Prevailing parking rates in the city are among the lowest anywhere in the world. Car users are pampered so much that even hawkers pay double the amount to use street space. While hawkers pay Rs.100 a month as rent to the Corporation for using 20 sq. feet of public space, car owners using a parking slot every day shell out only around Rs.45 a month for the same space.

Besides, the charge of Rs.5 for six hours applies to only those cars that use any of the 138 government-run parking lots in the city. Much of it is illegal, on-street and completely free. Space meant for pedestrians is also taken over. As a result, the social cost of free parking is high and collectively paid by everyone who uses the road.

Though the city has over 5.5 lakh cars, it is estimated that Chennai has only about 3,100 legal on-street car parking slots. The fact that there is a shortage of parking is indisputable. The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority estimated that the demand is three times more than supply five years ago, after which the situation has only gotten worse. But what is the solution to this parking problem? Is pricing an important component?

The government's response to the problem is encapsulated by Corporation Commissioner D.Karthikeyan. “Our approach is to build as many multi-level car parks as possible,” he says.

The experience of Delhi, which is perhaps the only city where a government-built multi-level car parking lot, is already in place, shows that such facilities are heavily subsidised by the city administration. Anumita Roychowdhury of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, says that while Rs.40 per hour should have been charged to recover investment, only Rs.15 per hour is being charged. “The city subsidising rich car owners is unacceptable,” she says.

A Supreme Court-appointed committee also found that to provide parking space for every car, nearly 10 per cent of the national capital's geographical area is required. “Why should so much of urban land be surrendered to cars when the space could be used to create playgrounds and affordable housing complexes?” she asks.

On the other hand, if the price of parking is market-driven and the user pays the full cost, only those who actually require a parking slot would get it, she says. “Higher charges for parking spaces would limit our trips by car. It would cut emissions, reduce congestion, and even out the unfairness perpetrated on the public transit user,” says Ms.Roychowdhury.

The city can also raise a significant amount of revenue which can be used to improve street-lighting . This is essentially what is happening in European cities that are bent on creating urban environments openly hostile to cars through a variety of measures, which include restricting and heavily pricing parking. From Copenhagen to Barcelona, London to Munich, people have started reclaiming the streets from automobiles.

Broadly speaking, Indian cities have veered towards three types of parking policies. That it is the duty of the city to provide multi-level parking even if it has to be built on top of a public transit bus terminus or beneath playgrounds and parks. This is the model currently in vogue in Chennai. The second is encouraging builders to provide parking in return for a higher built-up area, which has been tried in Mumbai. The third model is stipulating that all buildings require a minimum number of parking slots. All these models assume that the car owner is “entitled” to parking. That it is a right. This is the primary reason why parking is never fairly priced in Indian cities, say experts. “If you give gold for free, demand will be unlimited,” says Raj Cherubal of Chennai City Connect, an NGO working on transportation issues.

But market pressures are already pushing parking into the domain of a “service”. Many large textile and jewellery stores and hotels in the city have started purchasing vacant lands next to their premises to provide parking space for customers. S.Lakshmipathy, a resident of Sivagnanam Street, T.Nagar, says Rs.20 to Rs.50 is charged per vehicle in one such facility. “The cash is returned once the purchase bill is produced. Thus, customers get priority to park,” he adds.

Free parking hurts car users as well. Since there is no pricing system to control demand, finding a car parking slot has become extremely difficult. Studies show that about 30 per cent of cars that comprise traffic are cruising for parking, leading to congestion.

It is estimated that 90 per cent of the commercial buildings that will exist in India by 2050 are yet to be built. Experts say that if cities such as Chennai change their parking policies, they can be effectively rebuilt in a way that does not privilege the interests of automobiles over the interests of the city at large.

(With inputs from Ajai Sreevatsan, K. Lakshmi and Aloysius Xavier Lopez)

What they say

R.Venkatesan, Member-Secretary, CMDA: If the licensing authorities start insisting on adequate parking space in commercial establishments before issuing licences, then this problem can be addressed.

Sanjay Arora, Additional Commissioner of Police (Traffic):The space and scope for authorised on-street parking is limited. Also, parking space for commercial vehicles should be part of the business model. Using public roads is unacceptable.

M. Ramadoss, businessman: An organised parking system provides an incentive to park in the slots earmarked for vehicles. Parking attendants should ensure that no one leaves without paying.