The High Cost of Free Parking...And the Havoc It Wreaks on American Cities

In his new book, The High Cost of Free Parking, UCLA professor Donald Shoup writes that he almost titled his 733-page opus “Aparkalypse Now” or “Parkageddon.” This should give readers a clue to the author’s feelings about the immensity of the parking problems confronting us—as well as the fun he takes in describing them.

Drivers currently park free on 99 percent of their trips and their cars are parked 95 percent of the time. But free parking isn’t really free. Shoup, an urban economist and professor of urban planning at UCLA, estimates that in 2002 between $127 and $374 billion a year was spent nationally to subsidize off-street parking—as much as the U.S. spent on Medicare or national defense that year.

Shoup especially criticizes free or cheap curb parking, which he says, “may be the most costly subsidy American cities provide to their citizens.” It encourages drivers to cruise for street spaces, polluting the air and creating congestion. Once drivers find a cheap curb spot they tend to occupy it longer than they would if they were paying to park. A 1984 study of a 15-block area near UCLA showed that cruisers drove the equivalent of two roundtrips to the moon while looking for curb parking over a one-year period. They spent 100,000 hours, consumed 47,000 gallons of gasoline and produced 700 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Not only is free parking expensive, it’s often ugly, and it encourages people to drive instead of taking buses, subways, or walking, he says.

To illustrate his point, Shoup opened his presentation to the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference last March with aerial shots of San Francisco’s Moscone Center (where the conference was held) and the Los Angeles Convention Center. The Moscone Center is surrounded by restaurants, shops, a park, fountains and crowded sidewalks. Its counterpart to the south is enclosed by acres of parking lots and freeways, “which is why we’d all much rather be here today than there,” he told the audience. His comparison continued with concert halls in both cities: The Louise Davies Hall in San Francisco holds 2,700 seats and offers patrons no parking spots, while the new Disney Hall in Los Angeles provides 2,265 seats and 2,188 parking spaces. “Los Angeles requires as a minimum 50 times more parking spaces than San Francisco allows as the maximum.”

Shoup says planners receive almost no training in how to set parking requirements, often looking to neighboring communities for guidance. Worse, American planners estimate how many parking spaces every land use needs to meet the peak demand for free parking, not how many spaces drivers will demand at a price that covers the cost of the spaces. Most commercial buildings are required to provide a parking lot bigger than the building itself; a restaurant typically requires a parking area three times the size of the eating establishment.

Excessive parking is one reason American cities are charmless compared to European cities. Americans require parking and limit density, while Europeans require density and limit parking, Shoup explains. Even San Francisco, the most “European” of cities, would look very different if it had to be rebuilt with today’s parking requirements. North Beach, with its shops, cafes, and front stoops would have to replace a third of the area with parking lots.

What to do? Shoup suggests three reforms.

The first is to remove requirements for off-street parking, which is often overbuilt and underutilized.

The second is to charge enough for parking at the curb to create a 15 percent vacancy rate. That will encourage drivers to park in garages or not to drive at all. Those who choose to park at the curb will not have to cruise for a spot, but will find one readily, cutting down on congestion.

Finally, the money collected from parking meters at the curb should be returned to the business or residential neighborhood for use in repairing sidewalks, planting trees, security or other street improvements.”

“Parking,” says Shoup, “is a blind spot in most studies of automobile transportation” and the “unstudied link between transportation and land use.” With his book, Shoup goes a long way toward removing the blinders.

– Submitted by Milton Takai

Posted: Thu - March 1, 2007 at 07:03 PM