In light of the Downtown Memphis’ Commission’s review of downtown parking and ways to make it more effective and efficient, we are posting a commentary by retired UCLA economist Don Shoup, whose 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking, is considered the definitive authority on the subject. His recent book, Parking and the City, follows up:
One should not criticize anyone else’s religion, but I’m a protestant when it comes to parking requirements—and I believe city planning needs a reformation.
The price we really pay to park for nothing
America is a free country, and many people seem to think that means parking should be free. Parking requirements enable everyone to park free at everyone else’s expense and no one knows that anyone is paying anything. Parking is free, however, only because everything else is more expensive.
Indeed, a single parking space can cost more than the net worth of many U.S. households. One study found that in 2015 the average construction cost (excluding land cost) for parking structures was about $24,000 per space for aboveground parking and $34,000 per space for underground parking. By comparison, the U.S. Census of Wealth and Asset Ownership in 2015 found that the median net worth (the value of assets minus debts) was $110,500 for white households, $19,990 for Hispanic households and $12,780 for African American households. One space in a parking structure, therefore, costs more than the entire net worth of more than half of all Hispanic and black households in the country.
This mandate to provide homes for automobiles has devoured vast amounts of land. Parking lots typically have about 330 square feet per space. Because there are at least three off-street parking spaces per car in the United States, there are at least 990 square feet of off-street parking space per car. In comparison, there are about 800 square feet of housing space per person in the United States. The area of off-street parking per car is thus larger than the area of housing per human.
The most emotional topic in transportation
Few people are interested in parking itself, but parking strongly affects issues people do care strongly about, such as affordable housing, climate change, economic development, public transportation, traffic congestion, and urban design. Parking requirements reduce the supply and increase the price of housing. Parking subsidies lure people into cars from public transportation, bicycles, or their own two feet. Cruising for curb parking congests roads, pollutes the air, and adds greenhouse gases. Do people really want a drive-in dystopia more than they want affordable housing, clean air, walkable neighborhoods, good urban design, and a sustainable planet?
But most people consider parking a personal issue, not a policy problem. They follow the axiomatic observation of George Costanza in Seinfeld, who famously said that paying for parking was like going to a prostitute: “Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, maybe I can get it for free.”
Planners typically assume that every new resident will come with a car, so they require developers to provide enough off-street parking to house all the cars. Ample free parking then ensures that most residents do want a car. Parking requirements thus result from a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Planners often use “motivated reasoning” to justify the parking requirements required by elected officials who want enough parking to ensure that citizens won’t yell about a shortage of free parking. Then they must fashion arguments for conclusions already reached. Assumptions are the starting point of most parking requirements, and the person who makes the assumptions determines the outcome. Instead of reasoning about parking requirements, planners must rationalize them, and feign expertise they do not have. I have never met a city planner who could explain why any parking requirement should not be higher or lower. To set them, planners usually take instructions from elected officials, copy other cities’ parking requirements, or rely on unreliable surveys. Parking requirements are closer to sorcery than to science.
The three essential parking reforms
The upside of parking requirements is that removing them can trigger a cascade of benefits: shorter commutes, less traffic, a healthier economy, a cleaner environment, and more affordable housing. Vast parking lots can evolve into real communities. There’s an accidental land reserve available for job-adjacent housing. If cities remove their parking requirements, we can reclaim land on a scale that will rival the Netherlands. Economic objectives often conflict with environmental objectives, but parking reforms can serve both.
2. Charge the right prices for on-street parking. The right prices are the lowest prices that will leave one or two open spaces on each block, so there will be no parking shortages. Prices will balance the demand and supply for on-street spaces.
3. Spend the parking revenue to improve public services on the metered streets. If everybody sees their meter money at work, the new public services can make demand-based prices for on-street parking politically popular.
Each of these three policies supports the other two. Spending the meter revenue to improve neighborhood public services can create the necessary political support to charge the right prices for curb parking. If cities charge the right prices for curb parking to produce one or two open spaces on every block, no one can say there is a shortage of on-street parking. If there is no shortage of on-street parking, cities can then remove their off-street parking requirements. Finally, removing off-street parking requirements will increase the demand for on-street parking, increasing the revenue to pay for public services.
The parking revolution has already started
When The High Cost of Free Parking was published in 2005, half the city planning profession thought I was crazy and the other half thought I was daydreaming. Since then, several cities—including Buffalo, Hartford, Minneapolis, and San Francisco—have removed all their parking requirements, and many others have removed requirements in their downtowns. Mexico City has converted its minimum parking requirements into maximum parking limits while leaving the numbers almost unchanged. What once seemed politically impossible may slowly become the new normal.
Repealing off-street parking requirements and replacing them with market prices for on-street parking may at first glance seem like Prohibition, or the Reformation—too big an upheaval for society to accept. But it can attract voters across a wide political spectrum. Conservatives will see that it reduces government regulations. Liberals will see that it increases public spending. Environmentalists will see that it reduces energy consumption, air pollution, and carbon emissions. Urban designers will see that it enables people to live at higher density without being overrun by cars. Developers will see that it reduces building costs. Residents will see that it improves their neighborhood public services. Drivers of all political stripes will see that it guarantees convenient curb parking. Elected officials will see that it depoliticizes parking, reduces traffic congestion, allows infill development, and provides public services without raising taxes. Finally, planners can devote less time to parking and more time to improving cities.
Recognizing that our parking policies block progress toward many critical goals may help spark this planning reformation; simply improving parking policies could be the cheapest, quickest, and most politically feasible way to achieve many social, economic, and environmental goals. Cities will look and work much better when prices—not planners and politicians—govern decisions about the number of parking spaces. Like the automobile itself, parking is a good servant but a bad master.