The High Cost of Free Parking Hardcover – Mar 1 2005
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George Costanza, the quintessential New Yorker, once said, "My father didn't pay for parking, my mother, my brother, nobody. It's like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, maybe I can get it for free?" The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup's 733-page tour de force, has the answer. With the exception of a Monopoly board, there is no such thing as free parking. In fact, free parking turns out to be the biggest problem you never thought about. "We all want to park free," Shoup writes. "But we also want to reduce traffic congestion, energy consumption and air pollution. We want affordable housing, efficient transportation, green space, good urban design, great cities and a healthy economy. Unfortunately, ample free parking conflicts with all these other goals."
But is this beach reading? Yes. Shoup is witty and profound. The Yoda of urban planning, he compares the current national parking situation to the overfishing of communal waters, an outbreak of cicadas, the Ptolemaic view of the universe, and all-you-can-eat buffets. The book inspired me to begin building an SUV-size apartment on wheels and park it in the Manhattan neighborhood of my choice. Call it "Alternate Side of Street Living." Why should cars be the only ones to get free, fully subsidized housing in New York City?
- Aaron Naparstek, New York Press
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I agree with Shoup that free parking is the great blind spot of American local politics. I recall vividly a couple of years ago I was attending a church service when it was suddenly interrupted by a person from the neighborhood, screaming that churchgoers had used all the parking spaces in front of his house AGAIN. I could understand why he was upset, because Sunday mornings did cause a serious parking shortage in the streets around the church. Shoup shows how to solve such difficulties: instead of putting in burdensome regulations about who can park where and when, just charge the market price for parking spaces, and make sure most or all of the money goes to the local neighborhood for improved public services. A high price for parking spaces on Sunday would have led churchgoers to find other options, like walking or carpooling. The church's neighbors would benefit from the money, and anyone who really needed a parking space would be able to find one, including on Sunday mornings.
As Shoup admits, nobody likes having to pay for a parking space. But which would you prefer: parking free, or spending a couple of bucks a day for parking and being able to afford to live 10 or 15 miles closer to work? Parking lots are not only ugly, they also consume vast amounts of land, much of which could be put to better uses. One of the great parts of the book is that Shoup discusses exactly how to go about developing political support for putting in parking meters and other methods of paying for parking. Parking technology has come a long way in recent decades, so that payment doesn't have to be inconvenient. Businesses are often afraid that parking meters will drive away customers. Shoup shows that isn't so, and provides several case studies of business districts and neighborhoods that have started charging for parking. What these places find is that their business actually increases, because people no longer have to waste time cruising the neighborhood looking for a parking space. Local governments' tax revenues increase, because valuable land is being used for revenue-producing activities instead of wasted on excess parking lots. Removing parking requirements also makes it much easier to renovate old buildings, which revitalizes neighborhoods.
I was stunned to find out that in some neighborhoods up to 90% of the traffic has been found to be people cruising around looking for a place to park. Shoup shows how charging the right price for parking according to local demand can get rid of this problem. Bus service benefits, too, because the buses don't have to sit in traffic jams and can arrive at their stops on time.
The book does get a little too academic for general readers in spots. There are equations in a few of the chapters. However, the book is too good to let that stop you. Just skip the equations; they aren't necessary to understanding Shoup's points.
I wish I could send a copy of this book to every local government official within 20 miles of where I live. Maybe then the bus service would be better, and when I really needed a parking space I would be able to find one.
Amazingly, I was wrong. Shoup shows how the simple matter of providing some free parking kicks off a chain reaction that leads to disastrous effects. First there's just a little free parking space in front of your house. But then a store opens down the street and its customers start taking your spot. So you demand the store provide enough parking for its customers. Which means the store gets pushed back from the street by its huge new parking lot. Which means nobody wants to walk to it, so more people start driving. Which means it needs more parking and more roads and more traffic cops and more cruising for parking and more sprawl and more pollution and on and on.
Shoup provides a simple solution to this madness: performance parking. If you provided everyone with free ice cream, you'd always have lines around the block. You'd go bankrupt from trying to make sure you always had enough supplies. You'd reorient your whole economy around ice cream. But luckily, we don't do that. We charge the market rate for ice cream. Shoup's simple suggestion: do the same for parking. Install parking meters that talk to each other and figure out how much parking is available and automatically adjust the price to ensure that 15% of the spots are always free. Imagine: no more looking for parking, a parking space always available.
Shoup has a political plan for getting there as well, involving playing one neighborhood off another. But I've given enough away already; perhaps you should just read the book.
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