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How Does a College Professor Become a Parking Rock Star?

By John Van Horn

Are you a Shoupista? Do you actually know the Shoup-dog? Don Shoup is speaking tomorrow. The room is sold out.
When Donald C. Shoup, Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, published “The High Cost of Free Parking” in 2005, he had little thought of what might be coming. He was taking a radical position. On-street parking pricing should be set so that it affected the demand. Parking requirements by cities should be abandoned. The money raised should be returned to the neighborhoods from whence it came.
The Professor told Parking Today in a recent interview:
I had two main goals when I wrote the book.
First, I wanted to show that much planning for parking is wrongheaded and harmful. In particular, I wanted to show that minimum parking requirements damage cities, the economy and the environment. The first 272 pages of the book are essentially an attack on minimum parking requirements, and no one has risen to defend them. Nevertheless, most city planners continue to set minimum parking requirements as though nothing had happened.
My second goal was to propose new parking policies. The three main proposals are to charge fair-market prices for curb parking, to return the revenue to pay for local public services, and to remove off-street parking requirements.
Although the planning profession’s lack of interest in reforming off-street parking requirements has been disappointing, I was surprised and delighted by the interest in charging market prices for curb parking.
Perhaps it is simply easier to explain the problems caused by cruising for underpriced curb parking. It also is easier to explain the advantages of fair market prices for curb parking, and many people want new revenue to pay for local public services.
I was also surprised and delighted by the large number of invitations to speak about the book in so many places. One explanation for the book’s popularity may be that many people think something has gone seriously wrong with city planning, and they like the exposé of minimum parking requirements as one source of what went wrong.
Who would have predicted that a 750-page book on parking could be popular enough to reprint as a paperback? The paperback is coming out next month, and it will have an update on the reforms, such as SFpark, that have been adopted in response to the book.
I hope the progress reported in the paperback will convince readers that my policy proposals are not theoretical and idealistic, but are instead practical and realistic. The good news about our decades of bad planning for parking is that the damage we have done will be far cheaper to repair than to ignore.
Whether by design or not, cities set out to subsidize parking in their downtown cores. Low-priced or free parking was thought necessary to “bring customers into the downtown area,” and to keep constituents happy. The concept of keeping parking cheap or free was endemic.
The pricing model was upside-down. Pricing in surface lots and parking structures, although still relatively inexpensive, was more costly than convenient on-street parking. On-street parking was jammed, and off-street structures and lots had plenty of parking available.
Drivers would cruise around and around looking for cheap on-street parking.
In studies his graduate students did in Los Angeles, Shoup found that as much as one-third of the cars on the street at any one time were cruising an additional five to seven minutes looking for parking.
“Imagine,” he said. “What if a third of all traffic was suddenly removed from city streets? Think of the reduction in pollution, and in congestion.”
So we come to the first of Shoup’s trilogy:
Set the on-street pricing so that one space is always free on each block face.
If you raise on-street pricing so that people who don’t want to pay the higher price will immediately move to the cheaper off-street pricing and those who do want to pay for convenience can quickly find a place to park, you have reduced congestion and much better management of the parking asset.
It’s returning what the market says it should. To do this, it means the pricing must be flexible. It should change based on demand.
In certain Los Angeles neighborhoods, for example, on-street parking is plentiful during the day. However, after dark, when tony clubs and restaurants are open, the streets are jammed with cars. In these neighborhoods, parking would be more expensive in the evenings than during the day. That’s almost the exact opposite from most municipal parking pricing.
On weekends, parking is usually free. That makes sense perhaps in areas where the shops are closed on Saturday and Sunday, but around major shipping centers or theaters, for instance, it should be the other way around.
There can be resistance to this demand type of pricing. The merchants’ knee-jerk reaction is no. They don’t want to see increased pricing for parking.
That brings us to the second of Shoup’s standards:
Return the money generated to the neighborhood that generated it.
When merchants find that the parking revenues will be plowed back into new streets, sidewalks, lighting, streetscapes and marketing programs for the neighborhood, they begin to rethink their objections. It has been determined that in many cases, most of the cars taking the most convenient spaces belong to employees working in the area. If those cars are moved off-street to parking lots, they free up space for paying customers.
Sometimes these monies have already been committed to government activities (education, public safety, etc.). In those cases, a formula can be devised so that once the original commitment is met, the increase in revenue can be used locally.
But what of coded parking requirements? Studies have shown that when planning commissions set parking requirements, they are arbitrary and often much higher than the actual usage.
“You don’t build your church to hold the congregation at Christmas and Easter,” notes Shoup. “Why build your garage for the day after Thanksgiving or the day after Christmas?”
If the developer is allowed to make parking decisions, they most likely will be made in the best interest of the project.
Which brings us to the last of Shoup’s three standards:
Do away with parking requirements.
Often, parking costs are included in other fees paid by the driver. It may cost a building owner $300 a space per month to provide the parking, but they charge only $150 to attract tenants and then raise their rents to cover the difference.
Apartment builders who are required to provide parking for each unit simply raise the rent to cover the cost. A person may have no cars or only one car, but they are required by code to pay for two spaces that often go unused.
Would it not be better, asks Shoup, to charge one rate for apartments that have no parking and then charge separately for the parking if it is required? If parking is “unbundled” from other costs, wouldn’t many people begin to make self-serving decisions as to whether to buy a car or whether to carpool or take public transportation?
The parking requirements set by cities also prevent revitalization of downtown cores. If a hardware store that had a mandated 10 parking space requirement went out of business and a restaurant that would require 20 spaces wanted to go into that spot, they would be prevented from doing so.
The city would say that the use was inappropriate for the location. Shouldn’t that be a business decision made by the owner?
Planning departments often work at cross purposes. In the case above, they may tell the new owner that he or she can purchase parking “in lieu,” that is, pay a fee and be let out of the parking requirement. The in lieu fee is supposed to go to provide parking elsewhere. But it seldom does.
Is this a one-size-fits-all parking philosophy? I think not. However, it is a beginning.
SFpark in San Francisco, the SFMTA’s smart-parking management program, is based on Shoup’s writings. Technology developed in the past seven years will hopefully allow the parking administrators in San Francisco to get good data and adjust rates to fit a Shoupista model.
Other cities, large and small are experimenting with demand-based pricing in certain neighborhoods. Seattle, Portland, OR, Denver, Chicago, Washington, DC, Redwood City and Pasadena, CA, and others all have either full-blown demand-based pricing programs or are experimenting with them.
Municipalities take a long time to change. There are political and economic pressures that are difficult to overcome. However, as city after city finds success in demand- and market-based parking pricing, it will come more quickly.
Don Shoup is a parking evangelist. And he is gaining disciples daily. He is in demand. The media call constantly for quotes concerning parking. And he doesn’t mind being referred to as the “Shoup-dog.” He has become a parking rock star.
John Van Horn is Founder, Publisher and Editor of Parking Today. Contact him at editor@parkingtoday.com Parts of the above were taken from an article underwritten by ACS, a Xerox Co.

Article Abstract from July, 2011




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