The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald C. Shoup

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Posted 2006-08-16; revised 2011

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

Imagine a public policy that does the following:

Would you support this public policy?

This public policy enforces an entitlement so ingrained in our culture that any attempt to modify it may likely lead to failure. In fact, suggestions to change this policy have been met with ridicule or indifference for many decades.

Even the hint that this public policy be overturned may cause a conservative person to whine and plead in favor of it, even though this policy is an anathema to free markets. Likewise, a liberal may howl in opposition to ending this policy because of (false) claims that it would hurt the poor and devastate the lives of everyone, even though this policy is a demonstrated burden on the poor and a drain on the environment.

What is being done about this public policy? Many things have been done for nearly a hundred years. Wild-eyed advocates repeatedly come up with solutions just as destructive as pouring gasoline on a forest fire. Their "solutions" make the problems this public policy engenders even worse, in a circular pattern, so that this public policy mires cities in problems and complaints by citizens that worsen and worsen. Clever politicians harness this anger and gain votes for themselves by implementing solutions that placate the populace but make the problem still worse in a perfect cycle for buying votes year after year. In fact, this public policy is a vicious kind of shackle for the inhabitants of cities. If you would want to destroy a civilization, you would accomplish your aim by enshrining this public policy as the prime directive for planning cities, as it would guarantee that healthy urban areas would never form.

Would you support this public policy?

Billions of people on every country on earth embrace this policy as their birth-right. You would likely react with dismissive ridicule and perhaps anger if anyone would even hint that this policy change. Likely you have never thought about this public policy. If you are a professional urban planner, you may have never studied this policy or even seen it mentioned in your textbooks.

Dr. Shoup explains this policy well in his far-ranging book. What is this public policy? The policy of providing free or under-priced parking in a city in excessive amounts without regard to costs or consequences. He carefully examines the spurious data used to support this public policy, and patiently documents how this policy causes problems. Dr. Shoup comes up with simple solutions that have clear benefits, are reasonable, and work within the great traditions of urban life and commerce.

His closing paragraph before the appendices of the book sums up his thesis eloquently:

"These three reforms--charge fair-market prices for curb parking, return the resulting revenue to neighborhoods to pay for public improvements, and remove the requirements for off-street parking--will align our individual incentives with our common interests, so that private choices will produce public benefits. We can achieve enormous social, economic, and environmental benefits at almost no cost simply by subsidizing people and places, not parking and cars." (p. 602)

Shoup's accomplishment in this book is impressive. He brings to light an often-dismissed topic--parking--that has enormous impact on the urban form. I can't think of any other topic in all my reading about urban areas that has been so ignored and yet has such a demonstrated potential for improving urban life. Shoup's well-written, 733-page book covers this topic in great detail. Shoup makes a critical connection between policies about automobile storage and urban life. He raises issues about professional responsibility as Jacobs did in Dark Age Ahead. He shows how form-giving policies (such as parking requirements) have profound influence on what can thrive in a city, much as Marshall did in terms of roads in How Cities Work.

At its heart, Shoup's analysis asks us to do the following:

  1. Admit that parking a car does cost money (direct, indirect, and opportunity costs)
  2. Admit that parking a car does take up space (and therefore displaces other uses, including housing, retail, pedestrian walking areas, etc.)
  3. Admit that shifting parking cost and needlessly increasing parking space has definite consequences on the urban form (the urban form becomes suburban, walking distances increase, traffic increases)
  4. Choose a parking policy that admits the above and sets priorities that are publicy-known

Parking does have an enormous impact on how much automobiles dominate an area and how much room there is for other forms of transit and human beings. By ignoring parking policies, a city dooms its drivers and pedestrians to a tough existence. I hope awareness of the impact of parking spreads to public officials as well as citizens. People evaluating a city for relocation should know what kind of life is possible there, and finding out a city's parking policies may reveal a great deal.

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2024-06-04 · John December · Terms ©