Stamatakis: Parking should be more expensive. Yeah, that’s right.

By Nick Stamatakis

We pay too much for some things — meal passes, Pokémon Cards, antique doll collections — to… We pay too much for some things — meal passes, Pokémon Cards, antique doll collections — to the point where the value of the money we spend isn’t worth the amount of enjoyment we get out of the object.

But one place where we don’t spend nearly enough, especially in Oakland, is on on-street, metered parking.

Offended? Outraged? After all, why should you pay just for the privilege of parking your car? You aren’t really getting any service out of it, and it’s not like it costs the city anything. Many people from the countryside are shocked that we pay at all.

But like oil and gold, parking is a commodity. And unlike in the suburbs or the country, it is a rather limited commodity. But disparate from  oil and gold, the prices for parking on the street — a few dollars per hour — don’t do anything to actually control the good’s allocation. Parking is instead gobbled up and hunted for like wild game.

To illustrate the dangers of poor allocation of commodities, think for a second if the government decided it would sell heavily discounted gumballs at various locations across the city. Also assume that people have an insatiable appetite for gumballs. With virtually no cost, there would be no reason for anybody not to have gum, and supplies would become scarce, leading to gum searches across the city.

Worse than this, though, the people who really needed the gum — the nail-biters, the curry-lovers (guilty) and the easily sleepy — wouldn’t be able to get the gum they needed when they needed it because of the shortage. And I would rather not discuss what would happen to the environmental state of the bottom of classroom desks and chairs.

In other words, when prices for goods are too low, there is a potential for resource misuse. And as any Oakland driver can tell you, resource misuse is a big problem in parking.

Finding a spot is very difficult because many commuters take advantage of the cheap spots, and just like gumball eaters, they feed the meter all day using all the available parking. The commuter, who could have gone to the garage, uses up one spot for the entire day, limiting its usage for everybody else. The people who need street parking, like shoppers at small businesses or students going to 50-minute classes, now have to drive around the city looking for open spots.

This driving adds up. When parking is underpriced, the average search time for a spot is 3.3 minutes, according to UCLA parking-economics expert Donald C. Shoup’s acclaimed research.

A little over three minutes might seem small individually, but it’s really a huge time loss when multiplied by all people looking for parking. These miles driven also produce extra pollution, creating an environmental cost.

Finally, all the people driving around looking for parking creates street congestion: In San Francisco, the Urban Planning Association estimated 30 percent of all traffic was people looking for spots. The situation is akin to a group of 30 elementary schoolers playing musical chairs for 15 openings.

Raising the parking rates, however, would price out many drivers. Commuters would go directly to a garage, and large swaths of curb would free up for large parts of the day. More expensive spots would be used by more people for shorter periods of time.

If you don’t believe me, read Shoup’s 700-plus-page juggernaut on parking policy, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” which discusses these ideas at length. Planners and economists who ascribe to his ideas, self-described “Shoupistas” — apparently parking aficionados have a very good sense of humor — shoot for parking rates which leave only 85 percent of spaces occupied. San Francisco and Los Angeles have piloted some areas of increased parking rates, and tested areas have seen a reduction in parking problems, extra money for neighborhood improvement projects and no decrease in patronage for businesses, as some critics initially feared. Instead, there is less congestion and higher parking turnover.

What the rate would be in Oakland to get to 85-percent occupancy, I don’t know. But it would create a situation much better than the one today, where people search for long periods of time to find a space. If everybody just pays for their gumballs, life could be a little bit easier.