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The High Cost of Free Parking

America’s favorite giveaway may be free parking. Free parking made its debut big time at mid-century as America began its big push away from the old, dense, central cities into the vast open suburbs. But is it really free? Is anything really free? That is the question asked by planner and college professor Donald Shoup in his 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking.
To many, free parking is perfectly logical. They see free parking as central to our way of life and perhaps a human right. Contemporary urban planning assures that ample free parking is provided not only in the suburbs but also increasingly within central cities. Ample parking assures ease of movement and convenience thereby promoting growth, so the story goes. We are told Americans love their cars and that this love must be provided for.
Now, anyone reading my writing over the last few years on BRO knows that I am all about NO parking, paid or free (that is a bit of an exaggeration, I do understand that some parking will always be needed). So you might understand my horror as I read through the comments in this recent Speak Up Western New York thread http://www.speakupwny.com/forums/showthread.php?t=17682. The thread was about bringing back retail to downtown Buffalo. Here are A few excepts:

Buffalo needs to do something about the parkiing.. That is so backwards paying to park…….. Employees of business should not have to pay at all. They should get an excemption card. Show proof of employement get the card. Park free.


Employees paying to park is a disgrace

PAYING FOR PARKING!!!!!! I HATE PAYING FOR THE PRIVILEGE TO PARK IN OPEN LOTS JUST TO GO TO THE LIBRARY OR TO DO WHATEVER for none business related things….. Could you imagine if all the local suburb retailers started charging for parking??? Oh crap better not give them ideas… Or the politicians ideas about imposing a parking tax………

Professor Shoup, in his book, exposes the fallacy of free parking. As with anything “free” the real costs are hidden within the costs of other things. Shoup points out that as a nation we spend between 1% and 4% or our economic output on “free” parking (based on an extensive study conducted by UC Davis researcher Mark Delucchi). That cost is somewhere between the amount we spend on Medicare and Defense. You pay for this free parking whether you drive or not. Retailers build cost of providing parking into the goods they sell. Providing free parking requires large amounts of land. Paved-over land sends polluted runoff into streams and contributes flooding and other undesirable environmental effects.
Ample free parking means buildings are more spread out so that we not only WANT to use our cars, we now NEED to use our cars. Because we now have to drive as a part of our lives, American cars burn a massively disproportional 1/8 of the world’s gasoline. This adds huge amounts of pollution to the air, contributing to illness and perhaps global warming and the costs associated with that. As more people are driving longer distances congestion has become more frequent, increasing travel times. To handle increased traffic and new sprawl, municipalities need to widen and extend roads to get people to continuously more spread out destinations and accommodate more cars. To move our cars over greater distances we buy more gas, thus sending more of our economic output to foreign countries–many of which are not quite friendly to us. All of these costs are sold to us on a shinny platter as free.
The book also proposes alternatives to free parking which would encourage smart land use and reduce the amount of parking built into planning guidelines. He suggests that we should not plan parking facilities for peak demand but should instead plan for typical demand and use better management techniques to accommodate for peaks and valleys. One such idea is to have variable rates for metered, curbside parking. Charge more at peak times and less or nothing at slow times. He suggests that municipalities can get local merchants on board with such plans by reinvesting parking fees into neighborhood improvements to enhance attractiveness. With gasoline prices skyrocketing, people are now being exposed to the true cost of free parking. Will it be enough to change the way we have built our country over that last 60 years?


Thanks to BJFan (that is for Blue Jays Fan by the way) and AllThingsBuffalo for their help and inspiration in putting this story together.

Written by STEEL

STEEL

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of “Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land” ( www.blurb.com ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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  • There’s no question that we pay a high price for parking, especially the acres of paved over space in our cities. In My Fair City, much of the entire west side of our central business district has been leveled for surface parking – resulting in about half of our downtown having a blighted feel. This has drastically held down interest in revitalization projects in that area (whether rehab or new build), and the owners of the increasingly few, isolated buildings left found that what they owned was more valuable for demolition for more parking – keeping it spreading like a cancer.
    The other big cost we paid here was in dealing with the associated runoff (as Steel mentions). In the 20th century, as surface parking spread, we found that our sewage system was overflowing more and more often during storms due to runoff. Over decades, we invested over a $Billion in constructing a system of massive tunnels to divert stormwater from the sanitary sewer system. That Pure Waters system is something of a marvel that we rightly take pride in making happen, but all that money literally went into a hole in the ground. When I hear the price tag I think of what that represents in terms of all the other foregone opportunities to revitalize buildings and above-ground infrastructure to maintain and create vital neighborhoods, business districts, and economic activity. Sobering.
    Nice article – right on, Steel and your muses.

  • So, last night, in the same 10-minute news segment on WBFO, I first heard the dire news of rising unemployment and businesses tightening their belts then, 3 or so stories later, of Exxon recording the highest-ever — for them or ANY company, EVER — profits last quarter. Hardly ironic in these troubled times.

  • I think this is telling:
    When you type “Buffalo, NY” in to Google Maps, the red place marker takes you to City Hall/Niagara Square.
    When you type in “Rochester, NY,” the red place marker takes you to an intersection downtown that has surface parking on all 4 corner lots. And immediately south of that is another intersection composed of nothing but parking lots. In fact, the entire western side of Plymouth Ave in downtown Rochester is nothing but surface parking. To top it all off, it’s sandwiched in between two walled-off expressways to the north and south.
    Yikes…

  • Well Buffalo’s problem is easier to solve than Rochesters. None of the streets connect in Rochester. There are no streets that have the same name running from the eastside to the westside of Rochester. There are no streets that have the same name and run un-interrupted from the northside to the southside either. The entire inner loop of Rochester is little more than a noose choking any urban feeling at all. Rochester in most aspects is not a metropolitan city but a metropolitan area composed of suburbs and rural town centers.
    Buffalo conversely has the light rail and a radial street grid. Main Street, Linwood, Delaware, Elmwood, Richmond, Niagara, Michigan, Genesee, Broadway, Seneca, South Park may be down on their luck but they still succeed in reaching out seemlessly to the northern, eastern and southern suburbs to integrate them.
    The only real solution for Buffalo’s long term is rather common sense but I will offer it anyway: EXTEND THE LIGHT RAIL AND PLACE THE PARKING GARAGES NO CLOSER THAN 3 BLOCKS FROM A LIGHT RAIL ACCESS (UNLESS ITS UNDERGROUND AND INTEGRATED TO A BUILDING AS DULSKI AND MAIN PLACE MALL HAVE UNDERGROUND PARKING).
    Then relocate the expressway acccess ramps further away from the downtown core such as moving the Erie Street access ramp to the Niagara Expressway and replace it with the Niagara@Virginia, replace the church street access ramp with say the one at Hamburg, replace the Oak/Goodell access ramp with Jefferson/Best.
    There needs to be multiple ParknRide options downtown and surrounding downtown. Parking garages should not be the bain of urban development. There should be parking garages at Buffalo State, UB, Canisius, D’Youville, Medaille, etc. Parking Garages should complement the urban character and livability of a city.
    THE PROBLEM WITH BUFFALO IS THAT PEOPLE HAVE GOTTEN RICH OFF DEMOLITION AND PARKING RATHER THAN DEVELOPMENT AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP.
    AS SUCH, PARKING DOMINATES AND SUFFOCATES DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT INSTEAD OF COMPLIMENTING IT.
    If the light rail were extended and there were multiple peripheral low fee or free parking outside the city for citizens to choose Do I pay $4 for a light rail ticket and use a parknride then walk 2-3 blocks or do I pay $5-10 to park in a garge and walk 2-3 blocks.
    The developers have prevented a complementary transportation system from developing downtown….and as citizens….thats what we should be demanding.

  • 346

    Well this story is not specifically about Buffalo or Rochester but about America and our planning policies

  • 346

    Well this story is not specifically about Buffalo or Rochester but about America and our planning policies

  • Reflip, thanks for noticing, and welcome to my world. I’ve been involved in planning of that area for a few years now – it was part of my focus area in our “Reshaping Rochester” downtown charrette last year, and – since the old subway tunnel runs right through it (underneath Broad Street) – we’ve been looking at potential reuses of the subway tunnel/Broad Street/old Erie Canal corridor that will hopefully spur redevelopment of that area. And what to do with the displaced parking is infused in almost every discussion.
    From the top of Kodak Office (a few blocks away), that part of downtown looks like a section of Berlin in 1945 (is it because we got so good at leveling city blocks overseas during WWII, that we had to carry on here at home afterward?)
    Also, your observation about the sandwiching expressways is spot on. That area of downtown began going downhill after subway service ceased (50 years ago), and the highways were built. Prior to that, the superb historic neighborhoods to the west and south directly abutted that section of downtown, and there was a high value to living there as one could easily hop on a rail transit system connected all over inside and outside of the city.
    Back to the topic at hand, one of the biggest blows suffered by that section of our downtown was when R.I.T. – formerly located there – took a page from the UB playbook and, in the middle of former cornfields and wetlands, built a new suburban campus surrounded by – you guessed it – acres and acres of surface parking. It has to have that parking, by the way, because they also took up the rail line that could have provided a quick and convenient light rail connection between the new campus and downtown (and the U of R) – and because bus service there is so spotty and convoluted that it may as well not exist. In this regard, like Buffalo, My Fair City has paid a considerable cost for our post-war auto-centric and parking-centric decision making.

  • Reflip, thanks for noticing, and welcome to my world. I’ve been involved in planning of that area for a few years now – it was part of my focus area in our “Reshaping Rochester” downtown charrette last year, and – since the old subway tunnel runs right through it (underneath Broad Street) – we’ve been looking at potential reuses of the subway tunnel/Broad Street/old Erie Canal corridor that will hopefully spur redevelopment of that area. And what to do with the displaced parking is infused in almost every discussion.
    From the top of Kodak Office (a few blocks away), that part of downtown looks like a section of Berlin in 1945 (is it because we got so good at leveling city blocks overseas during WWII, that we had to carry on here at home afterward?)
    Also, your observation about the sandwiching expressways is spot on. That area of downtown began going downhill after subway service ceased (50 years ago), and the highways were built. Prior to that, the superb historic neighborhoods to the west and south directly abutted that section of downtown, and there was a high value to living there as one could easily hop on a rail transit system connected all over inside and outside of the city.
    Back to the topic at hand, one of the biggest blows suffered by that section of our downtown was when R.I.T. – formerly located there – took a page from the UB playbook and, in the middle of former cornfields and wetlands, built a new suburban campus surrounded by – you guessed it – acres and acres of surface parking. It has to have that parking, by the way, because they also took up the rail line that could have provided a quick and convenient light rail connection between the new campus and downtown (and the U of R) – and because bus service there is so spotty and convoluted that it may as well not exist. In this regard, like Buffalo, My Fair City has paid a considerable cost for our post-war auto-centric and parking-centric decision making.

  • We can blame 50+ years of cheap land, energy, and rising incomes for the current suburban malaise that’s infected our once-great nation.
    Though its not as simple as looking back and blaming historical attitudes. The suburban grand experiment was slowly built up in increments. When the first wave of mass-produced suburban housing tracts were being populated, US cities still had thriving downtowns and robust local economies. At the time each subdivison and strip mall built seemed just fine to the developers, residents, and businesses involved. Highways were seen as progress by policymakers. There was simply no negative historical precedent to force us to collective plan the inevitable suburban expansion in a more orderly and sustainable fashion. Individuals (especially when they’re making so much money in the process) don’t have the ability to gauge the collective good or bad of their own little actions.
    Today, the aforementioned negative precedent is loud and clear right in our faces. Instead of griping about the past we can work together for formulate the best solutions for the future. Those who still see car-dependent sprawl as a swell idea can either adapt now or become a part of tomorrow’s impoverished class.

  • We can blame 50+ years of cheap land, energy, and rising incomes for the current suburban malaise that’s infected our once-great nation.
    Though its not as simple as looking back and blaming historical attitudes. The suburban grand experiment was slowly built up in increments. When the first wave of mass-produced suburban housing tracts were being populated, US cities still had thriving downtowns and robust local economies. At the time each subdivison and strip mall built seemed just fine to the developers, residents, and businesses involved. Highways were seen as progress by policymakers. There was simply no negative historical precedent to force us to collective plan the inevitable suburban expansion in a more orderly and sustainable fashion. Individuals (especially when they’re making so much money in the process) don’t have the ability to gauge the collective good or bad of their own little actions.
    Today, the aforementioned negative precedent is loud and clear right in our faces. Instead of griping about the past we can work together for formulate the best solutions for the future. Those who still see car-dependent sprawl as a swell idea can either adapt now or become a part of tomorrow’s impoverished class.

  • 934

    Parking lot owners are leeches in American society.Especially in Buffalo !They thrive off the necessity of people needing to park their vehicles while going on with their busy lives with exhorbitant prices. America loves it cars..and all the light rail talks in the world will not cure that.Deal in reality. Ask anyone what their #1 problem or complaint of coming downtown, they will tell you ..PARKING. Politicians talk !! about trying to encourage folks to come downtown, but do LITTLE to accomodate the convenience of parking! Keeping many from doing so.
    DUH..ever wonder why suburban stores/malls do immense business..it also happens to be the ease/convenience of parking their vehicles.AND FOR FREE!
    You will still be talking / debating parking downtown 3 generations from now! I dread going downtown because of the parking hassle and ridiculous costs..and I’ sure there are many others who feel the same way.

  • 934

    Parking lot owners are leeches in American society.Especially in Buffalo !They thrive off the necessity of people needing to park their vehicles while going on with their busy lives with exhorbitant prices. America loves it cars..and all the light rail talks in the world will not cure that.Deal in reality. Ask anyone what their #1 problem or complaint of coming downtown, they will tell you ..PARKING. Politicians talk !! about trying to encourage folks to come downtown, but do LITTLE to accomodate the convenience of parking! Keeping many from doing so.
    DUH..ever wonder why suburban stores/malls do immense business..it also happens to be the ease/convenience of parking their vehicles.AND FOR FREE!
    You will still be talking / debating parking downtown 3 generations from now! I dread going downtown because of the parking hassle and ridiculous costs..and I’ sure there are many others who feel the same way.

  • alot of the problems of parking could be solved with some law….you build a new high rise building the builder ‘s responibility is to provide enough parking for the projected amount of traffic (government included), and while on the subject of transportation….alleviate traffic….synchronize the red lights…nevermind the big brother cameras sending out automated tickets to traffic violators….with the problems of rising energy costs it would be the right thing to do….eliminate busing…a ginormous amount of lost time and money here….and write something into law to hold the people who cut open the streets to make an effort into returning the surface back to its original state…despite the appearance of a rising Buffalo….there sure is alot of decay…you would think that with the amount of revenue collected from the gasoline tax that the streets would be paved in gold

  • alot of the problems of parking could be solved with some law….you build a new high rise building the builder ‘s responibility is to provide enough parking for the projected amount of traffic (government included), and while on the subject of transportation….alleviate traffic….synchronize the red lights…nevermind the big brother cameras sending out automated tickets to traffic violators….with the problems of rising energy costs it would be the right thing to do….eliminate busing…a ginormous amount of lost time and money here….and write something into law to hold the people who cut open the streets to make an effort into returning the surface back to its original state…despite the appearance of a rising Buffalo….there sure is alot of decay…you would think that with the amount of revenue collected from the gasoline tax that the streets would be paved in gold

  • 757

    It is an excellent book – thank you for reviewing it here.
    Some of the readers here unfortunately don’t get it or choose not to. We have had 50 years of experimenting with abundant parking lots and proved that they don’t work. The so called “free parking” in the burbs doesn’t nearly pay for itself or the roads that connect the free parking lots to each other. The gasoline tax is way too low to pay for the roads. Bruce Fisher detailed this in a recent Artvoice article.
    The solution is not passing laws that force developers to provide more parking. The solution is to plan so that fewer people drive cars. All we need to know is already in many books.
    We only need for elected officials to stop listening to the powerful pro sprawl/auto/highway/oil lobbies and for them to read a few books instead.

  • 346

    Joey,
    You did not read the story did you.

  • 346

    Joey,
    You did not read the story did you.

  • 757

    Steel – Joey probably did not read you story and will never read the book. Joey “knows” that his parking in the sub-urbs is free because he doesn’t directly pay for a space at the mall. Of course he pays indirectly through his taxes.
    But Joey has a good deal. He subsidizes his “free parking” with his tax dollars but he uses that parking. People who don’t own cars also subsidize Joey’s “free parking” through their taxes but don’t use the parking.
    Joey gladly takes advantage of the welfare for “free parking” and probably figures that anyone without a car is too poor to pay taxes and is on food stamps – so Joey feels perfectly justified getting a little welfare money too.
    Of course minimum wage earners and even people on welfare pay taxes! Everyone who shops pays sales tax and that money goes to the same funds that subsidize “free parking”. Some people think that only the gasoline taxes pay for highway maintenance and construction when in fact they only pay for part of it.

  • 757

    Steel – Joey probably did not read you story and will never read the book. Joey “knows” that his parking in the sub-urbs is free because he doesn’t directly pay for a space at the mall. Of course he pays indirectly through his taxes.
    But Joey has a good deal. He subsidizes his “free parking” with his tax dollars but he uses that parking. People who don’t own cars also subsidize Joey’s “free parking” through their taxes but don’t use the parking.
    Joey gladly takes advantage of the welfare for “free parking” and probably figures that anyone without a car is too poor to pay taxes and is on food stamps – so Joey feels perfectly justified getting a little welfare money too.
    Of course minimum wage earners and even people on welfare pay taxes! Everyone who shops pays sales tax and that money goes to the same funds that subsidize “free parking”. Some people think that only the gasoline taxes pay for highway maintenance and construction when in fact they only pay for part of it.

  • “Free parking” is a convenience that gives businesses an advantage over their competitors. It’s a game. The way to end this nonsense is by draining the swamp: abolish codes that require parking for anything other than public and institutional buildings and handicapped drivers; levy impact fees on businesses that insist on lots of parking (to cover the cost of street and traffic improvements); require new commercial construction to occupy more than 50% of a site; and ban all drive-thru windows which only increases congestion. And to those developers that demo structures and replace them with parking lots, require a new building on that lot within two years or seize the lot and sell it to someone who will build. But, I hear people say, isn’t that kind of draconian crackdown going to make cities non-competitive with their suburbs? Yes, which is why we need an enabling act in every legislature to create a statewide zoning code to assure universal compliance.

  • “Free parking” is a convenience that gives businesses an advantage over their competitors. It’s a game. The way to end this nonsense is by draining the swamp: abolish codes that require parking for anything other than public and institutional buildings and handicapped drivers; levy impact fees on businesses that insist on lots of parking (to cover the cost of street and traffic improvements); require new commercial construction to occupy more than 50% of a site; and ban all drive-thru windows which only increases congestion. And to those developers that demo structures and replace them with parking lots, require a new building on that lot within two years or seize the lot and sell it to someone who will build. But, I hear people say, isn’t that kind of draconian crackdown going to make cities non-competitive with their suburbs? Yes, which is why we need an enabling act in every legislature to create a statewide zoning code to assure universal compliance.