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Point of View

Parking, Consultants and, Sigh, The New York Times

By John Van Horn

Wow, “parking” seems to be on everyone’s lips. Our little backstreet industry that affects just about every person on the planet suddenly has become the rage.
It started with the leasing of the city of Chicago’s on-street parking operation. Then cities such as Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and others saw dollar signs. San Francisco began a much ballyhooed (in the Bay area) new parking program, called SFpark, that parallels Professor Don Shoup’s model for municipal parking operations. The story was picked up by a few papers, and found its way onto Page 27 under the obits.
Then it happened. The venerable New York Times ran a business-section commentary by a George Mason University economist, Tyler Cowen, and all hell broke loose. Many in the media claim that The Times sets the tone for what gets published other places. (I do know that when PT’s Blog was mentioned in the “Old Gray Lady,” our hits went from 300 to 1,500 daily for a few days.)
Well, it worked.
Suddenly, the media and the blogosphere were inundated with stories about parking, Shoup, San Francisco and Cowen. It didn’t stop there. A Cato Institute blogger (Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole) took umbrage with both Cowen and Shoup. Lines were drawn in the sand.
UCLA’s Shoup told me that he normally didn’t answer blog postings, but since Cato and O’Toole were so well-known and -respected, he felt it incumbent on him to do so. And he did. Shoup picked up the gauntlet with a 5,000-word broadside sent to O’Toole, and copied to practically everyone.
Parking had gone viral.
Everything is linked online to everything else. Shoup’s missive alone has more than a dozen links to back up documentation, videos and excerpts from his book that started it all: “The High Cost of Free Parking.” Economist Cowen and Cato’s O’Toole also link to other references. As Sherlock Holmes would say, “The game is afoot.”
I felt that this offered a great opportunity to get some of the issues concerning the “Shoup model” out in the open and then hear from the originator himself. In this issue of PT, we explore the new parking project in San Francisco, pro and con, and offer many opportunities for you to go online and research for yourself. Shoup, Cowen and O’Toole’s writings can be found in our blog (see sidebar page 14).
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Which brings me to another subject, near to my heart: Parking consultants and their general suspicion and sometimes outright derision of Don Shoup. Many tell me that he is an academic and has no business trying to shove his theories on the real world. I mean, after all, what the heck does he know about real parking problems? He spends his time in his office on a university campus, publishing so he won’t perish, while the rest of us have to get out there every day and deal with politicians, city planners, financial disasters, and those pesky parkers.
When I talk to my friends in the consulting business, I find that many have not read Shoup’s book; and those who have usually grab onto something and don’t seem able to let go. Case in point: “It simply won’t work. Imagine turning the money generated by parking back into the neighborhoods where it came from. That money has been dedicated to education, and that’s where it’s going. No one is ever going to change that, not in this town.”
I can sympathize with many of the consultants. Most of the conversation going on in the main stream media over the past couple of months has been between economists, pundits (like me) and common bloggers who couldn’t find a parking space if it appeared in front of their car. The parking professionals who make their living every day having to deal with the vagaries of municipal politics, real-world meetings with businesses, angry citizens, and civic planners with agendas find Shoup’s media persona a little hard to swallow.
On the other hand, Shoup can say what he wants with impunity. No one is going to fire him, or not give him the next contract. There is little downside to what he says or does. And he can bring the weight of academia to his presentations. If it doesn’t work, no big deal. He just goes to his next lecture and adjusts a few notes.
There is one upside to all this: Everyone is talking about parking. People are taking sides. Discussions are going on. Changes are being made. Are they 100% Shoup? Of course not. But tired old ideas are being rethought. It’s a slow process, but it’s beginning to happen.
The parking manager who has been pleading for rate increases to help solve parking issues is getting his day in court. Emerging technology that will provide data necessary in rate setting is being installed. Garage owners are finding, bit by bit, that they are no longer in competition with low-cost or “free” spaces on the street.
And this is the most exciting part: A city councilman or mayor who hasn’t thought about parking other than to keep its prices low is now rethinking that position. After all, I read it in The New York Times. There must be something about this parking thing I should consider.
Here are words I never thought I would write: Thank you, New York Times. You gave parking the opening it needed.
I love this one:
“Many people who work in the downtown area and have access to off-street parking refuse to use it because they may have to walk a few additional yards. Instead, every two hours, they run out of their workplace and move their vehicle to another location to avoid a violation. If they ever figured out that all of that running in and out requires a lot more walking than just parking in a lot to start with, maybe they would reconsider their strategy.”
– Larry Brock, Chief of Police, Richmond, KY, writing in The Richmond Register newspaper.

Article Abstract from October, 2010




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