This holiday season, the Philadelphia Parking Authority and the City of Philadelphia are in the giving spirit, once again incentivizing visitors and businesses to come do their holiday shopping in the city by offering free on-street parking on Saturdays in Center City.
This may seem like a minor cost to bear, but free parking comes at a high price to Philadelphians.
City officials argue that Philly needs to compete with the free parking lots at big box stores and malls to attract suburban visitors. This is an outdated way of thinking about economic development that stems from a time when the city was in decline.
Now, Philadelphia is a unique destination, especially for the holidays. You cannot get the experiences of the Christmas Village at LOVE Park, the Comcast Christmas show, or ice skating on Dilworth Park in the King of Prussia Mall. Let's have a little dignity and promote what's great about Philly during the holiday season, rather than frame our promotions around negative suburban perceptions of the city experience.
Many people think that giving away curbside parking will make it easier to park, creating an economic boon to businesses, but the reality is just the opposite. Curb parking spaces, especially in a dense downtown, are extremely valuable, and we already underprice them here in Philadelphia. By underpricing curb parking, we encourage motorists to occupy the spot longer, decreasing turnover and foot traffic for businesses. With limited PPA patrols, people will stay long past time limits occupying the same spot. Without turnover, businesses are missing out on even more customers who can shop at their store or dine in their restaurant.
Recently, city and PPA officials prioritized fixes for our worsening traffic congestion, but so far they haven't addressed underpriced curb parking. Some studies find that 30 percent of the drivers you see on the street may be cruising in search of parking space, creating congestion and emitting dangerous air pollution. Despite a greater need for curb parking during the holidays due to higher expected demand, the PPA is providing less, creating an even more frustrating experience for drivers who will be less likely to find parking than on a typical Saturday.
The PPA itself knows that parking management increases turnover and parking availability. In 2016, it eliminated its free parking promotion both on Wednesday evenings and First Fridays. They were quoted in Philadelphia Magazine saying that "the conclusion of these promotions is intended to increase parking opportunities for those shopping and dining in the city, and in light of the increased flexibility afforded by the meterUP app." In 2018, the meterUP app debuted citywide, making it easier than ever to pay for parking.
Another group who will not benefit from the PPA's parking subsidies is our students in local public schools. On-street revenue from tickets and meters are a revenue source for the School District. Why are we leaving money on the table (about $100,000 of revenue is lost a day) when our schools need basic upgrades more than ever? Some may argue this is offset by increases in sales and liquor tax, but it would take an additional $1 million in drinks sold to make up the lost revenue.
But again, this argument assumes that people come here only because of free parking, and not because our city is a destination. If the PPA truly believes that we need to offer free parking, it should open its garages and lots for free to visitors instead of the on-street parking offer. That money is not allocated to our schools anyway.
On Giving Tuesday this week the PPA tweeted: "When you park with the PPA, your money goes toward improving our city and schools." The tweet's graphic goes on to say: "The PPA gives its net revenue to various government agencies to improve and enhance the city's economic vitality."
If the PPA already knows — and advertises — why parking fees matter to our economic health, instead of offering free parking, it should simply thank Philly's holiday visitors for their generous contributions to our city and schools.