Introducing the policy entrepreneur
Everyone hates traffic and parking congestion, but fixing it is hard. A successful reform in San Francisco shows one approach that may help.
Let’s go back to the early 1980s. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City were getting into their stride. It was an era of experimentation, of the ravages of HIV, of Reagan, and of shoulder pads and leg warmers. San Francisco had free and unrestricted parking across its streets. That was a problem, because it often meant more people looking for parking than the number of available parking spots.
Cars often get free parking on publicly-owned roads, and in congested areas the fees they pay to use those roads are normally far below the value of that land for other uses. Those implicit subsidies to drive more at busy times are why we have congestion. And that congestion causes enormous harm to drivers and others. One study estimated that traffic congestion in three rich countries cost the average person about a thousand dollars every year. That congestion can hurt those on low incomes, who tend to ride the bus more, even more than others.
The field of economics lists various ways to reconcile excess demand with supply: a price, a lottery, rationing, or a queue. They can each have their issues. Congestion, whether in traffic jams or people fighting for parking, is a form of queue that causes much wasted time and loss of human welfare.
But fixing that congestion is hard. Drivers tend to feel that they own the roads, when in fact the roads are generally owned and maintained by the government. Taxes on cars may cover the costs of building and maintaining the road network in many countries. But in almost no country except perhaps Singapore do those taxes cover the costs to society and other drivers of all the extra congestion caused by each additional car journey. So each driver does not bear the full cost to society of each additional minute they choose to use their car on busy roads.
That means they tend to use their cars more at busy times than they all would, if by some magic they could agree a better arrangement that would let them all drive without traffic jams, paying a small fee to compensate those willing to travel off-peak or by other means. That is another example of the ‘coordination problems’ that will recur throughout this series. It is a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’.
And the problem also applies to parking. Legendary planner-economist Professor Donald Shoup eloquently explains how so-called ‘free’ parking actually imposes enormous costs on society. Planning rules to ensure free parking raise the cost of housing and other buildings. And driving around looking for ‘free’ parking is costly. It wastes time, generates carbon, and causes more congestion for other drivers.
We would all be better off with the right scheme to charge parking users the true economic cost of that parking. Although some cities have essentially ended free parking, it has taken many of them a long time to get there. How San Francisco got started can give us one idea of how to deal with vociferous special interest groups who seem to have an unbeatable power to block change.
San Francisco’s neighborhoods suffered from parking congestion. Over time, average incomes rose, and cars became more affordable, meaning more cars parked on the streets. And people drove in from further away to get to nearby hospitals, businesses, education, and transit stations from which to finish their commute. They wanted to park their cars too. By the early 1970s, there were more cars than spots to park them.
The first idea of the San Francisco Department of Public Works was to impose two hour parking limits on all cars, including those belonging to residents. As you may imagine, that landed with the residents’ associations pretty much like the Hindenburg on its final journey.
For a time, it seemed like the idea had met the Hindenburg’s fate. But then two of the more creative associations proposed giving preferential parking privileges to residents, so that only out-of-towners would have to pay for parking. The residents would get parking stickers to put on their cars, to exempt them from the restrictions. The city attorney’s office objected that such preferences would be unconstitutional, and so things stalled again. But the neighborhood associations kept pushing, and the congestion kept getting worse.
At this point, a recurring character in this series – a ‘policy entrepreneur’ - emerged. Policy entrepreneurs are a little like the regular kind of entrepreneurs who start new businesses. But instead of starting businesses, they work to get policy change – using a startling variety of methods that we will explore.
Our hero, who worked in the City Planning Department, got creative. He gave an unmarked copy of a proposed parking sticker scheme to the neighborhood associations, so they could all push for the same specific proposal.
He got an attorney in his Department to write to the city attorney's office, pointing to new case law and to changes to the proposed scheme that, although legally insignificant, allowed enough superficial justification for the city attorney's office to come out in favor of the new scheme without losing any face.
He was helped because the University of California Medical Center supported the parking sticker scheme, as a way of defusing residents’ objections to all the new employees that would commute there when the Center expanded. And that support led to the Citizen’s Action League (CAL) deciding to support the scheme too, when the UCMC helped make clear how many residents supported the scheme already. The CAL in turn recruited the support of a member of the City Board of Supervisors. And the CAL also sent a large delegation to meet the city attorney, who – lo and behold! – declared that his office would support the ‘revised’ scheme.
Given legal sign off, the scheme flew through the Board of Supervisors, passing unanimously on its first reading. The day it was passed, the first neighborhood association submitted a petition for it to be adopted in their area. By the time the City had managed to implement it there, a further nine neighborhood associations had already applied.
The successful promoters of the San Francisco parking reforms give the following advice to budding policy entrepreneurs:
Do not allow yourself to be blocked by ‘expert’ advice or opinion. Bureaucratic ‘experts,’ especially lawyers, will always be able to advance some technical or legal objections to proposals they oppose for reasons of inertia, if not of self-interest.
Keep in close contact with the constituency of potential beneficiaries. Their input helps the policy entrepreneur package the proposal in the most politically feasible form, and their active support may be needed to overcome bottlenecks during the adoption and implementation processes.
Be persistent and watch for favorable times to reintroduce the proposal into the political arena. At some point taking personal risks, such as releasing private reports, may be necessary to get the proposal moving again.
Do not isolate yourself from administrative departments or political forces that are necessary to the proposal. One of the most useful approaches is to allow as many entities as possible to think that the proposal is their idea. Face-saving is always essential.
Of course, the parking stickers didn’t solve the problem of subsidies to drive at the wrong times, and wasteful use of land. But they did provide a step to reduce the tragedy of the commons and the resulting parking congestion. There are other ideas to go further.
In another post, I will explain Professor Shoup’s ideas to control parking by sharing the parking fee revenues with the neighborhoods where fees for parking are introduced. The parking scheme above was an example of a carve-out: residents were not affected by the new restrictions. Professor Shoup’s idea is a form of compensation, or sharing the benefits of a reform. In future posts, we will also cover opt-outs, opt-ins, vested rights, phase-ins, and other ways to bypass the political gridlock that currently prevents a better world.