The High Cost of Free Parking

Why did the US landscape become covered in sprawl in the second half of the 20th century? Why were retail stores located in strip malls and shopping centers where it was impossible to walk, while downtown districts languished? One key reason is that it wasn’t legal to build compact shopping areas, because postwar legal codes quickly added mandatory parking requirements for new buildings. And it wasn’t legal to rehab older buildings and convert them to new uses unless they could retroactively add as much parking as a suburban shopping center. Parking requirements institutionalized the designs we recognize as sprawl.

But, isn’t all that parking needed? In The High Cost of Free Parking UCLA professor of urban planning Donald Shoup explains that the parking requirements used across the US are based on bad data and poor logic. The “bible” used by local planners to set parking requirements, the Parking Generation manual published by the Institute for Transportation Engineers, includes information about parking requirements for hundreds of uses, from fast food restaurants to funeral parlors. Many of the data points in the manual are based on one to four observations – not enough data to mean anything. The classic planners’ rule of thumb for the allocation of parking spaces is based on the square footage of the type of building. But studies show that there is no statistical correlation between the square footage and parking use.

And the logic behind the parking requirements is specious. For each new building, developers are required to build out the amount of parking needed for drivers to easily get a spot at close to the highest use of the year — assuming that parking is provided free to drivers. The prediction for the amount of parking consumed is based on a universal assumption that it is a good that should be free, and always available.

Now, if you ask drivers or merchants if they want free parking, the answer is going to be yes. Same as if you offer free chocolate or free beer. But society doesn’t provide free beer. The cost of “free” parking is built into housing, commercial building, and all other products and services. The High Cost of Free Parking totals up the cumulative value of the free off-street parking subsidy for drivers- it adds up to between 1.2 and 3.6 percent of GDP, larger than Medicare, and near to the amount spent on the US military.

A major contributing factor to sprawl is the assumption of free parking, and the mandatory requirement for developers to provide as much free parking to meet the maximum desire for free parking. This state of affairs isn’t the result of a national policy debate, like debates about whether society should provide health care or education. It just gradually accreted based on an assumption that parking ought to be free for drivers.

The consequence is a landscape covered in parking that is unused 99% of the time and development patterns that make alternatives to driving impractical and unsafe. And, as road planners eventually learned, it is impossible to build one’s way out of traffic. At busy times and places, most drivers aren’t going someplace, they are circling looking for free parking spots, even if there is offstreet parking not that far away.

After laying out the case for the cost and damage caused by ubiquitous free parking, Shoup presents a number of insightful and practical ways to gradually get us out of this jam. To reduce the number of parking spots, employers can offer employees transit passes, and options to take cash instead of a parking spot. Studies of initiatives in Silicon Valley found that transit passes reduced parking by about 20%, and allowing employees to “cash out” their parking allowance reduced parking by another 13%. These results occurred even though alternatives to driving in Silicon Valley are limited – people will use alternatives when it makes sense. Similar initiatives allow businesses and apartment buildings to replace some of their parking requirement by allocating space for car-sharing services, instead of a larger number of private cars.

Instead of requiring developers to build parking spots, some cities are allowing developers to pay cash instead – the money is used to build shared parking that can be more space-efficient than parking for each building, and allows businesses with different time needs for parking, like a bank and a nightclub, to share parking. There are further innovations in parking technology that make it easier to set prices. Digital meters can monitor the use of parking and be used to set a price that will maintain about 15 percent vacancy – a rate that ensure easy entry and exit, without traffic james caused by cruising for parking. San Francisco is experimenting with networked parking meters that charge based on availability. Similar systems have been in place in Aspen since 1995, and such systems are common in Europe.

But how to get around people’s preference and habit for free stuff? Shoup makes a case in favor of creating parking districts that sending the revenue from metered parking to the local neighborhood. This approach has been effective in Pasadena, where downtown renewal in the 80s and 90s was fostered by paid parking, with revenue used to pay for lighting, street furniture, trees, and other other improvements to the local business district.

My motivation to read this book was sparked by a controversy around a downtown redevelopment project in Menlo Park where I live. The proposals call for shorter time limits in the central district, and longer-term paid parking in lots that are a few minutes away, and for eventually replacing some street level parking lots behind the downtown main street with parking structures allowing longer-term paid parking. Local businesses protested vehemently, fearing that charging for parking, and encouraging drivers to park in lots for long visits would chase drivers to other areas. I wondered about the underlying assumptions behind the design, and wondered whether the fears of local merchants were justified.

It turns out that the dire outcomes feared by local businesses didn’t materialize in Pasadena – charging for parking didn’t chase visitors away, and the more attractive, walkable, and less congested downtown generated more business. According to Shoup’s argument, the Menlo Park plan does not go far enough. Instead of restricting parking time at popular locations on the main street, it would be better to charge for parking. For a quick stop the fee would be minimal, and the price would encourage employees and others staying for hours to park in the garage.

Defenders of suburban sprawl often contend that the American landscape has been created by “the free market.” This view ignores the web of policies and subsidies that created the current system. Kenneth Jackson’s classic Crabgrass Frontier describes the policies that favored highways and new construction over transit and refurbishing older buildings. Shoup’s book explains another important piece of the puzzle – parking requirements that result in overbuilding of parking and major subsidies favoring driving instead of alternatives. Shoup argues that if prices were used to allocate the provision of parking, there would be less oversupply of parking, and more parking available when people need it.

One of my favorite quotes is from biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, “everything is the way it is because it got that way.” There’s a historical trajectory and structural reasons that resulted in things being the way they are. But just because there’s an explainable cause doesn’t mean that the system is easy to change. One of the strengths of the book is that it describes mechanisms to introduce change that could garner support, and brings evidence for many of these mechanisms working in practice.

The High Cost of Free Parking joins a short list of my favorite books that uncover the origins and mechanisms behind aspects of daily life we often take for granted. The book long, and makes its points exhaustively, sometimes repetitively. I’ve summarized the books argument in this post for readers who may not have the attention to get through 700 pages of data and evidence about parking policy. For those who are interested in urban design and environmental issues, the book is enlightening and highly recommended.

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