High Cost of ‘Free’ Parking (Part I)

High Cost of Free Parking coverDonald Shoup’s argument for rethinking the accommodation of automobiles in urban areas begins with a counter-intuitive claim: free parking is not at all free; in fact, it’s quite expensive. Whether or not we drive, he says, we do pay, but those costs are far steeper than a simple ledger would have you believe. From unrealized urban opportunities to misallocated resources that benefit primarily motorists, the true costs of parking are borne not by those who park but everybody including motorists who have to pick up the tab.

Let me begin by saying that the The High Cost of Free Parking is not planner’s book per se. It’s a broader critique of planning as it’s practiced in the vast majority of cities. As such, it casts a wary eye on policies that are often disconnected from the vision that gives birth to them. Free Parking also highlights problematic policies that fail to serve our policy goals, at least as enumerated in our planning documents. And Free Parking reserves particular scorn for a policymaking process that looks to conventional and received ‘wisdom’ rather than undertake the rigorous, empirical observation demanded by complex urban problems (like mobility).

As if to top it off, Shoup notes that too often, our remedy for the failed policies policies of the past (like his favorite hobbyhorse, minimum required parking) is simply to require more of the same. More cowbell please!

Donald Shoup’s point of departure is the misconception that parking is ‘free.’ In fact, its very expensive to provide, he argues; urban multistory garages nip at the general fund in many cities – funds that could provide services to all residents. Underground garages exact a considerable premium. Paradoxically these spaces while universally loathed cost as much to construct on a per square foot basis as a condominium.

He is particularly eager to disabuse readers that providing all that parking is cost-free. On the contrary, it’s just not conspicuously priced. Instead it’s expensively manufactured but often given away at no cost – which is quite a different prospect than ‘free.’ In reality, providing it at no cost instrumentally obscures the many costs that do come with it.

But Shoup’s real bugaboo is how poorly-conceived policies like that which over-supplies parking as a free good will ultimately keep us on the road to ruin. Providing parking at no cost encourages an activity that we would like to actively discourage in central business districts (namely motoring). In an incipient post-carbon era, a moment when federal, state, and local policies are aligning to encourage more efficient forms of transportation (not least active mobility), continuing to over-supply parking at little or no cost to the user works against our long-term policy objectives.

Looking Back: The Origins of the Parking Crisis

In a brief digression from Shoup, let’s trace the origin of the ‘parking problem’ back to early in the century, when city downtowns were making an uneasy transition from means of mass conveyance (think horsecars and trollies) to the ascendent favorite mode of individual transportation, the motorcar. But central business districts presented a particular problem because industrial-era cities concentrated commercial activities in the center. With the waxing popularity of the automobile, there arose the need to accommodate motorists, yet making room for cars – indeed simply parking them in volume – threatened to displace those very commercial activities upon which downtowns thrived.

To remain economically viable to a new class of highly-mobile consumers, downtown retailers began to integrate parking into their structures in innovative ways. Downtown Los Angeles department used ramps and schemes to tuck cars behind and within their walls. By increasing capacity (albeit at the expense of floor area), shoppers arriving by motorcar could find a place for their car. In this way, multistory car parks literally internalized the threat to downtown viability suggested by the new automobility.

Significantly, private businesses absorbed the cost of providing parking; it was the cost of staying competitive. As automobility threatened to siphon its best shoppers to new fast-developing tony commercial districts (like Miracle Mile and Beverly Hills beyond), keeping them downtown was paramount. Problem was, it was prohibitively expensive to build sufficient capacity because greater capacity induced greater demand. In time city administrations socialized that cost: they sold bonds, built municipally-owned garages, and underpriced parking. Then policymakers crafted municipal zoning codes to explicitly require developers to provide parking.

More recently, cities began building garages as add-on components to large, private-sector developments. Providing the parking at public expense reduced the expense and risk to the developer while saddling the public sector with an expensive, resource-consuming amenity. The LA/CRA committed to build the garage for Eli Broad’s vanity museum, for example. Here in Beverly Hills, city taxpayers picked up the tab for the Montage Hotel’s garage and the park that sits atop it. (And we continue to pick up the exorbitant cost of landscaping the premium-quality hotel ‘gardens’ to the tune of $13,000/month while ponying up for garage-related cost overruns.)

Are municipal garages a sinkhole for cash? You bet! Yet we continue to pay the largely hidden costs of making available all of that ‘free’ and under-priced curbside, garage, and privately-provided parking.  To date, only a few cities have come around to Shoup’s argument and begun to cap parking requirements rather than set a progressively higher floor for parking requirements (which say, in effect, “Only provide so much parking but no more”).

For policymakers in cities like Beverly Hills, progressive anti-free parking arguments are simply hypothetical. Their concerns find their origins in the downtown boosters of yesteryear: build more parking and the shoppers will come. When I casually ask people from beyond whether they spend their dollars in Beverly Hills, I receive two kinds of responses (paraphrasing): “Rodeo Drive is for wealthy tourists” (i.e., I don’t know much about your town, but I know that it’s not for me, and I won’t like it); and “I hate to drive there, and it sucks finding a place to park.”

Nevermind that we’ve constructed many public parking garages that have put our parking budget in the tank. But I sympathize: even I wouldn’t want to park here because I hate garages! But I do like to ride my bike. Pity there’s nothing on that score to welcome me and my fellow bicycle-bound shoppers.

The Problem of Parking

Shoup begins his Free Parking broadside with an apocryphal tale that says more about planning and planners than about anything specific to parking:

“In the beginning the Earth was without parking. The planner said, Let there be parking, and there was parking. And the planner saw that it was good. And the planner than said, Let there be off-street parking for each land use, according to its kind. And developers provided off-street parking for each land use according to its kind. And again the planner saw that it was good. And the planner said to cars, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth. And the planner saw everything he had hade, and, behold, it was not good.”

There’s the problem right there: we’ve recognized that current approaches to parking are not good, yet we persevere by over-producing at high cost the very kind of good that undermines the planning outcomes we’d like to achieve. To wit:

  • Parking structures that rob our streets of community-enhancing retail uses rather than add to the economic activity so vital to dense urban cores;
  • Arbitrary and formulaic parking minimums that require developers to turn over valuable, developable floor space to parking functions – a least-best use that inverts what planners are taught is the proper course of action;
  • Misallocated investment that plows public money into parking structures at a cost approaching $40,000 per space when  pressing needs like affordable housing perenially go unmet.

Perhaps the most important point is that our current approach exacts a long-term negative effect on the urban environment. Constructing garages entails a significant opportunity cost because policymakers have (literally!) elevated parking above other important policy concerns, like efficient modes of mobility – an issue arguably more pressing than simply providing single-occupancy vehicles with expensive urban real estate for storage purposes.

Never mind that cars are stationary for an estimated 95% of their working life; let’s make sure that there’s a waiting space should a motorist show up. For every (leveraged) dollar we invest in a parking structure, that’s a dollar not invested in transit, or housing for people, or the commercial structures that generate jobs and all-important sales taxes.

Public Parking garage entrance
The modern parking garage: a streetscape 'nullity'!

So instead of constructing productive projects like mixed-use developments that do reflect the many functions necessary to a vibrant urban core, we build parking structures that actually displace them.

What does this mean for the urban streetscape? It means a dead space or, worse, a high-traffic cut across the pedestrian right-of-way. In this sense the modern parking garage is an urban nullity: a structure to accommodate one function but which crowds out more positive use for that valuable street frontage. To make matters worse, the investment is under-used and sits mostly idle for as much as half the time.

A Closer Look at Planning Assumptions

Planning is more art than science, Shoup says, and Free Parking peels back the curtain to reveal facile suppositions that have long informed policymakers. Shoup dives into the facts and figures with tables and charts to offer a sobering lesson: behind today’s urban parking policies are problematic premises and flimsy data. He shows that many of the policies that we assume are developed according to sound assumptions are actually insufficiently grounded in empirical research. Planners’ claims, he says, are often simply unsupported upon examination.

No wonder that we find parking problems nearly everywhere we look; the whole enterprise is built on sets of faulty assumptions. Look closely and their claim to scientific rigor dissolves into a kind of urban myth (build it and they will come!). It’s the same set of assumptions that guided early twentieth century development decisions.

If  there’s no real science behind the carefully-constructed artifice of planning, then the irony is that a field that labored through the 1960s with a ‘systems view’ of urban problems (the paradigmatic scientific approach to planning) now finds itself returning to core concepts like empiricism to redress failing concepts. Shoup leads that charge; his purpose in Free Parking is to set the record straight and to stoke debate about what a more rational, market-oriented parking policy might look like. (He even appeared before the Beverly Hills Traffic & Parking Commission in early 2011, but from all appearances his message fell on deaf ears here.)

It’s not just planners who need take an interest. Shoup includes much here that will interest lay folks too. When he asks whether more parking is really better parking, he urges us into the field. One need not be a planner to see that the upper levels of any parking structure are so clearly little-used. We don’t need an elaborate study to know that each one of those unneeded spaces has sucked resources away from pressing needs without so much as a critical thought from policymakers about whether parking was the best investment. They simply believed it.

The layman can also look to the ‘churn’ familiar to any motorist who has gobbled time, gas, and patience in trying to find a curbside spot. (Confession: I’m guilty too!) Waiting for a street spot is not only a less-efficient use of your resources; it also adds additional friction to downtown traffic. Shoup documents how slowing and circling slows street throughput and, as a seeming bonus, externalizes (as planners say) such negative effects of congestion beyond the business district and into adjacent neighborhoods.

Shoup reserves particular scorn for required parking minimums, however, as he admonishes policymakers for blindly following planning industry recommendations and the advice of boilerplate planning white papers to provide ever-more parking without taking the time to look empirically at the local evidence. More to the point, why undertake a rigorous analysis of parking need (and perhaps address it on a case-by-case basis) when a local government can just require developers to simply over-provide parking by writing into the zoning code an array of parking minimums?

If conducting such studies is too much work for planners, then it’s probably too much to ask of policymakers to review them in detail. Better perhaps to simply require private developers to provide it – no questions asked. Indeed the Beverly Hills Traffic & Parking Commission which is advisory to City Council on such matters rarely, if ever, questions assumptions underneath our city’s parking minimums. But they enthusiastically apply them to proposed developments every month.

Shoup also takes the planning profession to task for taking the lazy way out. Published pattern books and industry guidelines shape how parking is created in nearly every city, but stand without a firm foundation in analysis. More damaging, Shoup highlights patently specious claims about statistical validity that permeate such documents. What’s left after evaluating them for scientific rigor is a surfeit of claims untethered to underlying empirical research.

And finally he pillories the academy itself. We learn that there exists no standardized textbooks by which neophyte planners gain a solid understanding of parking policies.  Instead they learn ‘on the job,’ unfortunately internalizing the existing approaches that continually produce poor outcomes  instead of questioning the empirical bases of parking policies behind them.

Shoup’s highly readable account of how we’ve gotten it wrong for so long, and why we keep getting it wrong, makes High Cost not only a planner’s book; it invites every urban development and transportation policy enthusiast to consider whether subsidizing parking is a wise allocation of our scarce time and energy in the face of pressing urban problems.

As Shoup says in his introduction, “We don’t pay for parking in our role as motorists, but in all our other roles – as consumers, investors, workers, residents and taxpayers – we pay a high price. Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for ‘free parking.’” Well, we’re certainly paying that price today in Beverly Hills.

In part II we’ll look at how misguided parking policies misfire, leading to suboptimal planning outcomes here at home, in Beverly Hills.