No one likes paying for parking.

Parking expert Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor emeritus, made a career out of arguing that we should be paying for it anyway.

Last week, I chatted with Shoup about the park’s longtime parking woes and the latest plan to try to chip away at them. The city has renewed its attempt to build a grass-topped 800-space garage in the center of the park, allowing the current surface lot behind the Organ Pavilion to be turned into park space. The project – which is more about getting cars out of the center of the park than about parking – will add at least a net 260 spaces in the park’s core.

Shoup argued a comprehensive parking pricing plan might improve the situation overnight.

One of the topics we went over: The lots closest to The Prado, home to many Balboa Park institutions, are often packed. Larger lots outside that core, however, don’t fill up as often.

After our conversation, Shoup emailed me an analogy that drives home why he thinks paid parking would be ideal for Balboa Park:

Suppose a restaurant in Balboa Park offers two meal options: filet mignon and hamburger. The restaurant has a steady supply of 100 meals per hour for both options. The kitchen has a window for each option where the customers line up to place their orders. Both options are free.

Customers form a long line for the filet mignon and complain about the slow service. There is no line for hamburgers and the kitchen has to throw half of them out uneaten.

What should the restaurant in Balboa Park do? The restaurant could begin to nudge up the price of filet mignon until no one has to wait. Some customers will shift to hamburgers and the kitchen will throw away fewer uneaten hamburgers. If customers begin to line up for hamburgers, the kitchen can nudge up the price of hamburgers until no one has to wait and no hamburgers are thrown away. Eventually, the prices will eliminate any wait for either meal, and no one will complain about the slow service or the wasted food. The revenue can pay to repair some of the decaying historic buildings in the park.

How is parking different from hamburgers? All parking in Balboa Park is now free. The most convenient parking lots near the center of the park are often full and visitors circle the lots complaining about the shortage of parking. The less convenient lots farther from the center of park usually have plenty of empty spaces.

Balboa Park could nudge up the price of parking in the central lots and use the money to run a more frequent and convenient shuttle service from the peripheral lots. The price of parking will be higher in the most convenient lots and cheaper or free in the peripheral lots. No one will complain about a shortage of parking in the park because there will be open spaces in every lot. Ending all the circling for parking in the most convenient lots will help to achieve the city’s goal of reducing carbon emissions. Any extra parking revenue after paying for the shuttle service can pay to repair some of the decaying historic buildings in the park.

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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