Next time you’re stuck in rush hour, the traffic inching forward in agonizingly slow stops and starts, take a look around you and ponder this: With so many cars already clogging the streets and highways in Miami-Dade County, how does everyone find a place to park?
Sometimes — whether it’s a Friday night on South Beach or a weekend afternoon at Dolphin Mall — it feels like we can’t.
“There is definitely a scarcity of parking in Miami-Dade County,” said Winnie Smith, who lives in Kendall. “From the malls to the airport, it is a dreaded part of going out. Parking in Miami is a challenge in the best of times.”
It might be a hassle. But parking is also a mammoth business that generates $29 billion in revenue in the U.S. And as South Florida’s population swells and its urban landscape gets denser, parking is playing an increasingly important role in the region’s fabric.
Even as residents complain parking is often scarce and too expensive, some real estate developers are minimizing the amount of parking space they provide or doing away with it altogether. City planners are thinking of ways to maximize the parking facilities they already have without adding too many new ones because more parking encourages more cars.
At the heart of the matter is the transition from a car-crazed suburban culture to an urban lifestyle that has far to go before taking hold.
“The Miami 21 code [an urban planning code launched by the City of Miami in 2005] was written to incentivize people to use mass transit,” said Arthur Noriega, CEO of the Miami Parking Authority, which manages 34,000 parking spots in garages, surface lots and off-street spaces within the City of Miami. “But it’s a chicken-or-egg thing because even though you can offer less parking, the transit options are still limited. People are still using their cars.
“The way every other city has grown and evolved is that eventually people got to the point where getting in their car wasn’t time effective or was a quality of life issue,” Noriega said. “People in Miami will migrate there. But you have to provide them options, and there’s no alternative yet. It’s too spotty.”
The obvious solution to parking woes, of course, is to go car-less. But for most people in Miami-Dade County — with its 2.7 million residents spread out over 1,946 square miles — a car remains a necessity for now, or at least a habit that’s supremely difficult to kick.
Florida is big on parking
According to the National Association of Parking, Florida has the second-highest number of parking attendants of any other state (only California has more). The top five states in terms of number of parking facilities — California, New York, Texas, Florida and Massachusetts — account for 52 percent of all facilities in the U.S.
“Miami is a young city,” said Alyce Robertson, executive director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority. “We’re only 121 years old. And the bulk of the city’s development occurred after the car was invented. After World War II, a lot of the soldiers who had trained on Miami Beach moved back here with their families. That resulted in a type of suburban, car-oriented development.
“We had this mindset that we should be able to park right next to wherever you are going,” Robertson said. “But Miami is growing vertically now. People have to adopt a mindset of urbanness, which means thinking about public transportation and walking.”
But despite all the frequent comparisons to major international cities such as New York or London, where subways and trains are part of daily life, Miami doesn’t yet have the kind of public transportation or widespread walkable neighborhoods that would make it feasible for most people to ditch driving altogether.
Although parking revenues make up only a small percentage of total revenues of most municipalities within Miami-Dade County, some residents feel that the cost of public parking — which can run as high as $35 per hour in some parts of town, according to the 2017 South Florida Parking Survey by Colliers International — borders on the criminal.
“Parking is a scam, especially on Miami Beach and downtown Miami,” said Hialeah resident Carlos Rosario.
“Parking in Miami is what FPL is to Florida: Monopolized to the point it feels like strong-armed robbery,” said Elizabeth Gonzalez of Miami. “There is never enough public parking. Thank God for Uber or Lyft. Doorside service by these providers is still cheaper than having to pay for parking.”
The search for a parking space compounds the costs. A global study by INRIX Research released in July estimates Americans spend 17 hours per year circling city blocks or lots just looking for a spot — at an annual cost of $345. And parking woes impact the U.S. economy, too: 40 percent of motorists in the INRIX study say they have avoided going out to shop or dine because of parking challenges.
“I have started attending events [based on] two things: Traffic jams and parking,” said Marcelo Salup of Coral Gables. “If there is no parking and I have to use some outrageously expensive valet to spend 90 minutes drinking bad wine at some event … I’ll skip it.”
Tracy Towle-Humphrey, of Miami Beach, said she has stopped going to the Shops at Midtown as frequently as she used to since they started charging for parking.
“More places in Miami should offer free parking vouchers, such as ‘Spend over $10 and get free parking,’” she said. “To run into a store for a quick item or two does not make sense if you need to pay for parking.”
Most retail establishments with paid parking already offer some kind of deal to lure customers. If you shop or eat at Brickell City Centre, for example, parking is free for the first two hours. In anticipation of the holiday season, the Shops at Merrick Park is waiving fees for customers who self-park in the upscale mall’s garage from 6 p.m.-2 a.m. daily through the end of 2017.
Most municipalities in Miami-Dade County provide cheap parking in garages ($1 per hour) within a few walkable blocks of their busiest hubs. Smart-phone technology plays a big role, too: The City of Coral Gables, for example, uses the ParkMe app to point you toward available parking spaces in real time.
“Coral Gables has a ton of reasonable meters or city garages available so it’s one of the easiest and least expensive cities to find a space,” said Wesley Ulloa, who also lives in Coral Gables. “[But] I go to school in Brickell and finding parking in that area is almost impossible nowadays when a few years ago it was quite easy. South Beach is a nightmare unless you valet.”
Pricing for demand
Experts say parking should never be free — and that demand should dictate the price in order for a city to evolve and mature. In his seminal book “The High Cost of Free Parking,” UCLA urban planning research professor Donald Shoup argues every garage and on-street parking site should never be filled to more than 85 percent capacity. If there are no vacant spaces, the price is too low.
“When people object and say the price is too high, I would ask ‘What other principle do you use to set the price?’ ” Shoup said. “What is the right price? You don’t know the right price until you see the right result, and the result you want to see is one or two open spaces on every block. It’s kind of like the definition of pornography: You know it when you see it.”
Some residents, though, argue a parking shortage isn’t really Miami’s biggest problem.
“The problem is a county that has forced car ownership on two million people,” said David Ullman, who lives in North Miami Beach. “Nobody can walk anywhere. What there is too little of is decent-quality urban planning and, as a result, public transport. You could demolish every building in South Beach and pave it over with parking lot — making it exactly like everywhere else in Dade — and it would not solve the problem.”