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Free Parking Isn't Free

striatic.jpgBy Seth Zeren

When does a Prius have the same environmental impact as a Hummer? The 95 percent of the time it’s parked.

Most people don't spend time thinking about parking spaces unless they're looking for one. But these 9' by 18' rectangles of urban real estate have a vast impact on North American communities. They affect the economy, land use patterns, the design of cities and even individual lifestyles.

A small group of urban planners, economists, and community advocates are committed to changing the way Americans think about and plan for parking. Their claim is bold and powerful: minimum parking requirements should be considered one of the foremost contributors to suburban sprawl and the hollowing out of urban cores in the United States (in addition to the usual culprits of white flight, FHA mortgage redlining, and the interstate highway system).

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, as automobile use became prolific in the United States, parking became a problem, congesting streets and overflowing into neighbors' lots. In response, most municipalities instituted off-street parking minimums requiring developers to provide all the parking that the residences or shops would need on-site. This seemingly sensible notion has created a cascade of problems. It encourages sprawl by spreading buildings apart to make room for more parking (requirements usually demand more area for parking than the building it supports). It also weakens urban design, as urban buildings are torn down to make room for desolate surface lots, and hulking parking garages sprouted in downtown areas. It discourages revitalization of existing historic buildings, since developers have trouble meeting modern parking requirements in neighborhoods that were built before auto dominance. And the requirements drive up the cost of development: parking spaces can cost between $10,000 and $50,000 – typically more than the cost of the car that occupies it. High parking requirements can raise the price of homes and apartments by $50,000 to $100,000, a serious challenge to affordability.

41PV2Rsn9tL._SL500_AA240_.jpgUrban economist Donald Shoup argues that parking requirements are one of the costliest hidden subsidies in US cities today. Shoup, who teaches urban planning at UCLA and authored the recent book, The High Cost of Free Parking, is one of the leaders in the flight to reclaim cities for people, not parking. His writings on parking and planning have fanned such passion that he even has a Facebook fan-group, “The Shoupistas.” Though dense (at 600 pages), his book is a thorough, and hard-hitting analysis of where cars spend 95 percent of their time -- going nowhere.

He first takes aim at the basis for parking requirements: the parking demand surveys conducted by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. Because surveys are often conducted in “pure” auto environments (malls or office buildings with free parking that are inaccessible by other modes), and because they measure the absolute peak of demand, these standards often result in an enormous abundance of parking. Malls, for example, are required to build sufficient parking for the busiest day each year – with the consequence that for the other 364 days, many parking spots stand empty, a poor capital investment. Worse still, because many urban planners lack training or understanding of parking requirements, they tend to replicate models from other municipalities or expert studies, and apply them across their entire city uniformly. Drivers think of free parking as a right; planners take parking requirements as a given.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Vauban, a suburb of Freiberg, Germany, has deliberately become nearly car-free. Connected to the city center by tram, Vauban has become a model of suburban living without auto-dependence. And it's been able to achieve this despite its relatively mild population density: with 5,500 residents on approximately one square mile, it compares to St. Louis, not Manhattan. Any cars that residents choose to own must be parked in two garages at the edge of the development. A main, auto-accessible thoroughfare provides shops and services for the local residents while on side streets children play in safety. Indeed many of the residents of the high efficiency row houses are families who moved there because it was safer for their children, rather than any high-minded idealism about a car-free world.

thienzieyung.jpgThe free parking that Americans love isn’t really ‘free’ at all. A recent parking garage project in New Haven, Conn., for example, cost more than $30 million for almost 1,200 spaces – that’s more than $25,000 per space. If you were to finance it using a mortgage, the actual cost would be over $40,000 per space. This breaks down to roughly $135 a month, or $1,600 a year per space – not including externalities like the air pollution and congestion created by increased trips drawn by cheap parking. Even when garages and meters charge for parking, they rarely charge the real value of the parking space. (In Vauban, by contrast, drivers must purchase a parking space in the garages at $40,000 each.) All this amounts to a massive subsidy. Shoup calculates that in 2002 the total subsidy just for off-street parking was between $127 and $374 billion (for comparison, the budget for national defense that year was $349 billion).

Who pays for this? Everyone. The cost of building all that parking is reflected in higher rents, more expensive shopping and dining, and higher costs of home-ownership. Those who don’t drive or own cars thus subsidize those who do.

Free parking can become a drain on city coffers. According to a study (PDF) by Bruce Schaller, deputy commissioner of planning and sustainability at the NYC Department of Transportation, the city was losing more than $45 million in parking meter revenue annually as a result of the free parking privileges commonly offered to city employees. But the costs are more than economic: free parking also changes behavior, encouraging us to take more trips and drive alone more often. According to the same study, without that free parking, 19,200 fewer vehicles would enter Manhattan every day, easing congestion.

Why do Americans drive everywhere? Because everything’s far apart. Why’s it far apart? Often because there’s so much parking in between! In the end, creating bright green cities will require undoing the damage created by mandating free parking. But it won’t be easy. Urban form is path dependent. If municipalities just changed the zoning ordinances tomorrow, many drivers would raise political hell over their lost right to free parking, and many developers would go on providing free parking because that’s what the market expects. Fixing the problem will require not only a regulatory change, but also a behavioral change.

Those working on the issue would do well to remember the words of Jane Jacobs and pursue incremental “retrofitting” of the existing landscape incrementally rather than grand master-stroke plans (of the sort that failed in Urban Renewal). We in the United States don't just need to cut back on parking spaces; we need to build new buildings and infrastructure that enable easy mobility without cars.

c7r.jpgThere are already some signs that the winds are changing. Just this summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement calling for the redesigning of communities to promote physical activity and health in children. Perhaps the lesson of Vauban’s child-friendly, car-free streets can be applied in the United States, allowing safer play outdoors in residential neighborhoods. There are some efforts to replicate the success of Vauban in the United States, including Quarry Village in Hayward Calif., but they have run into problems with zoning codes, financing, and skeptical buyers. San Francisco is leading the way to creating a next-generation parking management system in a pilot project called SFpark Smart Parking Management System. The pilot area includes more than 12,000 parking spaces with sensors that detect occupancy, variable parking rates that respond to demand, and real time information on parking availability. These are hopeful signs, but the transformation of our parking infrastructure and culture to one that accurately reflects its costs will take a generation at least.

Want to take a stand? If parking is a problem in your community, here are some helpful things that you can advocate for at the local level:

* Eliminate zoning requirements for off-street parking. This will allow developers to design projects to appropriately meet market demand and aid the infill and redevelopment of older areas, necessary to create the density required for walkability and transit options.

* Charge market rates for curbside parking at meters. This will make the land pay its value, reducing trips and cruising for parking and providing revenue for neighborhoods and maintenance.

* Create Parking Benefit Districts that return meter revenues to neighborhoods. Businesses and residents will be much more supportive of market rate curb parking if they receive direct benefits in streetscape improvements, trash cleanup, and paving. Cars should subsidize people and places, rather than the other way around.

Seth Zeren is a masters student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies where he studies the relationship between land use and sustainability.

Image credits: flickr/striatic,, flickr/thienzieyung, flickr/c7r, all flickr licensed by Creative Commons.

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Nice article!

We should also advocate for more public tranportation options and infrastructure that supports biking and walking. Like turning space formerlly allocated to on-street parking into big bike lanes.

I imagine big shopping malls will have even more empty parking spots during this economic downtown. Maybe as a community service (or to save money on shovelling or painting lines or filling pot holes or patrolling for vandals) they could donate some of the parking space to become community gardens. Maybe it could be an alternative revenue source - malls growing heirloom tomoatoes on vacant land, trying to make ends meet like the rest of us.

Posted by: Jen on 4 Aug 09

I have had a little cartoon envisaged for a while now.
It features a vast and congested parking space outside a mega-mall (visible in the distance).

The caption reads: "All the convenience of shopping in one place!"

The trouble is, cars do take up space, and aren't going to be done away with just because some town planners have ... well, a plan!

Another options to be explored:
- wean people off the concept of car ownership (hire use rather than buy) Problem: everyone needs cars at the same time. Requiring further investigation: how to alleviate the spikes in demand.
- try and avoid the 'empty lot car park' syndrome. Aggressively seek other uses for vacant city property.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 4 Aug 09

I am an operations manager at a botanical garden and one way we have come up with to utilize the wasted parking space on days when we the parking lots aren't full is to plant the parking area with grasses to create a meadow and then mow when the space is needed for parking.

Posted by: Elizabeth on 5 Aug 09

The third point at the end of the article really struck home. (Create Parking Benefit Districts that return meter revenues to neighborhoods.) What a great concept. Instead of filling the city coffers by using parking as punishment, give some back. I agree that if market pricing tends to be higher, I would still pay knowing that some of it was going back to the community. Enjoyed the article.

Posted by: David Slazyk on 6 Aug 09

One crackpot study from a while ago claimed that a Hummer is cleaner than a Prius! - See this article -

Posted by: Dan on 6 Aug 09

Would you also advocate removing the subsidies paid to public transit systems? As far as I know, outside Japan, almost *no* public transit systems cover their costs with revenue from fares. We should raise the cost of bus and train fare by 2-5x so that people not using public transit aren't required to subsidize those who do, if we're doing the same thing with parking.

Personally, I agree, it would be nice if cities were designed such tat you could get around without owning a car, but this just is not the case in the US, and even if it became the nation's top priority, it'd take decades to make it happen, because it requires tearing down and re-building a lot of existing infrastructure. That's not to imply that it's not worthwhile, just that it's difficult.

Current efforts to do this have been horribly weak and poorly thought out. I feel that this is likely due to engineers being given requirements to make new developments "bike friendly" or "pedestrian friendly", but the engineers, not being cyclists or pedestrians, don't really know what to do when given this problem, so they fail at it.

Typical outcomes are bike lanes that get you 3/4 of the way from the suburbs to the city center and then disappear in favor of an extra car lane. Or sidewalks that "meander" back and forth through a park, being 50% longer than the road (walking paths should be as short as possible because the speed travelled is so low). Or sidewalks that go past every house in a housing development, but don't connect to restaurants r grocery stores because the commercial district is separated from the residential district by a freeway.

If the people designing these things don't use them, they wont recognize their failings, and such failings have so far prevented these sorts of things from working in many new developments.

Posted by: Tyler Karaszewski on 7 Aug 09

The problem is that not all of this is true. I live in San Francisco, one of the densest urban areas in the country. While I own a car I park on the street and I typically take public transit rather than driving.

At the same time it's very hard to get around in the city. There's very little parking and if you drive somewhere without knowing that ample parking exists you're basically asking to spend twenty minutes or more circling around futilely. Taking public transit often isn't much better despite the city supposedly having a "transit first" agenda. The problems with the transit system having little to do with cars specifically.

We have a dense area where there isn't a lot of space made for cars, but where traveling a mile away is a significant burden and usually not worth the effort. Getting across town (only seven miles) can easily take an hour even when taking the combination light rail/subway.

Cars and the need for parking don't necessarily cause all of these problems and having less parking often simply creates further ones. Better, well-implemented public transit is key to the point that I shouldn't consider a destination two miles away to be all but inaccessible or have friends consider it a tremendous burden where they must consider either waiting an hour or longer for a bus or walk for thirty minutes to get home after 2 AM because a two minute car ride is unfeasible.

Each form of transit has their own legitimate uses and designing properly means we need to include all of them and find a way for them to coexist harmoniously. Cars are no better or worse than public transit, cycling, or walking they simply each excel at different areas and we should strive to create systems that support them and their best uses as effectively as possible for the given space.

Two or three miles isn't a distance that has been artificially inflated by parking spaces, but when I choose not to shop where I'd like to (say, the co-op with good prices or the farmer's market with inexpensive local, organic food) because taking an hour and two buses to go three miles away (and lugging heavy sacks of groceries back on public transit) it also has negative effects.

Solutions are available, but completely demonizing cars and blaming them for all of our problems isn't the answer.

Posted by: Belgand on 7 Aug 09

Indeed, this is an important study as I have pondered on the question of where the increasingly large numbers of homeless are going to light with some sense of security and community.

Seeing the plethora of parking structures in downtown Phoenix, Scottsdale and surrounding communities, I have wondered if these structures and surfaces could be utilized for temporary housing for the growing numbers of familys being displaced in the current economic situation. 8'x19'is a perfect size space to contain a small family in tents, EDAR's or our concept of the Homer ILV, a pedal powered Independent Living Vehicle. A properly screened area of a WalMart parking lot with proper sanitation facilities would be a boon to these poor unfortunate folks.A four space common area could be the community center where social service agencys and volunteer's of local area residents would help the guests with finding employment or access to public services. Ideally these small communities would enjoy high turn over rates as the guests were recycled back into the mainstream of society.

Urban parking structures could house hundreds of the temporarly homeless, just one dedicated floor of these monoliths with sanitary facilities would provide safe and secure haven while the guests were transitioning from homeless to home again.

Indeed, all World Changing is local with the potential of going Global.

Robert W. Gately

Posted by: Robert Whalen Gately on 7 Aug 09

This argument is entirely fallacious because it completely ignores federated extortion of motorists. Governmental tax receipts from the use of private cars include VAT on all motoring transactions (purchase and maintenance, fuel); road tax; insurance (which is mandatory) tax plus all associated charges like road tolling and parking costs. In the UK, government levies a duty on fuel, then charges VAT on the gross, so one is taxed for the "value add" of the duty! All this is paid for by earnings net of income tax, of course.

Public mass transport which is so freely advocated by environmentalists is heavily subsidised by the public purse which is raking in cash from the private motorist. Put simply, public transportation is paid for by private motoring, not the other way around as the article implies.

Finally, if there is such a concept as "free parking" in the US you should count yourselves lucky: it's more or less extinct in Europe.

Posted by: Giles on 8 Aug 09

And while we're at it, tell me why it is that we subsidize free parking for restaurants in the form of valets that commandeer public street parking spots all evening. I'm sure lots of businesses would like to have exclusive use of public street parking spots for their own customers. I can never find an open meter in the evenings in Back Bay (Boston) because the restaurants put out there "no parking - valet only" signs. Do restaurants pay the cities for the privilege of commandeering these spots? Man, what a racket restaurants are... from creating their own minimum wage laws to their own parking laws....

Posted by: jim on 8 Aug 09

Planners should also examine the problem of on-street parking in cities. On-street parking is subsidizing people to store their vehicles in the public right of way. Last I checked, the right of way is for travel, not property storage (duh). In addition there is a significant cost posed in terms of danger to cyclists, pedestrians, and even motorists due to the distraction posed by each parked car. Pedestrians can't see on-coming cars when trying to squeeze around a parked car at a crosswalk, and cars cannot see pedestrians who are obscured by parked cars near an intersection. In addition, streets cluttered with parked cars are simply ugly. Cities need to gradually phase out long-term on-street parking. If you live in the city and own a car, then you need to pay something close to the true costs of that privilege. Here in DC residents pay $15/year to park on the street, and the result is streets that are 50% narrower and thus more treacherous to motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. What I propose is that 2-way streets allow parking only on one side at most. In addition, large no-parking buffers need to be placed near pedestrian crosswalks so that cars/pedestrians can be more aware of one another.

So long as we allow rampant parking on our city streets, we will never have a cycling friendly city like they have in Copenhagen. If you don't know what I mean, google/youtube cycling in Copenhagen to see a much better way of integrating all forms of traffic on city streets.

Posted by: trixie on 8 Aug 09

You didn't mention the problem of the creation of millions of acres of impermeable surfaces. Toxic runoff from all the asphalt is killing Puget Sound, where I live. Parking lots should be required by law to be permeable.

Posted by: Rob Lewis on 8 Aug 09

Just wanted to say Thank you! & that this article totally opened up my mind to something I had not given much thought to before. Now I'm all for a parking (i.e. no parking) revolution! Keep up the good work everyone!

Posted by: Jon Delperdang on 9 Aug 09

I live in a small city (Ada Oklahoma) where it is IMPOSSIBLE to safely walk across town... there are NO bike lanes... and little or no sidewalks... no public transportation at all...
change this way of thinking and you'll change the world... but cars are not the enemy...

Posted by: timothy... on 9 Aug 09

Worldchanging: thoughtful as always.
While one writer above correctly points out that public transport is subsidized, and cannot pay for itself, I would point out that this is true for all forms of transportation.
Motor vehicle transportation relies on publicly subsidized roads, police forces, traffic systems, emergency rescue vehicles, highway departments, etc., not all of which are funded from vehicle and fuel taxes, at least where I live.
Rail transit? The rails are government subsidized, as are the stations. Here in the US, the passenger trains themselves are subsidized as well. Air transit? The airports are subsidized, along with the air traffic control system. Boats? Governments build ports at incredible expense and subsidize patrolling of the seas.
We live in transportation world that we have built through byzantine structures of government statue, tax policy and subsidies. What we need to do is change attitudes and subsidy policies to suit newly realized environmental facts, and the built world will eventually follow suit.

Posted by: Don on 4 Sep 09

We should ask, can we afford any longer to keep the fares on public transit? They hurt our public investment and allow more auto externalities to pile up.

Posted by: fpteditors on 7 Oct 09

From my experience, driving isn't necessarily a choice. Many families or individuals from more rural or lower socioeconomic backgrounds require a car to get to work, school, etc., and they might not be able to afford or feasibly live in a higher cost city where we can all walk a few blocks to a hip coffee shop or organic grocery store -- this especially is the case for more gentrified areas. How can we hold everyone accountable to up and abandon their car and take a bus for three plus hours when they might need to drop off their kids at more than one school, if they have odd work hours, if their commute is more than ten miles, etc? I agree with many points in this article, however I think that in order to stop driving so much, our rural and suburban areas, even our cities, need better transportation alternatives.

Posted by: Rose on 17 May 10

From my experience, driving isn't necessarily a choice. Many families or individuals from more rural or lower socioeconomic backgrounds require a car to get to work, school, etc., and they might not be able to afford or feasibly live in a higher cost city where we can all walk a few blocks to a hip coffee shop or organic grocery store. Many residential locales in which it is easiest to choose not to drive a care are very gentrified or expensive. How is it feasible for everyone to up and abandon their car and take a bus for three plus hours when they might need to drop off their kids at more than one school, if they have odd work hours, if their commute is more than ten miles, etc? I agree with many points in this article, however I think that in order to stop driving so much, our rural and suburban areas, even our cities, need better transportation alternatives.

Posted by: Rose on 17 May 10

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