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The High Cost of Free Parking' - A Textbook About Your Profession

John Van Horn

Someone asked a New York Times critic why he wrote so many negative reviews. He said that finding bad things to say quickly filled the 17 inches of newsprint reserved for his piece. A good review is hard.
So it is with UCLA Professor Don Shoup's new book, "The High Cost of Free Parking." Suffice it to say that if you are in the parking or urban planning business, city government, or urban renewal or development, you should read this book.
This is a textbook of sorts, but its tone reflects its author. It is clear, fun and an enjoyable way to spend a few hours getting better at your profession. Of course, it helps if your profession relates to parking, as I would hope anyone who reads this does.
A textbook!! Gadzooks!! I got over them when I left college. Do I really want to wade through graphs, charts and endless, boring self-serving prose that was written simply to keep alive the "publish or perish" credo at a major university?
Yes, you do. "The High Cost of Free Parking" is a refreshing change from the tomes you schlepped back and forth to class in your undergrad days. It has one premise, and spends its 700-plus well-documented pages describing it, proving it and then providing a way to change its paradigm.
Shoup takes on the urban planning profession and quickly discounts virtually everything it does that relates to parking. His not so tongue-in-cheek comments should make the profession rethink its role in the design of the urban landscape. He not only says that much of urban planning is black magic that is typically wrong, but also proves it with example after example, some hilarious, of how planners have set the number of spaces required for a typical land use.
In the case of funeral parlors, the number of spaces is based on how many viewing rooms it has. It doesn't take into account that virtually never are all the rooms in a parlor in use at the same time or that it would be impossible for more than one funeral to take place at the mortuary simultaneously. Planners somewhere have set the number, and that is what it should be.
A shopping center's parking requirement is set based on the use for a dozen or so days a year. The rest of the time, the huge lots or the expensive structures around the centers are only partly used.
The list is endless.
Shoup's solution: "Drop the city's requirements for parking." Let the individual developer decide how much parking is needed, and keep the planners out of the process. Less parking would be built, and that's a good thing, he writes, since the vast majority of parking goes unused anyway and it would force commuters to look for alternatives.
The second part of "High Cost" concerns on-street parking, its availability and cost. The book includes studies that show drivers will cruise almost indefinitely looking for a free or low-priced space to park on-street, rather than park off-street at a higher price. This adds to congestion and pollution.
The solution: Price on-street parking so that 15% of the spaces are free at all times.
The book's third section, with the heading "Cashing In on Curb Parking," notes that in the past, the main difficulty for charging more for on-street parking was in collecting the money. Technology has solved that problem with in-car meters, pay-and-display/by-space, cell phone payments and other such technologies. Make parking available to everyone, but let the price do the planning.
I can hear the screams now. The city will be destroyed if parking were priced at that level. Shoup makes a good case for the contrary. However, the money from parking should be used for the infrastructure where it was collected, not simply dumped into the general fund, never to be seen again.
Citizen attitudes change when they can see the results of revenue collection: new streets, parks, lighting, security, and a cleaner environment. Plus, it's being paid for by visitors from outside the neighborhood. Suddenly, the attitude of the local property owners goes through its own paradigm shift. Examples of this from Pasadena, CA, on the plus side to the Westwood area of Los Angeles on the minus make his case in spades.
Unbundling parking costs is a key to the success of Shoup's proposal. If you charge market rates for all parking, you can reduce the price of the building the parking supports. Let the new apartment dweller decide if they want parking included with their unit, then charge more for those that do. Ditto the office buildings.
The market will then provide alternatives to auto use for those who elect not to pay the "true cost" of free parking -- which, Shoup shows graphically, is usually more than the actual cost of the vehicle itself.
You can easily skim the charts, graphs and technical jargon, or take time to review it if it piques your interest. However, the meat of this book is in the clear, well-written, interesting prose that makes a good case for how our industry can actually change the face of the urban landscape.
Oh, by the way, don't panic. Change as Shoup envisions would mean only more parking technology, plus more and better operators who would be properly paid for their services, and a more focused municipal and institutional parking environment, where the money collected would go to visible improvements in the urban landscape.
"The High Cost of Free Parking" is available from the American Planning Association (www.planning.org) or at Amazon.com.
Donald Shoup is professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, holds a doctorate in economics from Yale and is a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners

Article Abstract from June, 2005




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