Wheelie expensive: The high cost of 'free' parking


"Free parking." A lovely phrase, no? Since so many of the things we do are not free, it's great that at least we can stow our vehicles at no cost, right?

Well, actually, we're paying dearly for parking, according to a new book by David Shoup, a professor at UCLA. In The High Cost of Free Parking, published by the American Planning Association, Shoup says that parking policies are devastating American cities, and that we're wasting billions every year on parking subsidies that should go to parks and other human-scale activities.

Shoup points out that auto commuters enjoy a free ride, and that a lot of our excess capacity goes begging. An Urban Land Institute survey shows that at least half of all spaces are vacant more than 40 percent of the time the businesses they serve are open.

"Free curb parking may be the most costly subsidy American cities provide to their citizens," says Shoup, who points out that the average car is parked 95 percent of the time.

As everyone who's ever cruised a city street knows, it's a lot cheaper to park on the street than in a private lot. Shoup says a 2003 study found that the average price of curb parking is only 20 percent that of adjacent off-street parking, giving motorists an incentive to endlessly circle the public thoroughfares in search of an unoccupied space.

Think this is just environmentalist nitpicking? A 1984 study determined that in a single year, the cruisers in one 15-block neighborhood in Los Angeles spent 100,000 hours wasting 47,000 gallons of fuel and producing 700 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Shoup's solution follows the same logic as raising gasoline taxes (another great idea that is also political suicide). If it costs more to drive, people will be in their cars less and there will be less traffic congestion and fewer needless delays.

Similarly, if it cost more to park at the curb (if, in effect, street parking was no cheaper than parking garages) the whole circling space hunt would come to a much-deserved end. In an interview, Shoup also recommended that cities allocate their enhanced curbside parking fees to fixing up the blocks the spaces are on (through business improvement districts) rather than pouring the revenue into the cities' general funds.

I know what Shoup is talking about, because I've driven into New York City and spent hours (and wasted gallons of gas) searching for a "free" parking space.

The alternatives– taking the Metro North train or using a parking garage– are always far more expensive. Since only about a quarter of the parking spaces south of 59th Street have meters, the spots that do exist aren't cheap– they're "free."

Our indoctrination apparently starts early.

"Children first learn about free parking when they play Monopoly," says Shoup. "The chance of landing on Free Parking is low, about the same as the chance of going to jail. Monopoly misleads its players on this score, because parking is free for 99 percent of all automobile trips in the U.S."

Jim Motavalli is the editor of E/The Environmental Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Auto Section.


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