The High Cost of Free Parking

"Free parking," it’s a lovely phrase, isn’t it? Since so many of the things we do are not free, it’s great that at least we can stow our vehicles at no cost, right? Well, actually, we are paying dearly for parking, according to a new book by David Shoup, a professor at UCLA. In The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup says that parking policies are devastating American cities, and that we’re wasting billions every year on parking subsidies that should go to parks and other human-scale activities.

Revenue from parking meters should be used locally—benefiting neighborhoods, not the general fund.

Shoup points out that auto commuters enjoy a free ride, and that a lot of our excess capacity goes begging. An Urban Land Institute survey shows that at least half of all spaces are vacant more than 40 percent of the time the businesses they serve are open.

"Free curb parking may be the most costly subsidy American cities provide to their citizens," says Shoup, who points out that the average car is parked 95 percent of the time. As everyone who’s ever cruised a city street knows, it’s a lot cheaper to park on the street than in a private lot. Shoup says a 2003 study found that the average price of curb parking is only 20 percent that of adjacent off-street parking, giving motorists an incentive to endlessly circle the public thoroughfares in search of an unoccupied space (wasting gas and causing congestion in the process).

Think this is just environmentalist nitpicking? A 1984 study determined that in a single year the cruisers in one 15-block neighborhood in Los Angeles spent 100,000 hours wasting 47,000 gallons of fuel and producing 700 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Shoup’s solution follows the same logic as raising gasoline taxes (another great idea that is also currently political suicide). If it costs more to drive, people will be in their cars less and there will be less traffic congestion and needless delays. Similarly, if it cost more to park at the curb (if, in effect, street parking was no cheaper than parking garages) the whole circling space hunt would come to a much-deserved end. In an interview, Shoup also recommended that cities allocate their enhanced curbside parking fees to fixing up the blocks the spaces are on (through business improvement districts) rather than pouring the revenue into the cities" general funds.

UCLA professor David Shoup practices what he preaches—and wonders why bicycle commuters can't get subsidies equal to free parking.

In London, for instance, would-be auto commuters face not only a 5 ($9) daily tax, but a civic-minded parking space cap imposed in the 1960s. "By our standards it’s fabulously expensive to park in downtown London, 4 [$7.50] an hour," Shoup says. "And the money goes to the borough councils for local concerns. In the U.S., the money just disappears."

I know what Shoup is talking about, because I’ve driven into New York City and spent hours (and wasted gallons of gas) searching for a "free" parking space. The alternatives—taking the Metro North train or using a parking garage—are always far more expensive. Since only about a quarter of the parking spaces south of 59th Street have meters, the spots that do exist aren’t cheap, they’re "free." No wonder New Yorker Calvin Trillin calls his book Tepper Isn’t Going Out the "first parking novel." Major plot points revolve around the lead character’s unending search for an open spot.

The idea of "free parking" starts early, Shoup points out in the book, which is published by the American Planning Association. "Children first learn about free parking when they play Monopoly," he writes. "The chance of landing on Free Parking is low, about the same as the chance of going to jail. Monopoly misleads its players on this score, because parking is free for 99 percent of all automobile trips in the U.S."

A Canadian study by Auto-Free Ottawa has some devastating parking statistics. Some 86 percent of the American workforce commutes to work by car, and more than 90 percent of those commuters park for free. The average national value for a parking space is approximately $1,000, so that means $85 billion in annual subsidies. Ending these free subsidies would reduce the number of solo commuters by as much as 81 percent. And if ending the free ride is not a possibility, why can’t we offer people who take public transit or bike to work a similar subsidy—payments in lieu of parking?

Shoup believes that parking "ought to be priced properly," and that means charging the lowest price that will result in a 15 percent vacancy rate, about equivalent to the market rate for a private lot space. If drivers aren’t circling the block looking for free parking, there will be less congestion and cleaner air, and the increased revenues can go into city beautification.

Shoup cites Pasadena as a model for good parking policy. Each parking meter in Old Pasadena generates $1,800 per year, with the money going to neighborhood improvement. San Diego returned 45 percent of its $2.2 million 2002 meter revenues to neighborhoods, and the money was used to clean and light streets, repair sidewalks, remove graffiti, plant trees and provide security.

We never tally the hidden cost of driving. Americans spend $200 million a day building and rebuilding the country’s roads (and pork barrel projects in local districts mean this is the one thing Congress agrees on). Gas taxes and user fees cover only 60 percent of the more than $30 billion spent annually. Add on another $68 billion annually for highway patrols, traffic management and accident-related policework. The estimated annual external cost of driving (including air pollution, climate change, imported oil security, congestion, accidents, noise, etc.) is $126.3 billion.

There were 735 million cars on the road around the world in 2000, but their numbers are growing exponentially. If the rest of the world had U.S. levels of car ownership (and other countries, particularly in the Third World, are trying hard to catch up), there would be 4.7 billion cars in the world, requiring a parking lot the size of France or Spain. Sound crazy? Since 1950, the vehicle population has grown more than twice as fast outside the U.S. as in it.

As Americans, we’re leading the world in parking lots, providing between three and four spaces for every car in the country (between 705 million and 940 million spaces in total). Combined, parking takes up as much space as the state of Connecticut.

Car executives are fond of saying that the fuel-cell vehicle will "remove cars from the environmental equation." But as Shoup points out, "Regardless of how fuel efficient our cars are or how little pollution they emit, we will always need somewhere to park them." Amen to that.


American Planning Association