Parking Has Value, So Why Is It Free?

Donald Shoup has written a 700-page book, The High Cost of Free Parking, investigating the effects that underpricing for parking is having on our nation’s car-centric built environment. Shoup is visiting New York this week. For a preview of what he’s likely to discuss, here’s a review of the book by special guest poster Gary Roth, author of “An Investigation into Rational Pricing for Curbside Parking” and a Senior Transportation Planner for BFJ Planning and Elevated City Planning.

Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, has written an excellent book that sheds light on a subject that gets very little visibility, the glut of spaces in our country and the reason there are so many: they’re free to the user. Parking spaces are all around us … hundreds of spaces, thousands of spaces, millions of spaces. According to the High Cost of Free Parking, there are about 600 million parking spaces in the United States. It is estimated that for every car there are three spaces or two spaces for every man, woman and child. These spaces homogenize our public space, increase the cost of housing and encourage driving.

If you were to perform a survey asking, “What are the top 100 issues facing America”? How many would say “too much free parking”? Probably none. But the zoning code forces people to buy a parking space (or spaces) with their home. Most new developments devote more land to parking than to office or retail uses. Shoup points out numerous studies which show the downsides of our prevailing “free parking for all” attitude.

The interesting thing about our autotopia is that as everyone pays for parking except the person using it. For example, shoppers and office workers pay for spaces mandated by the municipality regardless of whether they drive to their store or office or walk or take the bus or train. Shoup figures that 99% of all parking is free to the user. If you ride your bike to the Wal-Mart (imagine that!), part of the money goes to pay for the parking spot you did not use. Shoup compares the free parking mandated by zoning codes to a hypothetical government program to mandate dessert with every meal. As it comes free, people eat more, get fatter than complain that the seats are too small, and need to be enlarged. In this way, parking begets still more parking as people demand more and more of a seemingly free commodity. If you decide to cut back on sweets, your dessert will just go to waste (instead of waist), so you might as well eat it. But how could such a common practice be wrong? It’s happened in the past. Shoup compares parking requirements to bloodletting, to excellent effect. Bloodletting was practiced for many years by leading medical authorities until it was finally proven to cause more harm than good. Could parking requirements have a similar affect on society?

All well and good, but you may feel that the government knows how many parking spaces are needed. If not mandated by the government, then the marketplace would fail and there would be no spaces at all. The nightmare scenario is new developments would be built without parking, and when drivers arrived, they would burden the area by leaving their car anywhere they could find, on the grass, the sidewalk and god forbid, on the roadways impeding traffic.

According to “The High Cost of Free Parking,” the factual basis for the parking requirement figures used by local area planners is shaky. Numbers are based on surveys which occur where parking is free. Planners require developers to build enough parking to meet the demand for free parking during peak periods. As the new development has a large parking lot, it is empty much of the time, but can meet peak demand perhaps met only a few days a year.

As different uses have different parking demands, Shoup explains how some locations are not permitted to be used for things such as restaurants, because they attract too many people. On the subject of “cruising,” or the act of driving around looking for a free space, Shoup calculates that one city block can generate 165 vehicle miles per day, or 60,000 vehicle miles per year.

The issue of parking is looked at from many different angles in the book, all adding up to the same issue … free parking creates the “asphalt commons” problem. As parking is free, and exclusive, it is over used. This overuse creates numerous negative side effects.

The book also spells out the solution: market rates for parking. The ideal situation is for the municipality to set the vacancy rate rather than the price of parking. The goal should be to eliminate cruising by ensuring that one space is available on every block. With the right pricing structure, Hollywood’s vision can come true: There will be a space wherever and whenever you want one. This can be done by simply raising the price. As the price rises, people will find alternate locations to park their cars, alternate ways to get to the destination and in some cases, will simply go elsewhere.

Areas will welcome curbside parking as it can raise significant sums of money, and possibly even replace property taxes is some areas. Housing would be cheaper, goods cheaper, traffic may even be reduced, all by simply charging a fair market price for parking. Think about it.

- The High Cost of Free Parking [APA Bookstore]
- An Investigation into Rational Pricing for Curbside Parking [Columbia University]
- Donald Shoup’s upcoming speaking schedule in New York [S&F]

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4 Responses to Parking Has Value, So Why Is It Free?

  1. AD says:

    Well, having read Gary’s piece before it was posted, I’ll comment right away. Aesthetically, a parking lot wrecks the city and the country. It’s hard to know which is worse.

    Socially, free parking subsidizes the automobile at the expense of people who take public transit. An office that provides “free” parking for its employees in the building garage really just charges everyone for them, even those people who ride the train to work. This is one of the things that encourages congestion and economic inefficiencies in edge cities like Stamford and Jersey City where there’s a parking garage eating up expensive space every office tower. With all the talk about “congestion pricing,” which would charge a rational price for driving, we should also be talking about rational pricing for parking.

    The fact that it’s hard to park for free in New York City is one of the reasons we have such a vibrant, exciting city, and one that’s pleasant to experience as a pedestrian.

  2. aaron says:

    Shoup’s book is great. But if you don’t have time to read 700 pages, I think these activist-artists are making his very same point in their own special way…


    San Fran:


  3. AD says:

    Thanks for the links, Aaron N. These are some great visually representations the insanity of free parking.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Excellent post! You may want to check out Amanda Hickman’s post on the DMIblog that offers some additional insite on car-culture in the NYC government.

    Namely that city workers have the suburban car mentality because they themselves drive cars disproportionately.