You don’t know what you got till it’s gone,
They pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

These words are from the song Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell. Open spaces in residential colonies, roadside residuals, informal gathering spaces – we have seen many of these go to accommodate increasing number of vehicles in our cities. Where children used to play or senior citizens used to stroll or young people used to meet are now designated or undesignated parking lots. Slowly, parked vehicles have encroached upon our favourite spots, trees, shrubs, lawns, footpaths and fountains, and we have accepted it as the inevitable.

It took India 60 years to have 100 million vehicles, then just another 10 years to add 100 million more. There is no end to this vehicular demand, driven by rising incomes and aspirations of owning a vehicle as a status symbol. Vehicular population is growing at double the rate of human population in cities such as Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Pune, with Hyderabad, Chennai, Jaipur not too far behind. The human population may have cramped itself in slums but the vehicular population seems to rule urban spaces as it has taken over the best spots. It may be difficult to find a 20 sq metre room for a family of five but the same amount of space is found by roadsides to park an SUV for free. Still, some say “finding parking is so tough these days”.

Parking is seen as an “entitlement” rather than as “encroachment”. This sense of entitlement runs deep in India’s car-owning middle classes as if they have obliged the city by buying a vehicle. They take it for granted that government would provide them free, or cheap, parking wherever needed. Parking spots are weirdly linked to the vehicle owner’s ego and the size of the ego is directly proportional to the size of the vehicle they drive.

Privatising public space

If Ahmedabad’s four million vehicles and Bengaluru’s seven million are parked on the roads today, they will take about 30% of all road space in these cities. So, road congestion is only going to get worse in the coming years. Yet, many vehicle owners seem to think it is their birthright to have free parking everywhere. The international parking guru Donald Shoup says free parking is like a fertility drug for cars. Free parking is usually haphazard parking, not only obstructing pedestrian movement but moving vehicles as well; it is a license to congest. Most roads in our cities are used to only half the capacity, with parked vehicles occupying the other half.

Occasionally, some city cracks down on haphazard parking but the drive does not last long, mainly because the law and order machinery cannot be managing parking all the time. Most Indian cities, therefore, need to develop long-term parking management policies.

The starting point of such a policy should be the recognition that vehicles are private goods. When a vehicle is parked on a road, it is an act of “privatising public space”. When government provides parking for free, it is actually subsidising the storage of private goods. But since vehicles need to be driven around to be “productive”, government may oblige their owners by providing “storage spaces” at the right price. Gradually, the paid parking policy should be applied to all major roads, for paid parking is the best way to tackle the problem of haphazard parking. In a paid parking regime, people will have to either park at designated spaces or make different commuting choices. Urban planning authorities cannot merely ask for mandatory parking in buildings but not take ownership of public roads. Such a policy will also entail investing in quality public transit systems.

Real estate isn’t free

Parking requires space, or real estate, and real estate does not come free. The argument that since an owner pays taxes on not just the vehicle but also fuel, they should get free parking defies all economic logic. When we buy, say, electrical appliances after paying the Goods and Services Tax, it does not mandate government to provide us free housing for the appliances. Free parking is free housing for vehicles. Free housing means free real estate, whether on roads or in buildings. So, when government creates free housing for vehicles, it is using public money to subsidise vehicle owners.

Given the appetite for parking space is almost unending, we have no option but to manage the demand rather than mindlessly increase the supply – whether in buildings or on roads.

To begin with, every city should rent out the invaluable real estate of its major roads to accommodate parked vehicles in an organised way. This rent, or parking fee, can pay for better design and management of roads. Global experience shows charging for on-street parking is an effective way of filling up parking space in buildings, which often remain empty otherwise. It will also be a step towards paying the full environmental cost of owning a vehicle in a city.

If, with a healthy partnership between municipal authorities and traffic police, Indian cities tackle their parking problems with the right pricing, then our future generation might not accuse us of “paving the paradise for parking lots”.

Rutul Joshi teaches urban planning at CEPT University, Ahmedabad.