There’s No Such Thing as Free Parking

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

Last week, Seattle took another small step in the right direction with regard to addressing the traffic glut and housing shortage we are experiencing across the region. On Monday, April 3, the Seattle City Council voted to change parking development regulations in the city.

The new regulations will allow, “more housing to be built without off-street parking and [permit] landlords to rent their parking spaces to people who don’t live in the building,” according to an article in the Seattle Times.

Furthermore, the new rules will “require landlords to ‘unbundle’ the costs of parking from the costs of housing,” reported the Times. In theory, at least, this portion of the new law would lower rents for tenants who do not require parking spaces. They could bargain with landlords to exclude the costs for parking they do not use.

Finally, the revamped regulations “will expand the areas of the city where developers do not have to build off-street parking to go along with housing,” according to the Times. Previously, developers were allowed to build without including off-street parking in areas near “frequent transit service.” Now, the city will relax the rules and designate those sites based on scheduled bus service, rather than actual bus times.

Let us return to that final point in a moment.

It has been some time since I last read Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking, which he wrote in the 1990s and revised in the 2000s. But, after hearing about the City Council’s decision, I get a sense that someone in Seattle government has been flipping through the book, at least. (It is over 800 pages long, so I doubt many folks have ever read the tome from cover to cover, despite the fact that it is quite accessible and compelling reading.)

Shoup is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA. His work focuses on parking—the environmental, economic, and social impact of parking policies, especially in urban areas. And, his argument is a straightforward—if controversial—one.

Parking—especially free parking—conceals hidden costs in so many aspects of our urban lives that there is no such thing as free parking, argues Shoup. Even those of us who do not drive, or hardly ever drive, still pay for parking through taxes, rent, the costs of goods, the time we are stuck in traffic (in cars or buses), and the dirty air we breathe. In response, he recommends the creation of “Parking Benefit Districts,” through a three-point plan, which begins with the elimination of all compulsory free parking.

Cities should charge fair market prices for on-street parking, return collected parking revenue to the appropriate neighborhoods to pay for public improvements, and remove off-street parking requirements, recommends Shoup, whose previous recommendations have had a significant impact on California’s parking policies and federal tax policies regarding parking cost deductions.

Some or all of these recommendations may seem counterintuitive or counterproductive. They may also sound quite annoying and potentially expensive. However, in page after page of The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup shows how much our current parking (and attendant traffic planning) policies are costing us.

Shoup estimates we designate three parking spaces for every car in the United States, drive almost 1,000,000 miles per year cruising for open spots, and make 87% of our personal trips by automobile—in part, because we drive from one free parking space to another.

Most often, we build (and require developers to build) parking to accommodate the expected peak demand for parking, which means parking lots are empty, wasted space a good deal of the time. And, we strip money, time, and space from other modes of transportation (buses, trains, bicycles, sidewalks, and walking or mixed-use paths) to satisfy these requirements for ever-expanding parking.

On March 29, Crosscut ran an article, “As Puget Sound Region Grows, Park and Rides Fill Up,” documenting other local debates regarding parking, pricing, and transit options. This article also exposes some of the hidden effects and high costs of free parking.

Research shows we not only encourage everyone to drive, but we subsidize our driving habits (and the automobile industry, of course) by requiring and supporting parking. “In 2002, the total subsidy for off-street parking was somewhere between $127 billion and $374 billion a year. If we also count the subsidy for free and underpriced curb parking, the total subsidy for parking would be far higher,” writes Shoup. Whether we use the parking or not, we pay for every parking spot in the city.

If we include numbers from the Times article, the Crosscut piece, and Shoup’s research, we can estimate each new parking space we create locally costs from $30,000 to $100,000. (It is unclear whether these prices include costs for upkeep.)

Parking affects both transportation and land use, but its effects are often ignored or misunderstood. While most of us can see the cars and the problems they cause—urban deserts and decay, traffic jams, suburban sprawl, environmental degradation, and an environment built less and less to a human scale—we miss the connection between these effects and parking policies.

Parking policies and parking costs are not only burdensome; they are also some of the least transparent areas of public policies. Because drivers do not pay for free parking, for example, they do not see the connection between the spot, the amount of time they spend looking for it, the amount of time they spend in it, and the costs associated with guaranteeing its existence.

The Seattle City Council’s decision to change parking requirements pushes us a little further in the right direction on all these matters. However, we could go significantly further. We could eliminate all requirements for parking throughout the city. We could eliminate all free parking throughout the city. We could reinvest every penny dropped into a parking meter into public transit and local development.

The first outcome under such a policy might be to address the transportation deserts around the city and region. Since market-based parking fees would be pegged to locales, communities where folks are most forced to rely on cars would see parking fee surpluses. The city could immediately apply this income to improving transit in these areas.

In its current form, the Seattle City Council’s decision shifts the pressure from off-street parking onto free on-street parking. The next step is to change the way we understand that on-street parking as well. We are all already paying people to park in and around the city. Now, it is time to make those payments transparent, make them work for us, and make them part of our local reinvestment strategy.

This reinvestment strategy could include transit and curbside infrastructure at all levels: sidewalk completion and repair, mobility and access improvements, transit route and time extensions, road share developments—more ways to walk, roll, and zip along. Last year, Curbed published a list of “101 Ways to Improve Transportation in Your City.” The article cites some important moves from the state of Washington. Maybe now is the time to imagine many more. Since the 1930s, we have been paying a fortune to develop a transportation monoculture. Now is the time to change that approach.

And, then, we can address the question of “frequent transit service” because, if you are like me, you actually ride the bus when it actually arrives and departs, not when the schedule says.

5 thoughts on “There’s No Such Thing as Free Parking”

  1. Thank you Brian and the Emerald for this piece. It is about time we had this discussion, rather than look at the addition of pay parking in Columbia City as a manifestation of gentrification. It might be that, but that argument ignores the bigger issue, which Brian Bergen-Aurand capably relates here. A thousand thanks for this.

  2. Next up: Let’s charge for all on-street parking, throughout the city, not just metered parking and residential parking zones. Start with a very modest charge where parking is the least now, and return most of proceeds to the neighborhood, to make this more politically palatable. This way residents will include a cost for parking in their car calculations, not just driving, maintenance, insurance, etc.

    Over time this will have a big effect: more people will sell off their excess cars and find more economical alternatives, gradually freeing up street space for better uses and reducing oppostion to increased housing density (competition for parking is a big reason for this opposition). The homeless living in their cars, vans, etc., could be given a free pass if they abide by certain common sense rules, especially neighborhood cleanup.

  3. I would prefer the ‘main streets’ not be used for parking at all, so sometimes I cringe when I see meters for that reason. There is so much needed for those particular ROWs, buses, bikes and cars. People have to get across them. Widening the sidewalks could really make a huge difference in some areas, too.