Monday, June 10, 2013

Op Ed: Parking Policy in India

It has been four years since I moved to the US, but I am still amazed by the amount of parking spaces available everywhere. This is a far cry from the parking situation in India, where every trip made by car has to account for an additional hour or two spent in traffic jams and looking for a parking spot. Indian cities are experiencing an exponential increase in traffic demand and the increased spending power is adding to more cars on the road. Currently, India is the eleventh largest passenger car market having recorded domestic sales of over 1.9 million cars in the country in the year 2009-2010(1)! Parking policies in India are struggling to keep up with the growing demand. This op-ed will examine the problems and focus on some possible solutions to India’s parking problems from around the world.

Parking Woes
Of the many problems of parking in India, the greatest is the acute shortage of space both on and off street. This increases the time spent searching for a parking spot and induces traffic congestion and results in parked cars spilling over to travel lanes and other impossible parking situations. Poor on-street parking management not only degrades the walking environment and worsens parking woes, it is also a lost opportunity for municipal revenue collection (2).

Often, private and off-street parking lots are perceived as a good solution to make up for the undersupply. However, this segment is over-run by the informal market in the form of untaxed and unregulated parking services. With this also comes mismanagement and bad customer service (includes parking fee collectors armed with guns!). Off-Street lots are also under-utilized and do little to fix the problem. This is due to the high parking costs and the unwillingness of car-users to park far away from their destinations. The lack of well-organized and authorized off-street parking facilities leads to illegal on-street parking, resulting in further traffic chaos, congestion delay and accidents (3).

It is an entirely different story in the newer cities and developments cropping up in India, where minimum parking requirements emulate suburban US parking policies. Even in the densest Indian cities, I was shocked to find that cars (typical spot = 280 sq. ft.) occupy more space than a family of four (range from 85-250 sq. ft. depending on income level) (2)! A recent study by Asian Development Bank on Parking Policy in Asia demonstrates that conventional parking policies such as those of the US are poorly suited for developing countries with dense urban fabric. This is problematic not only because it accommodates an increase in demand for car travel but also because it increases the cost of ownership of housing. This specifically affects middle and lower income households and their search for affordable housing.

What can be done?
In my research on this topic, several innovative solutions exist to all the problems I mentioned. The problem, of course, is proper implementation and enforcement. Most of the solutions I came across involve advanced technologies formulated by engineers. The solutions involve making most of the limited space – that means either building up (multi-level car parking) or building down (multi-level basement parking). Space and time efficiency are achieved by using automated systems or mechanical equipment like car-lifts. Some cities like Chennai already have plans for these futuristic parking structures in place. However, I feel that these solutions are not only prohibitively expensive but do nothing to manage parking demand. Also, building multi-level parking lots in most cities has often meant sacrificing parks for parking structures. A few years ago, the Supreme Court approved the construction of a parking lot under the very popular Cubbon Park in Bangalore, paving the way for more such future parking lots.
Another way to address this problem is to regulate the informal parking market. Following a model from Mexico City’s La Condesa District (2), if India were to formalize private on-street parking, it could capture revenue generated and use it for street and neighborhood improvements or provide incentives to reduce auto-dependency.

I believe that a better way to reach a solution is to address the demand for parking rather than the supply. Off-street parking is tied to Floor Area Ratio (FAR) and zoning laws of cities, which dictates parking minimums. In India, most new residential developments, even the ones right next to mass transit, boast of multiple parking spaces per apartment purely because local zoning code requires them to provide so much parking. Moreover, minimum parking requirements in India are similar across an entire city. A targeted approach towards parking requirements in zoning codes – like reducing parking minimums in neighborhoods closer to BRT (2), light rail or other mass transit lines – is, in my opinion, an immediate priority for Indian cities.

Finally, encouraging more reliance on active transportation is, of course, an obvious way to manage parking demand. ITDP recently produced a report / sourcebook that outlines best practices in promoting non-motorized transport options across the world and methods of implementation in developing countries, especially in southeast Asia. The sourcebook provides guidelines for dealing with common socio-political and feasibility challenges that come with trying to implement and then enforce active transportation policies. As with my other posts about India, enforcement remains the biggest obstacle to implementation of any of these ideas.

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