Parking Isn't Free - So Why Not Charge What It Costs?
John Van Horn
Reading through the mainstream media news on parking, one finds that most articles concern the price charged for parking, and in most cases, the goal of the populace is to lower the price, hopefully to zero.
Time after time, we are quoted as saying that parking is too expensive and, even then, not available. Businesses are certain they will be destroyed if parking costs escalate. Cities are requiring that a certain number of spaces be provided for each development. Playgrounds have been "blacktopped" so teachers and students can park.
If parking is too expensive, or if there's not enough, the very fabric of the community will suffer.
UCLA Urban Planning Professor Donald Shoup begs to differ. In his new book, "The High Cost of Free Parking," published last month by the American Planning Association, Shoup argues that, to the contrary, subsidized parking has contributed to auto dependence, rapid urban sprawl, extravagant energy use, and a host of other problems.
Free parking isn't really free. In fact, the average parking space costs more than the average car. Initially, developers pay for the required parking, but soon tenants do and then their customers, and so on, until the cost of parking has been diffused throughout the economy. When we shop, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly, because its cost is included in the price of everything from hamburgers to housing.
The total subsidy for parking is staggering -- about the size of the Medicare or national defense budgets. But free parking has other costs: It distorts transportation choices, warps urban form and degrades the environment.
"It's simple," Shoup says. "When you don't have enough parking, the price is too low. We need to 'marketize' parking, not privatize it."
The key to doing this is to ensure that the money collected for parking by the city goes to the neighborhood where it was collected, not into the general fund. The money should be used for infrastructure improvements in that neighborhood. If that approach is taken, Shoup asserts, then the opposition from local businesses and residents will evaporate, and the neighborhoods will be the better for it.
In London, the charge for on-street parking is $7 an hour ($56 a day). This price keeps about 15% of the spaces available, and the money goes to the local councils, not into the "black hole" of the city's general fund.
The high price also drives on-street parkers into the off-street garages. Shoup's studies show that where on-street parking is cheaper than off-street, people spend an average of three to five minutes in the car searching for an on-street space. "It adds to pollution, gas shortages and traffic," he says.
As shown in the box nearby, Shoup says three major issues have caused the parking problems and major urban design flaws since the advent of the automobile.
The main issue is that the cities require developers to provide a certain number of spaces for parking. The urban planners, he notes, have no clue as to the number of spaces needed for a particular project; they simply factor in a formula (so many per 1,000 square feet) and that is that.
"The developers know far more about how much parking they will need," Shoup says. "Most parking facilities are never filled, and that empty parking space adds to the cost of the development, and to the problems of the inner city."
Another problem is that parkers don't think they get anything for it. If the money collected for on-street parking went, for instance, to clean and safe streets, urban renewal, and good lighting and "streetscapes," the parkers would see their money making a difference.
Pasadena, CA, is a good example of this. The Old Pasadena section of the community was a run-down skid row area. The city installed parking meters and took the money and reinvested it in the area. Now Old Pasadena is a destination location, with tony shops and restaurants.
"It's a classic example of where parking money can be used to renovate the streets, sidewalks, security, lighting and alleys," Shoup says. "The businesses came right along. All the money for urban renewal in Old Pasadena comes from parking. It's a great success story."
Los Angeles collects more than $100 million a year in parking fees. What would happen if all that money were put back into the streets and infrastructure? Potholes would be a thing of the past.
One of Shoup's concerns is that so much open land is used for parking. "If parking were charged at what it cost, people would find other means of transportation," he says, "and more land would be available for parks, schools and development.
"Take a school, for example. Much of the land is used for teacher parking because the neighborhoods don't want them parking in front of the houses. If, however, the teachers (or the school) paid the homeowners for the parking rights, the school would have more land for playgrounds and classrooms. The homeowners would benefit as their streets and other infrastructure would be enhanced. Everyone is a winner."
After all, Shoup says, the money collected from parking is from visitors from outside the area. They end up paying for the infrastructure they are using.
Interested parties can purchase Shoup's book through the American Planning Association
Three Reasons Parking is Causing Problems In Cities:
1. Cities require developers to have a certain number of spaces available for parking.
2. Curb parking is free or less expensive than off-street parking
3. Parking revenues go to the general fund, not to the local neighborhood.
Article Abstract from May, 2005