Posts Tagged 'automobile'

The High Cost of Free Parking

Free parking is something that everyone wants and almost nobody needs. Yet we’ve come to accept free parking as an inalienable right, fought and died for by our Forefathers. However, free parking is anything but — its costs are shouldered by everyone, least of all the actual driver.

Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking (2005, American Planning Association) dives into the seemingly mundane topic of free parking and shows the massive impact it has on society. I was a little put off at first by a 600 page book on parking — and truth be told, it could have been shorter as there’s a good deal of repetition in the text — but once I started reading I was fascinated by the web of unintended consequences that ubiquitous free parking hath unleashed upon our cities.

Shoup’s main contention is that free parking is not really free. The driver may not pay for it at the time and place their car is parked, but the inherent cost of providing parking becomes bundled into higher costs for nearly everything else — rent, retail prices, and so on — paid for by drivers and non-drivers alike. Free parking can be seen as a massive yet hidden subsidy for private automobile travel, to the detriment of other transportation options which are more beneficial to society on the whole. That said, this book isn’t an anti-car polemic; rather, it’s a call to bring more transparency to the true private and public cost of automobiles on society.

The three reforms proposed in the book are, and I quote, to:

  1. charge fair-market prices for curb parking,
  2. return the resulting revenue to the neighborhoods that generate it, and
  3. remove the zoning requirements for off-street parking.

These ideas are explored at length, with numerous illustrative examples; I’ll touch on each one below, in reverse order.

Zoning requirements

The self-fulfilling prophecy of parking requirements for specific land uses (e.g. 4 spaces per 1000 square feet of office space) was particularly amusing in a Catch-22 sort of way. Shoup illustrates that when the peak demand for parking is observed and used to establish parking standards, “The maximum observed demand thus becomes the minimum required supply” (emphasis mine). [1] This results in a preponderance of free parking — generally adding up to multiple spaces for every car in a city — that consumes the urban landscape. Where once could have stood a park, a shop, a restaurant, or a house, you’ll now find a barren asphalt square made for machines rather than men. [2]

Returning revenue to neighborhoods

Money earned by charging sensible parking rates ought not to go into the black hole of a city’s general fund. Rather, the revenue (or at least a significant percentage of it) should go back to the neighborhood. This revenue gives neighborhoods some sugar to go with the politically unpopular pill of changing free parking to paid parking, and provides funds to implement and maintain changes that will help draw more visitors to the area (e.g. better sidewalks, more greenspace, etc.). And when parkers are made aware that their funds are going to come back to the neighborhood (via signs on parking meters, as in his example of Old Pasadena, CA), it provides incentive to pony up. Skirting meter rules is no longer a faceless crime.

Fair-market prices

Lastly, but most importantly, the price for parking has to be one that maintains an ideal occupancy. In a perfect world each time one car left a parking space there would be one — and only one — car to take its place immediately thereafter, and no car would ever have to wait for parking (100% occupancy). In the real world, targeting 85% occupancy is a more achievable goal. Keeping this goal in mind, cities can write parking policies that specify an target occupancy rate rather than futzing about with the exact price to be charged. By charging the lowest price that results in the target occupancy rate, there can be no charges of price-gouging. When demand increases, prices can be raised; when demand decreases, prices can be lowered. If the lowest price which can achieve the target occupancy is $0, then so be it — but in most dense urban areas, it’s not likely to be the case.

It may seem unlikely that drivers will acquiesce to paying for previously-free parking, but it’s not money for nothing. Where you may have previously circled the block three times to find an empty space when all parking was free, properly priced spaces will create more vacancies and thus less time wasted trolling about for a spot to stow your iron steed. There are many factors which play into how much time and money a driver is willing to spend on parking (and Shoup provides a number of well-explained formulas to back up his observations), but it’s safe to say that there is price for everything, convenience included. As Shoup notes, “If most consumers valued low prices more than convenience, thousands of products (such as pre-washed, pre-cut lettuce) would cease to exist, and everyone would cook their meals from scratch.”


There’s no doubt that, all other things being equal, we’d all love to have free parking rather than paid parking. But just because we own cars and want to park them without having to pay doesn’t mean that parking ought to be free. After all, there are plenty of things that we want and need more than free parking — free health care, free food, free vacations — that we don’t expect to receive free everywhere we go.

I am admittedly a transportation geek of sorts, so I can’t say that everyone will find this book as intriguing as I did. (Indeed, when I started rambling about some of the book’s anecdotes to my wife, she was obviously less than captivated.) Still, The High Cost of Free Parking is a hard look at how our private choices affect our public spaces and is definitely a recommended read.

  1. Peak demand for free parking, no less.
  2. Alliteratively speaking only, of course. Parking knows no gender.


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