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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 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 David Steele

David Steele

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

View All Articles by David Steele
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