Pricing parking is not regressive

People who object to putting a fair price on parking often claim that it would be a regressive tax falling primarily on the poor and working class.  That assertion is not supported by the arithmetic.

Based on an unscientific survey of Philadelphia’s poor and working class, conducted by watching Twitter keyword searches for the last 6-12 months, the poor and working class largely don’t drive. They *want* to drive, and largely do as soon as they have the money, but they have to get over that hurdle *first*.  And it’s a very, very large hurdle.

Total cost of ownership of a car (purchase, insurance, fuel, licensing and registration, maintenance) *starts* at $5,500/year for an ultra-economy city car like the Nissan Versa or the Chevy Spark, and rises to $6,000/year for the reliably cheap Toyota Corolla. The numbers go *way* higher than that.  For context: depending on your neighborhood, you can spend less than $5,500/year on rent in this city.  A year’s worth of Transpasses will set you back $1,092.

When Mayor Richardson Dilworth first proposed an annual parking permit in 1961, he priced it at $40/year, or $320/year in 2015 dollars. (He literally had rocks thrown at him for his trouble.) $320/year is a nudge for people who don’t really need a car but have one by inertia. If you NEED a car for your job, or to access your job, that car is bringing you more than $6,320 in value per year, never mind more than $320. And that $320 isn’t just a taking, it gets you something very valuable in return: a shit-tonne of *time* spent not circling blocks looking for parking. Again, far more valuable than $320/year for anyone who has the money to own a car in the first place.

So why do so many poor people want to drive in Philadelphia, if it’s so expensive? They want to drive because putting up with SEPTA being slow and unreliable is especially psychologically punishing if SEPTA is a choice you are compelled to make.

We have it in our power to make SEPTA fast and reliable, and in a very short amount of time, for a reasonable budget, through public policy. We know how, it’s a question of funding and will.  It will take building bus lanes and curb extensions. It will take running core route trains, buses, and trolleys often enough that people can always just walk up to a stop or station and be sure that they won’t be waiting long.  It will take all-door boarding on transit vehicles.  It will take further steps beyond those that I can list here.

Not all of that will be easy, and some of it won’t come cheap. But the budget required to permanently eradicate poverty in Philadelphia is several orders of magnitude higher than that, and that’s the alternative on offer.

Housekeeping notes: New WP theme. This one is allegedly easier to read and navigate on touchscreen devices.  This post originated as comments elsewhere and have been edited and expanded.

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  1. What’s your definition of “working class”? I find it strange you group working class together with the poor in terms of their access to having a car.
    Your arguments are logical, but since when does reality always follow logic.
    I’m assuming your examples of costs of car ownership are based on having a new car, and probably replacing it with another new car every X number of years. Most of the working class people I know might like to operate in that fashion, but don’t. Its a used car for a while, it might be no car no a year or two. Its just another expense that gets juggled around.
    All this is to say that for many people $320 is real money. But one way of dealing with permit parking is to get your block to vote it down.

    1. Annual salary working full time (40 hours/week, 50 weeks/year) at minimum wage is $14,500, or $1,208/month. At $15/hour, it’s $30,000/year, or $2,500/month. Obviously to both, $320 is real money, and I’m sorry if anything I wrote suggested otherwise! But, just as obviously, $5,500/year is also very, very real.

      Now, that $5,500 number is based on new car prices, but it’s also annualized over a long period of time (no less than 5 years), to reflect the actual cost of ownership; how front-loaded the costs actually are for a new car depends on the financing, which is ignored in this total (i.e. the real number is higher by an indeterminate factor). Used cars are cheaper to purchase, but have increased needs (higher maintenance, higher fuel consumption) that drive their TCO up to comparable ranges as new cars; if you buy a $2,000 beater every 2-3 years, you’re not saving money in the long term. (My $3,000 beater has lasted 5 years so far, but it’s taken a *lot* of maintenance despite not being driven much. And I don’t drive much because I do have the means to pay for transit and leave the car parked.)

      Now, as a measure of affordability, the new, location-sensitive standard is that no more than 45% of income should go to housing and transportation combined. $5,500/year works out to $458.33/month. The total housing and transportation budget for the $7.25 worker works out to $543.75/month, leaving $85.42/month for rent. Not achievable even in Philadelphia, so the minimum wage worker cannot afford a car. The $15 worker has a H+T budget of $1,125/month, leaving $666.67/month for rent. Depending on how many family members this person is supporting (and how much housing they need), they can *probably* afford to own a car.

      Sorry if the numbers there were hard to follow, but it is at heart a mathematical argument.

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