The High Cost of Free Parking

January 31, 2008

Been reading and thinking a great deal about what’s wrong with the way we build our cities, spurred by Kunstler‘s great books. Reminded me of an article I read a few years back about The High Cost of Free Parking. The article I remember was an op-ed piece from the SF Chronicle, written by the UCLA Professor Donald Shoup. Upon further research I found that he had written a book, which unfortunately is not at my library, and seems a bit too expensive for my blood. But he also wrote a NY Times op-ed piece, as well as a very good article in Salon.

Here’s the argument against free parking. There is obviously no such thing. Someone pays for it everywhere. Your employer does at work, leading to a lower salary for you. Your merchants do when you’re shopping, leading to higher costs. You do at home, leading to higher housing costs. But beyond the immediate costs (lower salary, higher shopping and housing costs) there are subtler costs as well. I happen to live in a community that, despite being fairly affluent, has commercial spaces populated solely by stunningly ugly strip malls. For miles and miles. Until you just want to move away and go somewhere else.

Moreover, we pay the cost of free parking whether we use it or not, leading to essentially an increased cost for public transportation, pedestrians, and cyclists. Why should I ride the bus if I’m already paying for a parking space at the mall? Back in my conservative Republican days I used to criticize public transportation, because these systems never broke even and were always subsidized by local governments. What I’ve come to realize since then is that driving itself is subsidized by governments on the local and federal level. We pay a great deal for highway interchanges. We pay a great deal for free parking. And we pay a great deal for what the automobile culture does to our cities and towns.

I moved from a place, Pasadena, California, that is a case study, literally, of how to handle downtown parking. When I moved to Pasadena in 1988, the Old Town area was nearly deserted. It had recently been designated a historical district, but its commercial spaces were empty. They had a law that required the facades of the building to be preserved during renovation, which meant that it was much more expensive to revamp the old buildings than tearing them down and starting afresh. Thank God. In any case, Old Town was filled with nothing but a movie theater and a great bagel store, and I looked enviously at Westwood and Burbank citizens for living in a hipper area. But slowly it came back, ultimately becoming the coolest Southern California shopping district. They have very limited parking spaces, regulated by parking meters, which encourages people to walk, ride, or take the bus to get there, rather than drive. As a consequence, it is a walkable downtown, and has a higher density of cool shops and restaurants, since each one doesn’t have to be surrounded by a sea of parking spaces.

Part of the problem, I have since learned, is that local zoning regulations require a certain number of parking spaces per commercial enterprise. Both Kunstler and Shoup agree that it is these zoning regulations that doom us to a suburban wasteland, and that they should be uniformly dumped in favor of a more intelligent consensus of what makes a livable, workable downtown area.

People pretty much agree on what constitute cool places to live. Very few people prefer West Covina to Pasadena or Pleasanton for any reason other than real estate prices. We need to start understanding the factors that make Pasadena and Pleasanton charming places to live, and rewrite our community laws to encourage these type of growth.

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