Why Free Parking Is Costing Us An Awful Lot

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Smart Cities Insider interviewed Donald Shoup, Distinguished Research Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA and an expert on economics of parking. In his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup argues that cities should charge fair market prices for on-street parking, use the meter revenue to finance added public services in the metered neighborhoods, and remove off-street parking requirements.

Your book “The High Cost of Free Parking” is an eye-opener. Do urban planners agree with your ideas?

The High Cost of Free ParkingDonald Shoup: Before the book came out, few academics had done much research on parking, perhaps because it seemed like such an uninteresting topic. But parking is no longer uncool, and many people are beginning to agree that parking reforms can do a lot of good for the world.

The American Planning Association published my book, which severely criticizes current planning practices and is less than kind to some of the APA’s own publications. I argue that minimum parking requirements have seriously harmed our cities since the 1950s. They damage the economy, disfigure urban design, raise the cost of housing and everything else, congest traffic, pollute the air and water, and increase greenhouse gas emissions. To my knowledge, not a single urban planner had said that minimum parking requirements do not have all these effects.

Are you saying parking is too cheap right now? 

Donald Shoup: No, but I am saying that some parking is underpriced. For example, where parking on the street is cheaper than parking off-street, drivers often choose to cruise around hunting for an on-street parking space. They waste time and fuel, pollute the air, congest traffic, and endanger pedestrians and cyclists.

Everybody wants free parking, including me. But when you park free, the cost doesn’t go away. Somebody has to pay the cost and that somebody is essentially everybody.

What parking strategies do you recommend for cities? 

Donald Shoup: I recommend three policies. First, charge the right price for curb parking, by which I mean the lowest price that will leave one or two spaces open on every block, so no one has to cruise for parking. Second, spend the meter revenue to pay for added public services on the metered streets, so residents and merchants can see the meter money at work for them. Third, remove the minimum off-street parking requirements.

With these three policies, I think our cities will begin to look and work a lot better. They will look more like cities that were built before there were any requirements for off-street parking.

What would be the right price for parking? 

Donald Shoup: The right price depends on the demand for parking. The number of parking spaces is fixed, but the demand varies. Therefore, the price has to vary to keep supply and demand in balance.

If cities charge the lowest price that keeps one or two spaces open on every block, a vacant space will be waiting for you whenever you drive to your destination. What could be better than that? Everybody will have great parking karma. The only thing worse than paying for parking is having no parking at all.

If airlines charged the same price for all tickets no matter when and how far you fly, some planes would be half empty, and others would always be full. The price of almost everything varies according to demand, except for street parking.

So, what is that right price for parking? How do you determine it? You can’t tell the right price without looking at the results. If half of the spaces are empty, then I’d say the price is too high. If all the spaces are full, the price is too low. But if one or two curb spaces are open on every block at all times, the prices are right.

Sometimes not a single car is parked on a metered street in the early morning. To my mind, the price is too high, and the city should nudge it down until most spaces are occupied. On the other hand, if all spaces are full, the price is too low, and the city should nudge it up until one or two open spaces are open on each side of the block. The parking spaces will then be both well used and readily available.

What other principle would you recommend to set the meter prices? If we let meter prices vary according to demand, the market can do some work for the public good.

Surprisingly, when San Francisco began to adjust prices at 7,000 meters to aim for one or two open spaces on every block, more prices went down than up. In the morning, almost all the prices had been too high. The prices at 17% of the meters went down to 25 cents an hour during some time of the day.

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