), we need to know something about the time value of money.  We can either convert future cash flows to their net present value, or we can convert the capital costs to an equivalent break-even cash flow.  In order to do either of these conversions, we need to know the discount rate, which is a measure of how much more a given lump sum of cash is worth now than at some time in the future.  If you’re borrowing money, you can think of the discount rate as the interest rate you’d be paying on the loan.  If you’re spending your own money, the discount rate is the rate of return you would have made on that money if you’d invested it instead.  To first order, all you do is multiply or divide capital cost by the discount rate, depending on which direction you’re converting.  So for example, $20,000 today is equivalent to $1,000/year if the discount rate is 5%.  This is not strictly true, but it’s a good approximation for relatively small discount rates, and things that have long lifetimes, like parking structures.  For the moment, let’s call the annual discount rate D, and the average annual cost of a single parking spot in one of the structures on campus C:

C = (D*(capital costs + opportunity costs) + annual expenses)/(# of spaces)

C = (D*(4.7e7)+1.4e5)/(2009)

Assuming C=$480, we can solve and find D=1.75%.  This rate is so low as to be implausible, suggesting that Caltech is subsidizing parking.  Digging through Caltech’s financial reports from the last few years, one finds that the construction of our parking structures has largely been financed using bonds issued in cooperation with the California Educational Facilities Authority (you can even see what CEFA staff had to say about Caltech’s application).  Debt financing was probably used because inglorious infrastructure is a hard sell to our noble benefactors.  Can you imagine the Gordon & Betty Moore, or Arnold & Mabel Beckman… Parking Lot? More importantly, Gordon, Betty, Arnold, and Mabel would probably all realize that a parking structure does not directly support Caltech’s core scientific and engineering mission. It is something that we might as an institution do well to do without, if it means taking resources (real estate and cash) away from our core mission.  The interest rate you’ll pay on debt (especially as a tax exempt organization) is also much lower than the expected rate of return on investments, so given that drumming up alumni funds to pay specifically for a new parking structure was unlikely, it certainly made more sense to take out a loan than to spend endowment money (at least if you think that stock markets go up over time…).

The tax-exempt bonds that Caltech issued through CEFA paid between 4.25% and 5.00% interest.  Let’s call it 4.5% interest on average, so that’s D, implying that the cost of providing a parking spot at Caltech is about $1122/year, more than twice what Caltech charges.  One might legitimately ask why California offers a tax exemption for “educational” bonds used to construct parking structures.  Without that benefit, Caltech probably would have had to offer more like a 6% bond yield, making the true unsubsidized cost of providing a parking spot nearly $1500/year.  The Institute was able to do the equivalent of refinancing the bonds in 2006, resulting in an effective interest rate of only 3.6%, and at D=3.6%, a parking spot still costs $943/year (The refinancing was done using an interest rate swap, as outlined in this cartoon of the deal.  Let’s hope that the Bank of New York remains solvent!).  However, for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to stick with D=4.5% for a couple of reasons.  First, when Caltech had to make the decision about allocating its funds, it was willing to make a commitment to the 4.5% interest rate.  Ostensibly at the time $1122/year accurately reflected Caltech’s valuation of having an additional parking spot, otherwise we wouldn’t have built the structures.  Second, historically 3.6% is a very low rate.  Looking forward, especially given present uncertainties in the credit markets, we should not be planning on getting that rate the next time we need to build a parking structure.

How much parking do we need?

Accepting that a parking space costs $1122/year to provide, and that Caltech only charges $480/year for a permit, what we have in effect is a net $642/year or $53.50/month subsidy to drivers.  It is instructive to compare this to the monthly subsidies offered on other methods of transit:

Mode Subsidy
Vanpool $50
Metrolink Train $50
Metro Pass (bus/light rail) $25
Bicycling $0
Walking $0

You’ll notice that driving is actually the most subsidized mode of transportation, though vanpools come close to competing with driving on an even playing field.  Metrolink doesn’t really count since it only gets you as close at Union Station in downtown LA.  The odd thing is, these subsidies are supposedly meant to incentivize the use of alternative transportation options.  In reality, the biggest financial incentive Caltech provides is for the thing that it doesn’t want you to do: drive, and the smallest incentives ($0) are for walking and biking, which require virtually no investment on the institute’s part, and don’t generate congestion or pollution.  Additionally if the point of the subsidy is to make one option more attractive than another, it doesn’t make any sense to subsidize everything.  Doing so makes it impossible economically to differentiate one option from the others.  Furthermore, offering more money for the more expensive options hides the real relative costs, which are then being borne by the subsidizing party.

The obvious thing to do if we actually wanted to discourage people from driving, or even if we just want to stop wasting money providing subsidized parking, is to charge the full cost of the parking spots, ~$100/month, and let people adjust their transportation decisions with full knowledge of the costs involved.  If you’re one of the many car-loving southern Californians, you might question the aim of discouraging driving — fair enough, but charging $100/month wouldn’t be punitive.  It would just be a removal of our present incentive, and I’d be happy to accept abolishing the public transit subsidies Caltech offers as well, just to see what transportation decisions people make.  It seems like this unperturbed state should be the baseline we start from in designing any incentives, or deciding how much parking to provide in the first place.

Unfortunately, it turns out this isn’t how parking works at all.  How much parking Caltech provides is not Caltech’s decision.  It’s law, codified in the Caltech Master Plan, which is actually a city ordinance.  In 1986, prior to the construction of the second phase of the Catalina apartments, the City performed a parking survey, and came up with the following parking ratios (PR = required spots/person) for various parts of the Caltech community, and applied them to our predicted future growth assuming that 60% of graduate students would live on campus and including a 10% buffer for visitors and vacancy.

Group PR Pop. Demand
Off campus grad students: 0.44 480 209
On campus grad. students: 0.67 720 480
On campus undergrads: 0.4 845 338
Faculty and Staff: 0.5 2430 1215
Visitors/Vacancy: 224
Total: 0.55 4475 2466

Should we expect that the driving habits of the Caltech community in 1986 represent a good estimate of our behavior looking forward to 2030?  In 1986 there was no Gold Line, and no Pasadena ARTS bus.  Adjusted for inflation, nationwide gas prices in 1986 averaged about $1.75 versus $3.00 so far in 2008, while median household incomes and vehicle fuel efficiency remained nearly unchanged ($45,000 vs. $50,000 and 22.0 vs. 20.2 mpg, respectively).  James Hansen had not yet testified to Congress about the dangers of climate change, Pasadena hadn’t labeled itself a green city, we had no Bicycle Master Plan, and Caltech did not have a Sustainability Council.

But probably more important than any of those changes is the fact that, in 1986, parking at Caltech was free.

What would global demand for crude oil be like if OPEC gave it away for free?  Would you take a ride to the space station if it were free?  If electricity was free, we’d probably use it to heat and cool our homes and never bother with any insulation, as was very nearly the case in the Pacific Northwest, after construction of the Grand Coulee Dam flooded the region with cheap power for which there had not previously been demand.  Unsurprisingly, the demand materialized.  Price is paramount when you’re trying to estimate demand, and that goes for parking just as much as anything else with a non-zero marginal cost of production.  Nevertheless, in the Master Plan it states:

Estimates of Caltech’s population growth, in conjunction with these ratios, indicate that the demand for parking might reach 2,500 spaces within the next 15 years. Analysis of existing parking and car ownership habits validates the demand ratios used to generate this number.

However, the usage of on-street parking could not be quantified during the surveys of parking lot utilization. This unknown factor suggests that the parking strategy should allow for the construction of more parking than might be suggested by these estimates, to account for the anticipated loss of all on-street parking.  For that reason, the proposed parking strategy will allow for the creation of approximately 3,500 parking spaces on-site, 1,000 more than the projected need.

So the plan of record was to provide as much as a 40% oversupply of a resource for which demand was estimated assuming a price of $0.  This kind of resource allocation depresses prices, and expectations of prices, which is why the $100/month price tag probably seems high to you.  The cost doesn’t go away, it just moves into the background, and you don’t have the option of making decisions based on it.  In a retail context, the cost of free parking is rolled into the prices of the goods and services you buy.  In a residential complex it increases the price of a unit of housing.  In Caltech’s case, it increases our operational overhead.  This hidden cost is real, and impossible to recoup if parking is underpriced, even if as an individual you choose not to own a car or drive. (These ideas and the data behind them are explored in more depth in UCLA professor Don Shoup‘s book The High Cost of Free Parking.)

If instead we charged users the true cost of parking, we’d probably need less of it. Much of the student demand would vanish, since if you live in Caltech housing, you don’t actually need to drive anywhere, and renting a car a couple of weekends a month to get away would be cheaper than paying for a parking spot (even before you add in the avoided costs of maintenance and depreciation).  Students would have an incentive to learn how to use our surprisingly good public transit network, or to use a bike to get around, or to get a smaller vehicle – maybe a Vespa.  A higher proportion of Caltech’s staff would end up being sourced from nearby, avoiding the time and expense associated with a long commute.  Or they would decide to take advantage of organized car and vanpools and public transportation.  We would exceed our obligations to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and Pasadena’s Trip Reduction ordinance by wide margins.  We would have more real estate and more money to dedicate to our core mission, of expanding human knowledge and benefiting society through scientific research and education.  It would reduce the traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and other pollution resulting from the operations of the Institute.

You might reasonably point out that the construction and opportunity costs of our parking structures are unrecoverable.  What’s the point of charging everyone $100/month if all that will do is create a bunch of empty parking spots that don’t do anyone any good?  I did an informal survey of the four parking structures and found the following vacancy rates at 11am on a Tuesday during the academic year, suggesting that even at $40/month we may have surplus parking with our current campus population.  Of course, remember we have yet to add all of the people who will eventually inhabit the new Chemistry, Astronomy, and Information Science buildings:

Structure Vacancies Total Spots Vacancy Rate
Wilson 1: 204 437 46%
Wilson 2: 65 443 15%
California: 154 689 22%
Holliston: 85 440 19%
Total: 508 2,009 25%

According to the Master Plan, we still have several parking structures yet to build: a 2 story, 250 space subterranean lot for visitors, to be constructed underneath the gateway plaza that will eventually serve as the main entrance to campus at the northern edge, off of Del Mar, another 400+ space above ground structure on Holliston between the fire station and the power plant, and another 2 story subterranean lot beneath the Athaneum tennis courts.  Yet, according to the Caltech website we already exceed the projected campus population from the Master Plan by a significant margin.  Altogether there are 6114 students, faculty and staff (not including JPL).  I was unable to find an exact number of parking spaces currently available on campus, but even if we are providing the entire proposed allocation of 3,500 spaces our current population would imply an overall PR of 0.57, which is very close to the observed overall average of 0.55 from the 1986 survey.  This makes me wonder if maybe we’ve already adjusted the campus population to take advantage of the 1,000 “extra” parking spaces that were written into the Master Plan.  The fact that at least 500 of the spaces were unoccupied means we’ve in the meantime reduced our average PR from 0.55 to 0.49, suggesting that we might be able support a larger ultimate campus population with less of a parking subsidy, if we continue to raise the price of a parking permit.  This assumes of course that we would prefer as an institution to have more students, researchers and faculty, and that growing furthers our mission.  The Master Plan has the entire northern margin of the campus slated for re-development eventually, and that has to mean a lot more people.  Wouldn’t it be more fair and more financially responsible for drivers to pay the entire cost of their parking?  Wouldn’t it be to our advantage to avoid constructing tens of millions of dollars worth of new parking at least until we know what the demand for it would be at its full cost?

A few modest proposals

What if over the next five to ten years, before building any new parking structures, we were to allow the price of a parking permit to float upwards along with demand, until it’s equivalent to the true cost of adding a new parking space?  In conjunction with detailed annual parking surveys, this would give us information about the elasticity of demand for parking within the different segments of the Caltech community, and would allow us to determine the allocation of resources between parking and academic facilities that results in just enough parking spaces, provided at cost, to accommodate our final population when the campus is entirely developed.  What would this be worth?

If we assume that the current plan is to continue subsidizing parking at $642/year per space, and that with this level of subsidy we can expect parking demand will require us to build the additional ~1,000 parking spaces listed in the Master Plan, for a total of ~4,500 spaces, that’s ultimately an operating loss of nearly $3 million per year.  Assuming a 4.5% discount rate, that loss is equivalent to a lump sum today of about $64 million.  Conversely, if charging the full price of parking on our existing spaces reduces demand enough that we can avoid having to build any more parking, we don’t have to spend that money, and we preserve about 40,000 square feet of real estate on campus that can be used for a new academic facility.  Just for reference, $3 million a year is equivalent to full scholarships including living expenses for 60 undergraduates, every year.  It’s roughly 40 grad students, or 30 post doctoral fellows, including benefits, every year, or it’s enough to cover 10 faculty positions, with some institutional start-up funds, every year.  It’s a new world class Beowulf cluster somewhere on campus every couple of years.  Alternatively, a lump sum of $64 million is more than the entire project cost of the recently constructed Broad Center for the Biological Sciences.  Should we really be willing to forgo these kinds of things in order to continue subsidizing parking?

What are the likely objections to market priced parking at Caltech?  The current recipients of the parking subsidy would probably complain loudly, because it would be such a departure from normal Southern California policy, but would they have a more substantial objection than their desire not to pay?  Would students who had been admitted to Caltech really decide not to come here because parking seemed expensive?   Or would they decide to live off campus nearby, or consider doing without a car?  Would potential new faculty reject a Caltech position because of parking?  If so, rather than offering them a “free” parking space, wouldn’t it be better to explicitly offer them some portion of the full cost of a parking space as a straight addition to their salary, and then let them decide if they really think the parking spot is worth it?  That way they would still have an economic incentive not to create demand for parking on campus, and any time the parking issue didn’t come up in negotiation, we’d avoid the demand for free.  In any case, a large proportion of students and faculty already end up living very close to Caltech, and whatever the social expectation may be, do not actually need to drive to get here.  The non-faculty staff would probably be the most significantly impacted, especially the least well paid among them, for whom $100/month would be a significant portion of their compensation.  In effect, we would be stating a hiring preference for those who live nearby and do not need to drive, or who are willing to come to campus via a carpool, vanpool, or public transportation.  Especially for most easily substituted employees, is that preference not in our best interest? Isn’t it also in the best interests of the person being hired?  If having a job at Caltech means one fewer cars in their household, they would save a lot more money than the price of a parking permit, and that makes a larger financial difference to someone working as custodial staff, or an entry level administrative assistant, than to a higher level manager.

It’s not our responsibility as an employer or institution to try and change the social norms surrounding car ownership and transportation in Southern California, but neither should it be our responsibility to actively subsidize those norms, which is what we do today.

I think the more significant objection to market priced parking would be likely to come from the City of Pasadena.  One plausible result of charging the full cost for parking would be that some people would drive anyway and avoid paying by parking in the surrounding neighborhoods.  This is unacceptable to nearby residents, and thus to the city government.  We could argue about whether that’s justified, but it is largely beyond our control.  In 1996, Pasadena enacted a parking permit regime in the area surrounding Pasadena City College to deal with a similar problem there, and it has reportedly worked well.  The cost to administer it was estimated to be $12,000/year, which is a far cry from the $3 million/year we may ultimately end up paying to subsidize parking on campus.  Alternatively, we might address the City’s concerns by working out an arrangement in which we are responsible for aggressively enforcing the 2 hour parking restrictions that already exist on many of the nearby streets, but which are currently poorly policed.  This would also cost much less than $3 million/year.  I’m sure there are other ways we could address overflow.  The point I’m trying to make is that we should be more than willing to work with the City to figure out what they might be, and that even if the solutions have significant costs associated with them, the freedom to stop subsidizing parking on campus is potentially very valuable to us as an institution.  Eventually, if we’re able to show that demand for parking on campus is fairly elastic, we will also need to work with the City to draw up a new Master Plan, which accommodates that elasticity into our development.

In the meantime, so long as we continue to subsidize parking, we should also be willing to explore other parking demand reduction strategies.  If it costs less to prevent someone from needing a parking space than it does to provide them the subsidy for that parking space, we should be willing to take the preventative measures.  Not only might demand reduction be cheaper, it is generally much less of a commitment.  If we buy someone a metro pass, or help pay for the lease on a vanpool van, we’ve committed to that expenditure for a month, or a year.  If we build someone a parking space, we’ve committed to it for 40 years, and we have no idea what Southern California’s transportation infrastructure and expectations will look like in 40 years.

For instance, in the late 1960s, Copenhagen, Denmark was as automotive a city as any in Europe.  Today its daily trips are split evenly between cars, public transit, and bicycles, at a latitude and in a climate that is dark, and cold, and wet for half the year.  Closer to home, the first light rail line in Portland, Oregon only opened in 1986, and the city only started taking cycling seriously after the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) sued them in 1993.  We should hedge against parking, because it is both expensive, and long term, whereas measures to reduce demand may be cheaper, and even if they are similarly priced, they are much more limited commitments.

A few other examples of possible demand reduction strategies:

Currently we use the same parking permits, at the same prices, for scooters, motorcycles, and cars.  Instead we should offer a separate class of less expensive permits for scooters and motorcycles, since many more of them can be fit into the same physical space, creating an incentive for people to make more efficient use of our resources.

We should consider establishing a car sharing program like the ones administered by Zipcar for Pomona, USC, UCLA, and UC Santa Barbara.  Zipcar estimates that 15 cars are taken off the road for each Zipcar.  If that held true for Caltech, at our current parking subsidy rates we could provide almost $10,000 per year toward each Caltech Zipcar vehicle, and still break even financially, while avoiding the 40 year commitment to those 15 parking spaces.  This option would likely be popular with graduate students living in on campus housing if the cars were made available in the Wilson parking structures, and the 1986 parking survey showed that on campus graduate students had the highest PR (0.67) of any segment of the Caltech population.

We could significantly improve Caltech’s bicycle facilities by installing more ground-level bike racks next to buildings on the interior of campus, and by adding a block of secure covered bike parking within each of the parking structures (maybe right next to where the Zipcars park…).  We might consider partnering with Long Beach based Bikestation, and providing a bike mechanic to work in one of the parking structures, charging normal bike shop rates, as is common near many transit hubs in Germany.  This allows commuters to conveniently have their bikes serviced during the day while they’re at work.  It would also help to have consistent removal of abandoned bicycles from on campus bike racks.  To encourage new bike commuters, and help people use their bikes safely in traffic, we could provide organizational and financial support for bike safety, handling, and commuting workshops like those provided by CICLE.  These improvements could partly be funded by instituting a modest campus bicycle parking permit, which would also facilitate registration of bikes with the police, aiding in their recovery in case of theft, and would give a mandatory point of contact between the Institute and Caltech cyclists, allowing us to more accurately track bike use, and integrate it into our transportation planning.

Transitioning to market based parking rates, or if we must subsidize driving then at least making a point of providing equitable support of all transportation choices, will not be easy.  However, I suspect that if we did so, the transportation decisions of the Caltech community would be different than they are today.  At the very least, these changes would make our transportation policies more equitable, and at best, they would represent a significant financial gain to the Institute.  Beyond those tangible and self-serving benefits, it would be an important demonstration that even here in Southern California, the Car might not be King were we to stop unthinkingly paying his ransom.

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30 Responses to The High Cost of Parking at Caltech

  1. Michelle Wilber says:

    Very well thought out! I think I agree with every point (though I didn’t stop to check your math.) I think this should be published in local newspapers or other visible place and distributed to policy makers. This is important stuff.

  2. Ronnie says:

    Very nice analysis… I haven’t looked through the entire thing, but I think a short version would be appropriate for the gscnews.

    One question on subsidies: Doesn’t the biker program provide several free parking passes per year? I think Caltech views this as a kind of subsidy for bikers.

  3. Zane Selvans says:

    Regarding the bike and walk to work programs that the transportation office runs – yes, they do offer 3 parking permits per month to participants, plus for the cyclists at least, entry into an annual raffle. I don’t think these qualify as subsidies in the same way as the other transportation options for a couple of reasons.

    First, if you don’t have a car parking passes are entirely useless and without monetary value, whereas the subsidies offered to the other forms of “alternative” transportation go directly toward defraying an expense you’ve incurred. I think a more appropriate analogous subsidy for cyclists would be a coupon for a free bike tune up at one of the local bike shops, once every 6 months. But if we must provide subsidies, I still think straight cash is best, because then we aren’t trying to play favorites, and commuters still have the right economic incentive – to minimize the overall cost of commuting. To really be viewed as an incentive, it needs to be available to anyone (not just cyclists or walkers who also own cars) and it needs to have cash value.
    Second, since we currently have a surplus of parking spaces, those parking passes don’t actually have any marginal cost to the Institute. This is a lesser criticism than the first above, but it makes me think that when we are fully utilizing the parking resource, there’s a chance this incentive will go away.

    What word count would you suggest for the GSC News?

  4. Michelle Wilber says:

    Not to be argumentative (and I hope this never gets taken away!) but what about the free bike parking as a subsidy to bikers? I assume at least some of this exists on campus. The space is much smaller than for a car, but the same arguments about opportunity costs would apply.

  5. Zane Selvans says:

    I’d be curious what the capital and operating/maintenance costs associated with automated parking garages are. Not really possible to evaluate them without that information, and I suspect that both are higher.

    Regarding the free bike parking – absolutely, the same arguments can be applied, but the costs associated with bike parking are so low that even if we did charge for bike permits (as many universities do), I think it’s unlikely that it would represent a material disincentive to biking. At the same time, I think that integrating cycling more officially into Caltech’s transportation planning could be a very good thing, and I think that having an annual (or even one-time) permit required would provide a point of contact between the Institute and each cyclist, that we do not have now, and that could be leveraged to better organize the cyclists as a constituency.

  6. Diane Trout says:

    I really like the work you did for this, I especially like the vacancy rate data. That information is rarely available, as the estimates for required parking spaces come from a national highway engineer’s reference handbook.

    Given the sleep schedules of the typical undergrad and grad student, Caltech has a much wider range of operating hours than most businesses. All that time shifting can quite easily make a more efficient use of parking.

    As for the preferred parking zone, the last thing I heard was the residents south of Caltech didn’t like it because they thought the required signage would be too ugly.

    The difficulty with implementation is political, Caltech claimed their pricing was “market rate”, so to phase out the parking subsidy it would be best to phase it out in a larger region.

    (Also one report put the rough life-cycle cost of a single parking space in an above ground parking lot at about $30,000, though it may go up with concrete costs.)

  7. Zane Selvans says:

    Oh my goodness, you can’t mean that the parking ratios from the 1986 “survey” were just looked up in the traffic engineer’s handbook, can you? I thought they actually came out and took some data.

    Student sleeping schedules are certainly odd, but I’m skeptical that this could be turned to the purpose of more efficiently using parking, since I think very, very few students commute to Caltech by car. Most either live in on or off campus Institute owned housing, and walk or bike, and those that live in on campus housing simply store their vehicles long-term in the parking structures whenever they aren’t being used. However, I think out of phase sleep schedules could potentially result in abnormally efficient utilization of shared cars, especially if promotional rates existed for way-off-peak hours.

    Stop signs are ugly too. We should get rid of all stop signs.

    I’m amazed that that kind of complaint holds any water. As a cyclist, I can’t get the police to reprimand someone who threatens my life with their vehicle, or get transportation to set the traffic signals to be sensitive enough to detect a bike, but a few homeowners can force the City not to put up street signs because they’re ugly? The mind boggles.

    My estimate of $1,122 translates to $24,933 total cost for a discount rate of 4.5%, which agrees fairly well with the $30,000 estimate. So I’m not crazy.

    I’m not sure I understand your point about “market rate” parking. Did Caltech tell Pasadena that $40/month was market rate? What did they mean by that I wonder. What kind of larger region are you thinking of? It seems very unlikely we’d be able to get the South Lake business district to do away with any subsidized parking (though that would be great!).

  8. Zane Selvans says:

    The ITE Trip Generation Handbook is a complete farce, trapped in a positive feedback loop of data collected in suburban sprawl with no transit options, where parking is offered for free, and besides that, a large proportion of their data is entirely statistically insignificant, often with R2 < 0.1. I’m amazed they still have the guts (gall?) to put the statistics out there. It really wouldn’t be that expensive or difficult to do an annual or quarterly parking survey of our actual usage. Heck, we could automate the whole process and do it continuously by snapping a photo of every license plate on the way in and out of the parking structures, running OCR on the plates, and correlating that with the parking permit database (which knows which license plates are associated with which people, and what part of the Caltech population those people are part of). No worse than the swipe cards for privacy. Turnkey systems for doing this kind of thing have to exist already, probably for cheaper than hiring a consulting firm to do the modeling.

    Students who live two blocks away and still drive are exactly the target audience of increased prices.

    I’ve heard the sad tale of bike lanes on Washington. I wonder if it would help get the signage through if there were some kind of door-to-door campaign ($3 million is a lot of student work-study hours)? Actually, didn’t all the “Share the Road” signs just go up fairly recently around town? It seems unlikely that they asked for and got permission from all the adjacent neighbors on those, so there must be some exemption or work around for some things.

    Or, of course, if we could somehow get the City on board with the idea, they could just let us grow without building more parking, and when the overflow comes, let the neighbors petition for the permitting regime, which must be what happened with PCC.

    Or maybe there’s some kind of ordinance that could be used to explicitly prohibit Caltech employees and students from parking on the streets nearby. Or maybe we could just do the enforcement on the 2hr parking limits.

    I might believe $40/month for a surface lot here, but that’s very different from an underground parking structure. Out in Century City a crappy parking spot in a garage far from where you want to be is $200+/month. I didn’t see any mention of what the “market rate” was in the Master Plan, so maybe if we had a combination of a revision to the plan that allowed us to plan around our actual annual measured demand instead of the ITE recommendations, we could just raise the prices, and keep demand down, and worry about the overflow only later, if it actually happened, while being very aggressive with marketing the alternatives. There has to be some way, for less than $3 million/year, to deal with this problem.

  9. Diane Trout says:

    Yep, they look it up in the ITE Trip Generation Handbook

    Basically somebody, somewhere captured some data, and then we apply that everywhere.

    Though City staff did mention they’re looking for a qualified consultants to do modeling of how the non-commute trips are modified by our transit and pedestrian friendly infrastructure.

    As for students commuting, I do know of some people in my lab who do drive two blocks to Caltech, higher parking fees might make them think twice.

    As for the ugly signs, the neighborhood has to ask the city to intervene for traffic or parking issues, and the city won’t do anything that isn’t approved by the residents. Unfortunately the bar for approval is actually pretty high, 50% of all residents have to vote yes, abstaining counts as no. The area south of Caltech might have a better chance of success as its relatively wealthy, but regions of Pasadena with large percentages of renters find it nearly impossible to implement any changes to the streetscapes.

    Once upon a time, one street came out in mass to protest bike lanes being put on their street, even though it would’ve lowered traffic speeds on their street (which some of those residents complained about). (narrower looking streets make drivers drive slower.)

    I think market rate came from the cost of a monthly parking pass at nearby parking lots, though one of said lots has been ripped up and turned into luxury condos.

  10. Zane Selvans says:

    The more I think about it, the more I think the best thing we could do right now, especially with our overcapacity of parking, is to just start taking really good data on utilization. Maybe by installing an automated system at all of the parking garages. That way we’d get a baseline against which to measure the effects of any future changes to our transportation policies…

  11. Pingback: Streetsblog » The High Cost of Subsidized Parking at Cal Tech

  12. Joe Linton says:

    Great post! It's interesting to me to understand the differences in subsidies as you've clarified them. It's generally considered very progressive just to charge at all for parking.But clearly in this example, it costs the employer more than $50/month to provide the space… even though I bet Caltech gets complaints from folks who don't want to pay that much.

  13. Zane Selvans says:

    The grad students certainly made a big stink when they first started charging. People just feel entitled because the costs are hidden. Facilities actually hates providing parking – they know just how expensive it is – but unfortunately, there's not a lot we (or anybody else) can do about it, so long as cities require it to be provided, and citizens are willing to force their politicians to socialize the costs. I always get weirded out by which things America chooses to socialize.

  14. Peter Jacobsen says:

    In contrast to the Pasadena making an ordinance of the Caltech Master Plan, which locks in driving habits of 1986, Stanford’ General Use Permit from Santa Clara County (2000) mandates “no net new commute trips.”

    In response, Stanford provides incentives for their students, faculty and staff to get to and from work without their cars. The percentage that drive to work alone has dropped from 72 percent in 2002 to 52 percent in 2007.

  15. Zane Selvans says:

    By “no net new commute trips”, I assume you mean car-commute trips. Interestingly, it looks like Stanford was none too pleased about the proposed restrictions, which I think is odd, given the large costs which providing for extensive automotive use entails. But so much of public statements and meetings is just politicking. I could imagine the administration being publicly upset, while being privately happy, in order to avoid backlash from their academic community, who probably wanted plenty of new parking structures… Now if only we could get some interplay like that going on in Pasadena!

  16. Mike Doug says:

    There are certainly some interesting information here
    from a purely theoretical point of view, and it seems that you understand that it is the commutting staff would be most affected
    by placing the real costs on them. However, you seem to believe
    by raising the parking costs to their actual values you
    could discourage those staff with long commutes and encourage
    positions for local staff. This assumes that there is a significant population of suitable staff that could fill these positions. There seems to be no real basis for such a belief.
    In general the staff that work at Caltech do not live within practical walking or cycling distance because even in today’s housing market they cannot afford to do so. Most would love the
    idea of living with Pasadena rather than communting. If you believe that those staff could take buses from slghtly more distant areas it would seem that you are completely unfamilar with the sad joke that passes for public transportation within LA and the limits of limited transport systems such as ARTS.

    Some relief to Caltech’s past parking problems could have been obtained by removing the impractical 2hr parking restrictions, rather than more strickly enforcing them. Additionally, if
    employees were allowed to park in the San Marino streets adjacent to Caltech (that are totally barren) additional parking bulidings would not have been required. Using these streets would have made better use of miles of empty roads. Indeed, opening these streets would have actually encouraged people to walk a little further.
    The reasons parking restrictions near the San Marino mansions is clear to all and clearly has very little to do with public safetly or congestion.

  17. Michelle W says:

    Mike, not that the solutions are without pain, but I think the idea of making parkers shoulder more of the true cost of parking (and driving in general) is to balance that part of the equation. Nothing guarantees that one can live in a single family, 3-bed home and drive a car, except the American expectations. There are a number of potential solutions that may manifest over time if everyone paid for their parking. Developers may develop more affordable, walkable communities near places people commute to now, given the right pressure. The bus system may improve if consumer demand was there, and interested parties worked to influence the system for the better. People may chose or need to live in less individualistic ways – with roommates, or in smaller houses (god forbid the children have to share a bedroom). Less money may be able to be spent on consumer goods or pre-packaged foods and meals out, to allow for the parking fund or the more expensive housing fund. People may find out that they can bike 10 miles or more to work, and be much healthier for it. Or bike and bus. Where there is a will, there is a way. Subsidized parking is probably not the best way. Sorry if I sound like a smart ass, I know there would be real hardship, and expect many staff are dealing the best they can and already living in compromise.

  18. Zane Selvans says:

    Also, if you look at the census data for Pasadena, it’s clear that we do actually have a significant number of low-income people in town. The custodian in our building lives in Northwest Pasadena, which is certainly accessible to Caltech without a car (it’s closer than JPL, and I commuted up there by bike). I suspect that there are some people up there who currently drive to Burbank or El Monte for similar jobs, as well as others who drive to Pasadena from East LA or Lincoln Heights (and I talked to another custodian who sometimes bikes from Lincoln Heights — timewise it’s certainly no further away by bike than many other locations that people drive from are by car). And as I suggested above, the people who would find the full cost of parking the most burdensome are also the people who would benefit proportionately the most from avoiding the costs associated with owning and using a car.

  19. Alice says:

    Hi, I’m not at Caltech. I’m in Sonoma County and just researching on the web about any objections that have cropped up regarding Shoup’s ideas, before my small city has a local parking pricing meeting tomorrow. Your very helpful article came up, due to the word “objection.”

    It’s inspiring to see so many people concerned about parking across the country and seeking solutions for driving reduction, and I appreciate the specifics that you provide for Caltech. That’s a lot of subsidy per parking space. My city currently spends $5,000 per surfacing parking space construction, and $28,000 per garage space.

    My big concerns with Shoup’s ideas have to do with equity and social justice. In a dense urbanized area, where there’s better transit and there are many people living within easy walking distance of many goods, services and job opportunities, equity issues diminish. In a more suburban or rural area, such as mine, with less transit, equity between taking the bus or biking, vs. driving, becomes a serious issue. If low-income people are disproportionately pushed out of cars and onto transit or bikes, not only can it be a real hardship, but even if there is good transit, having one economic class on transit, and another in cars creates a separate, and inherently unequal, condition.

    One other consideration for the moment: people who cannot afford the full cost of parking may not necessarily own fewer cars. They might live in a one-car household (say, a single person) and need to keep the car, or live in a multi-car household, but need the additional car(s) for errands while the other drivers have their cars at work. I’ve noticed as well among bus riders in my city that among one-car couples, it is almost always the woman who takes the bus daily while her husband drives, resulting in serious equity, independence, and sometimes safety issues for her.

    Shoup’s ideas should be studied from the perspectives of low-income people, in various cities, to gather their various views on the cost of parking go way up.

    Thanks again for your helpful post.

  20. Zane Selvans says:

    Alice, I certainly agree with the sentiment that you’re expressing, but I don’t think that continuing to heavily and invisibly subsidize parking is a good way to address it. Part of the reason we have so much population in suburban areas, and such generally poor transit as a nation is the minimum parking requirements that cities have implemented for the last half century. We’ve dug ourselves into a hole, and we have to climb out of it somehow. If these equity issues really are serious in Sonoma county, one solution I could imagine (which would probably be politically impossible to implement) would be to charge the true cost of parking, and offer cash compensation to the poorest people to cover the apparent increase in cost. If they felt that they really could not do without their car, and paying for parking, then they can use the money to offset the expense — or they can keep it and find other ways to get around.

    Ultimately, we’re all paying for parking now, even if we don’t drive, and no matter what our incomes are, and poor people are paying more of their overall income toward parking — they just can’t see it, because the cost is wrapped up inside the cost of everything else: groceries, housing, etc.

    You might be interested to look at SB 518 which recently passed through the CA senate (still has to go to the Assembly though), and which would go a long way toward making parking prices visible across the state.

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  28. Brian says:

    Mike Doug is correct regarding the extreme costs of living within walking (or even reasonable biking) distance to CalTech for staff. In the area, housing is both double that which can be found in normal commuter distances and finite.

    Michelle W, have you even studied what happens when you put too many rats into a small cage? Is it reasonable to expect the city council to draft a plan which tears down the entire city to rebuild it into a non-fossil fuel utopia? Do you expect it to be reasonable for a 50+ staff member to get up 2 hours early to bike through vehicle traffic? You also dictate that it’s reasonable that they not have enough money to have take-out, yet they cannot have a car to get groceries? I propose that the quality of the faculty and staff will be reduced if such a “Logan’s Run” disdain for the aging continued.

    Zane, I’ve personally been in (house calls) those “low-income” areas of NW Pasadena/Altadena to witness both a drive-by shooting as well as a walk up and plain unload a clip of bullets into someone. Same too many rats in a cage scenario as above and not a housing option unless you are personally volunteering to lower the global population and endanger your children (who don’t have a choice).

    Since the readers here are biased towards biking I’ll mention what Colorado has done to encourage it. Besides the extensive biking paths they’ve also passed into law that bicyclists have the right-of-way even in circumstances which California would issue a ticket. Any road (barring “freeways”), any lane, and at any speed they have the right-of-way. Motor vehicles must either pass with a full lane distance or putt along behind them until the opportunity for a full lane pass occurs. This happens both up in the Rockies with some maniac speeding downhill in the center regardless of that unseen rock which will send them first flying then under the wheels of a car in either lane, and downtown at any rush hour with a stream of cars behind them as the unsteady rider tools down the middle of the street at near walking speed. Utopia indeed.

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