A Monopoly board -- particularly the few squares around Free Parking, of course

The High Cost of Free Parking has changed a lot of minds in its few years on this earth. For a book about a seemingly dry subject, THCOFP‘s effect has been shockingly strong. The premise of the book can be laid out in a few bullets:

  1. Cities’ parking minimums on real estate are dangerous. This much is obvious, in that producing too much parking is exactly the point: if developers would produce that much parking on their own, then minimums wouldn’t be necessary.
  2. The usual argument for buildings to come with their own parking is that if they didn’t, the buildings’ users would spill over and use public parking. But the only reason to assume they’d use city parking is if public parking is free, as it is most everywhere. But what if cities charged the market rate for public parking? Then, presumably, people would be indifferent between off-street parking and public parking.
  3. The impact of free parking is devastating at many levels. It scars cities. It orients cities toward drivers rather than toward bicyclists, pedestrians, or those who cannot afford cars. And free parking (emphasis on the free part) isn’t good for the drivers, either: they spend minutes, on average, cruising around looking for parking, with expected effects on the environment and the drivers’ own state of mind. And the environmental effects go further: a world oriented toward drivers and parking is a world where buildings are more spread out, which is thus harder for pedestrians, which encourages more people to own cars purely out of convenience, which thus creates a larger lobby for car-centric cities, which makes the cycle start all over again.
  4. People expect to be able to park free everywhere, so the story is even worse than all of the bullets above would have it. Not only must there be one free parking space in the world for my car — there must be two or three. City planners seem to require enough free parking at every new restaurant, barber shop, ice-cream shop and café to accommodate peak demand; as Shoup quotes somewhere in The High Cost of Free Parking, “Do not build the church for Easter Sunday.” A typical standard for restaurants (in California, anyway, from which Shoup draws most of his examples) is four spaces per thousand square feet of dining area. At 200-300 square feet per parking space, parking area can easily swamp dining area.
  5. So parking should be market-priced. How much should we charge? Answer: charge enough so that there are always one or two free spaces available on every block; Shoup’s threshold is 85% full. This will stop people from needing to cruise, so the drivers themselves should be happy.
  6. But people are used to having free parking everywhere. How, to put it bluntly, do we buy them off, so that they’re willing to forego free parking? Answer: give them something for it. When a neighborhood charges for parking, some fraction of the parking proceeds should be returned to a Business Improvement District in that neighborhood — money that can be used to repair (or expand!) sidewalks, plant trees, and generally make the neighborhood look nice. People will see the benefits of paid parking returned to them. The people who will object to paid parking will be those who, for instance, drive into the neighborhood during the day to go to work and drive home to the suburbs at night — but those people don’t vote in that neighborhood, so their voice won’t have an effect.

Donald Shoup is in many ways like Jane Jacobs. One of the great joys of Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities is that she turns what might be a huge topic — subject to pure moralizing arguments like “What do we want out of cities” — into a number of small, practical, answerable questions. She looks out her window and asks what value sidewalks have. You want sidewalks to be wide enough so that kids can play on them; wide enough that a restaurant can drop a couple tables on them; etc. How about buildings? How tall do you want them to be? Well, we want our neighbors to be engaged with what’s happening on the street; skyscraper apartments can’t do this. And so forth. After she’s wrapped her (and our) brain around low-level details, only then does she scale out and talk about cities generally. And by that point she has a much more concrete object in her head, which it’s much easier to reason about with a minimum of ideological pollution. So it is with Shoup: he hardly spends any time talking about grand issues like global warming; instead he keeps focused on an individual car searching for an individual parking space, asks us why the car is spending so much time cruising, and lands the blame on the fact that parking is free.

Of course this should be obvious. We see videos of Soviet-era breadlines, and we pin the blame on a price system that wasn’t allowed to work; we never turn the lens back on ourselves and ask what harm we’re doing by assuming that a scarce resource should be free. Others have probably pointed this out in the past; this sort of thing probably occurred to Lewis Mumford, but Mumford was a genius who was a few decades ahead of his time. It took Donald Shoup to really bring this issue into the public mind in a real way. Now I hope people will actually put his ideas into action.