Parks vs. Parking: What do Indian cities need?

Chennai had prepared a plan some years ago for a multi-storey parking deck  in T. Nagar where the Panagal Park now stands. T Nagar, once a quiet residential neighbourhood, is now the shopping centre for all of Chennai and has tremendous levels of congestion. The parking plan was called off due to protests by walkers and elderly citizens. I recently got the happy news that a revised plan to build an underground multi-storey parking facility below the Venkatanarayana Road playground also got struck down in the Madras High Court. The court reasoned that the city was lacking in open spaces – which are now considered an integral part of the constitutional right to life. The parcel under consideration is zoned as an open space and has been in use as a playground for more than 60 years. The court found that this activity cannot be disrupted for providing services to motorists who visit this central neighbourhood in the city for shopping.

Venkatanarayana Road playground (source: The Hindu)

The city corporation, however, appears unfazed. The court order has been appealed in the Supreme Court. Other multi-storey parking projects are being taken up, including one project that will severely inconvenience bus-users. Also, sadly, school playgrounds in the neighbourhood are now being used as parking lots after school hours. The move is justified as a measure to “ease congestion”.

Needless to say, I find this trend most disturbing and the reasoning employed appears flawed in every sense. Parking facilities, by their very nature, make the use of an automobile more convenient, and therefore add to congestion. For congestion to be reduced, cities need to repel motor vehicles rather than attracting them. This argument is even more applicable to T. Nagar which is located very close to a major rail station and a bus node.

It is, of course, true that in the absence of parking facilities, motorists are likely to park on-street in no-parking zones, especially under the flyover in Usman Road. This, obviously obstructs traffic and makes streets more hazardous for pedestrians as well as motorists. However, this is nothing that cannot be dealt with through better policing. Certainly the Rs. 150 fine is too meagre for the penalty to be a meaningful deterrent.

It is also extremely unfair that parking should come at the cost of open spaces. While the T. Nagar neighbourhood certainly has more parks and playgrounds than other Chennai neighbourhoods, the supply is still less than the need. There has been a long-standing demand that school playgrounds, which occupy land sold at subsidized rates, should be made open to all children during evening hours to enhance the supply of open spaces in neighbourhoods. Governments typically respond to such demands by claiming that it is not possible to get schools to consent to such a plan. It should now be clear that schools may be asked to make their playgrounds open after school hours – the only difference being that citizens should press for the use of these spaces as public playgrounds rather than parking lots.

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Chennai is not an outlier; Bangalore and Mumbai are making quite the same mistakes as Chennai. Mumbai, in particular, has come up with an incentive system where builders get an attractive increase in the floor-space-index in lieu of building multi-storey parking lots in their building. Many builders have managed to get permissions for high-rises using this scheme, and activists are worried that these high-rises will in turn add to the congestion and the parking demand, thereby leaving very little benefit for the city. Even this is often at the cost of open space, which is extremely scarce in Mumbai. Part of the land reserved for the Byculla zoo (already a concrete structure in what used to be a park) is now slated to be given to a builder for building parking decks.

Fortunately, the Bombay High Court has also been active in protecting the few open spaces that remain. The city wanted to use Shivaji Park for parking during the Ganesh Puja when on-street parking is not possible. The court gave the city permission to use the park as parking for this one time, but has insisted that the park be restored within three weeks and an alternative plan be prepared for the following years.

In Bangalore, there is now a demand for parking decks in park land near an upcoming Metro station on a boulevard where hundreds of trees have already been cut for the Metro. Indeed, these days, park-n-rides in Indian cities are becoming the norm rather than the exception, even though relatively few households even own motor vehicles, and park-n-rides actually increase traffic at the neighbourhood level.

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Parking not only eats up the recreational space available in the city, it also takes away street-space. This space could have otherwise been used to replant trees on the sidewalks or the medians, or to build cycle lanes, or allow hawkers to setup shop. And yet the diversion of public space for parking is taken for granted.

Prof. Jean Dreze gives us a picture of the extent of this land-grab, in an article about slum demolitions in Delhi. “It is interesting”, he says, “to contrast the harsh treatment meted out to “slums” with current policies towards another category of squatters – motorised vehicles. Delhi’s private cars alone (there are more than 12 lakh) occupy a larger area, for parking purposes, than all the city’s slums. In many neighbourhoods, it has become difficult to move around as public spaces are jammed with private cars.”

So we ask slum-dwellers – poor citizens unable to afford housing in legal settlements – to go elsewhere, out of everyone’s way. But we never judge cars and car-owners by the same standards. We never ask car-owners to find parking space through the market, just as we expect our poor to find housing through the market. Rather, we expect the state to provide parking space, either by reserving street space for parking, or by building/incentivizing multi-storey parking decks.

Further, these parking spots are never charged the market price of the land they occupy – thereby creating a perverse incentive to use vehicles instead of leaving them at home. As Prof. Donald Shoup and Prof. Paul Barter have been constantly reminding us, it is of utmost importance that parking be priced the full cost of land and infrastructure – any incentives to parking are incentives to personal transport.

Clearly, the costs of parking are high. On one hand, they incentivize car use and cost governments money one way or the other. On the other hand, they eat away into public spaces such as recreational parks, playgrounds and streets. To counter this, Aizawl, a small city in north-eastern India, recently brought in a rule that car-owners must show proof of one reserved parking space in order to be able to register their car. Such a rule  does have its benefits: it acts as a disincentive to own cars and also ensures at least some parking at the owner’s expense.

Essentially, the idea is that the market should provide parking without government support and if that is not possible, owners should still pay the full market cost of parking their vehicle. And public spaces should be protected at all costs – parked cars are poor replacements for leafy parks and lively streets.

UPDATE: Prof. Paul Barter responds to a call for regulating parking prices in privately owned parking decks in Chennai by arguing that price controls further incentivize driving. And he’s quite right. There is no need to make parking a municipal service, especially when several basic needs such as water and electricity are being privatized. Parking is not a basic need and is best left to the market.

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About the author:

Karthik Rao-Cavale writes: “I am currently working towards a master’s degree in city and regional planning from the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Previously, I got a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, but I found that making cars is not as much fun as getting rid of them – that’s my excuse for making the shift. I work part-time at Voorhees Transportation Center, on a project that seeks to quantify the carbon footprint of capital projects for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. My interests include planning history, environmental planning, housing, historic preservation and tourism, though my academic focus is on transportation. In my spare time, I listen to Hindustani Music, read Jane Austen novels, and visit cities. I like travelling alone, and I like walking in cities with just a map for a guide.”  This article appeared in his blog “India lives in her cities too” on the 26th.

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