Notes from Big Ben …
Shoup Lite – The Battle Continues ...
By Peter Guest
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, goes the old saying. Yes, you should, says I; it keeps them on their feet. In a recent column, I tried to explain why I feel that, on this side of the pond, we were ahead of you guys in the way we thought about parking. JVH rather took me to task in an editorial comment. I think he missed the point – well, several points actually, and here’s why.
First and most important, I am speaking from the UK, where the situation is radically different from what you have and experience in the U.S. and what Professor Donald Shoup describes.
JVH says that “Shoupistas” believe developers should have free rein to determine their parking needs. There lies madness. We start from a different point to you guys in that we have not had a long history of imposed high parking requirements. We had this in the Thatcher years but it got better.
The fundamental and key point is that parking is only part of the picture; other factors must be considered. If unrestrained developer-determined parking is allowed, then who pays for the roads needed to carry the traffic? The UK system is government control and it is imperfect, but the solution to transport problems is not applied anarchy in one component of a complex transportation system.
Street parking: We have a legal system that applies “market pricing” to public parking in big lumps. It doesn’t change hour by hour or day by day but perhaps year by year. Pure market pricing is a nice academic concept but hardly realizable in the real world. I doubt that the technology exists, and I am certain that if it did, the average driver would not accept it. “I parked here yesterday, it was a dollar, and now it’s $5? No way, Jose.” Didn’t you guys fight a war based on the principle of no taxation without representation?
Your UK friends do indeed get subsidized parking in their neighborhood. Many parts of our cities pre-date cars, and the councils decided to give residents without off-street facilities street parking rights. The charges are usually set around break-even. The charges are determined by the democratically elected representatives of the people affected, and you wouldn’t get high odds on anyone getting re-elected on a platform of market pricing for residents’ parking. Lynched, yes; elected, no. Pesky stuff, this democracy.
JVH says that investing parking surpluses in the things that our law mandates just allows politicos to pursue pet projects. We do have a law that requires re-investment of parking surpluses in a certain way. It’s not at neighborhood level – this would be a singularly difficult concept to define here – but at municipal level, which is the smallest recognizable unit of administration that the UK has. So the money is returned to the wider community.
I am not sure how valid your neighborhood concept is anyway. The neighborhood doesn’t generate the money; the parkers do, so why not give it back to the drivers? That would seem fairer. Also, if a municipality is operating three local “downtowns” and gets a surplus in parking from one, does it really make the world a better place to improve the best and let the rest go to pot?
Your comment about local politicos’ pet projects is a cheap shot, John. The local politicos get elected by promoting an agenda, and it seems wholly appropriate, if a little surprising, if a politician should actually do what they said they would do. That pesky democracy again.
What they cannot do under our law is to go off on a tangent. Transport improvements, yes. Environmental improvements, yes. Forty-foot statues of Mickey Mouse, no. In the much quoted LA neighborhood example, who decided how to spend the money? Local politicos, I suspect, be they elected councillors or neighborhood activists with no mandate but with loud voices.
A hit, a palpable hit! “If people knew where the money from parking went, they would stop bitching so much” (to paraphrase your words, John). We as an industry are absolutely the worst at giving the good news, and I agree 100% with what you say.
For example, London boroughs provide special transit systems and taxi ride systems for the elderly and disabled, and these are often funded entirely from meter revenues. No one is going to say these shouldn’t be provided, but do we say where the money comes from? No. Do we put a sign on the bus that says “the cost of this bus is paid for by parking meter income?” No.
Perhaps the biggest skills gap in the parking industry is public relations. Interestingly, UK laws require that every municipality produces and publishes an annual parking account. Do they? Hell, they are rarer than hen’s teeth.
Here’s a thought, John. At PIE in the U.S. and Parkex in the UK, let’s put together a program to bring a busload of guys from the Colonies to see what happens in the Mother Country for a week and vice versa. Who knows; we might all learn something.
From JVH: A notorious publisher (William Randolph Hearst) supposedly once said, Never argue with someone who has an infinite amount of newsprint and an infinite amount of ink. I lured you in, Peter, now here we go ...
First of all, you should read Shoup’s book (“The High Cost of Free Parking”), not attack a mere acolyte. Shoupistas have the facts that in the U.S. (where the book is based), in most cases the parking requirements set by local zoning laws are ludicrous (one space for every four nuns in a convent, two spaces for each station at a beauty shop, one space for every 1,000 gallons at a public swimming pool, etc.).
The problem is that these and hundreds of like requirements across the fruited plain keep downtowns from redeveloping. If a restaurant wants to go where a hardware was before, it can’t, because not enough parking is available.
Why not let the restaurant take the risk? If there isn’t enough parking, it will go bust. Or maybe someone will create the parking – use on-street valets, cut deals with the bank down the street that has parking in off hours, etc. With government planners in control, you have the blind leading the sighted.
As for transportation planning, that is an entirely different issue, Peter. If a developer wants to put in a shopping center, then the approvals required in the U.S. are legend ... and traffic and transportation issues are at the top of the list. Developers are required to provide the infrastructure for their development and, if not, no big box store.
As for your desire to have a democracy decide just how much parking should cost – come on, Peter, give me a break. That’s what started all this parking problem in the first place. The mayor’s wife whispers in his ear that her girlfriends think that parking costs too much downtown and the next week the parking folks are changing the signs
Realistically, what happens is that merchants have issues with their customer volume and look around for someone to blame; they find the local parking manager and get out the rope. They moan about needing free parking, parking costing too much, not enough parking and prices go down; the spaces are no longer available, and you think all is right with the world? Guess again, Peter.
Isn’t the UK health system the poster child for demanding free parking and then finding that the ambulances can’t get to the hospitals because all the cars are jamming the streets trying to get to the free parking? I thought that as soon as reasonable fees were instituted, the parking problems began to go away, The “democracy” raised hell about it, and where they won, parking problems came right back.
“Groupthink” is usually wrong. If the free market set the prices – based on having one space in 15 or 20 always available – then most cruising, and parking issues, would go away. If people can’t afford to park, then they will take alternative means to get to the town center. If the town center isn’t interesting enough to attract them, then it’s the center’s fault, not that of not enough free parking.
As for cheap shots – human nature must be significantly different in the UK from the rest of the world. Patronage is the life blood of politics, and if you folks in the “mother country” have figured out a way to keep politicians out of the public trough, you should bottle it and export it. No one else on the planet has.
Oh, I just reread your piece and noted your comment on market pricing not working, Can’t work, Won’t Work. Can’t change prices by the day, hour, or month. Peter, in the U.S. (and probably in the UK, too) we have been doing that for years. Off street garages have pricing that changes by time of entry, time of exit, and day of the week. On street changes based on time of day ($1 an hour til 6 PM, free after 6 and on weekends). As for the technology – there are a ton of meters, pof, pbs, and other devices that allow the city to change rates at will, and by time, day, and phase of the moon, if they like.
By the way, Peter, Shoup’s theories are slowly being put into practice in many cities in the U.S. It’s a fight – that pesky democracy is at work. But after all the arm waving and discussions are over, a blend of free market, reason, local needs and common sense seems to take control. At least sometimes. Over to you...
Peter Guest is PT’s correspondent on all things European and Middle East. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Van Horn is founder, editor and publisher of Parking Today magazine..
He can be reached at
Article Abstract from February, 2010