The promotion of cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles usually involves the carrot and stick approach. The stick in the campaign for hybrids is government regulation. Except in its mildest form, regulations forcing manufacturers to increase the efficiency of their vehicle are heavily resisted by the carmakers, and often get lost in litigation and/or government lethargy. The carrot is consumer incentives, which make both carmaker and consumer happy, and can often be managed at the more nimble local level. The newest twist involves incentives for merely parking your hybrid.

From California to Sweden, governments are dabbling with offering parking-based incentives for hybrid users. San Jose, the capital of Silicon Valley, offers free metered and public garage parking to drivers of hybrids if the cars were purchased at a San Jose auto dealership after Jan. 1, 2003 (sorry pioneers) and the auto has a special permit from the city. With garage parking rates of $300 a month in this metropolis, that’s no small incentive.

Cities big and small–from Hermosa Beach, Calif., to Albuquerque and even famously mass transit-unfriendly Los Angeles–are at various stages of implementing free metered parking for hybrids. A brief look shows that all of these cities are struggling to determine how to implement these green policies. In Sweden, the Stockholm City Council may offer ‘free’ parking to workers and residents who obtain neighborhood stickers–a revenue generator that is common in many American cities where demand for street parking outstrips supply. Normally, a personal use parking permit in Stockholm costs 250 Euro ($330 on 3/01/05). Commercial, or distribution vehicles, also will be offered major savings as their parking permit fees will drop from 850 Euro ($1120) to 50 Euro ($66). The Swedish Health and Environmental Protection Agency has been working on free parking incentives since 1998 and are hoping to see the implementation of this effort this spring.

The Future of Parking Incentives
Like any new program, these hybrid-based parking incentives have had teething troubles. Motorists parking at UCLA and in Hollywood–both part of Los Angeles–have been confused to find those locations aren’t part of the hybrid parking exemption.

More importantly to policymakers and their constituents, very little data has been released showing whether parking incentives have significantly impacted municipal budgets. If enough hybrid drivers use San Jose’s free parking incentive, will the city find itself needing to trim programs?

Despite these issues, there certainly will be positive developments in the use of parking incentives. Roche Pharmaceutical in New Jersey created a fleet of hybrid vehicles–a move that’s generated reduced fuel and parking costs and increased goodwill and status as a more "green" company. Progressive firms such as Timberland and Hyperion have offered cash bonuses to employees who purchase hybrids, while other companies have dipped their toes in by offering preferred parking in company lots or parking coupons for employees who commute in their hybrids.

Can the day be far off when hybrid drivers can pull into their local Best Buy’s parking lot and find three green "hybrids only" spaces reserved next to the blue spaces for disabled parking?