“High Cost of Free Parking” Review

While writing about parking issues in the past I have quoted excerpts I found online from the book “The High Cost of Free Parking” by Donald Shoup, disagreeing with virtually everything he has to say. Shoup seems to think free parking will end civilization as we know it. I finally decided to read the book in its entirety. And I still disagree with most of Shoup’s theories.

First off, let’s see what kind of man we are dealing with. On the very first page of the preface for the paperback edition, Stroup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, writes:

When the hardback edition was published in 2005, the reviews were, with one unimportant exception, very good.

So if you don’t like his book you are “unimportant.” I also noted how many times he used the words “I’ and “me” throughout. That says a lot.

The bloated 750-page diatribe, filled with repetition in an effort to hammer his theories home, is not all bad. He writes very, very extensively on minimum parking requirements, in which cities require developers to provide a certain amount of parking spaces for their projects. Shoup argues that the requirements are too high, forcing builders to spend more money to provide parking that will remain empty most of the year. This leads to higher building costs, which are passed into the tenants, which are passed onto the public.

He has a point here, but the problem is if developers are left to their own devices, they will build the minimum amount of parking to ensure that their businesses remain profitable. It likely would not be enough to meet demand on an every day basis. Perhaps the formula for coming up with the requirement needs to be changed, but getting rid of it will not help the overall parking problem.

Shoup also argues for higher prices for curb parking. He writes that if curb parking is free or underpriced, people will leave their cars there all day long and there won’t be spaces for people to park and shop. This leads to people cruising for parking, which contributes to traffic and environmental woes.

His solution is to price curb parking at a premium, making it so expensive that people would only park for a short time, leaving more open spaces. I’m sure that would work, but it would also hurt the poor and middle class who can’t afford to spend $6 every time they park at a meter for an hour while running errands. Shoup’s plan would do nothing more than guarantee a parking spot in front of the store of choice for rich folk. Shouldn’t we be helping the less fortunate rather than the affluent?

The chapter of the book that interested me most was the one on parking restrictions in residential neighborhoods, which is the bane of my existence. I have written in the past how frustrating it is to find a legal space to park when I am passing hundreds of empty spaces reserved for residents who don’t need them.

Shoup proposes creating “Parking Benefit Districts” in which permits would be sold for non-residents to park on these streets, and the money raised would go to improving sidewalks, trees, etc. on that block. It is an interesting theory but Shoup makes it needlessly complicated. He would sell permits only to park on individual blocks, and if a block didn’t want to take part in the program, it wouldn’t have to. This would lead to different rules on different blocks, which would get confusing.

Why not just sell permits to allow people to park on any block they choose citywide? That would be much simpler and also raise money for necessary street repairs. And since not everybody would buy a permit, it would still leave plenty of parking for residents.

Or better yet, I think people should be able to park wherever they want to for free without restrictions. I believe people avoid certain areas which are either difficult or expensive in which to park (I know I do), which hurts local businesses. Shoup obviously thinks otherwise, which is his right.

The bottom line is that Shoup is one of these people who hates cars and thinks they are responsible for all of the ills of society. His overall plan is to make it so expensive to park that people will abandon their cars and take public transportation. He all but says that in his book. The only problem is that in Los Angeles public transportation is not an option for most people.

What bothers me the most is that people like Shoup want to change the rules in the middle of the game. Decades ago L.A. officials decided to build the city around cars. We all went along and bought cars. But now Shoup is saying, “No, cars are bad. I’m going to force you out of them.” If the city had a viable public transportation system, then fine. But it doesn’t.

I’m not saying we have to continue with poor policies. Sure, we can make changes. But we have to be fair to people who have simply been playing by the rules and do nothing wrong by trying to park the cars that the city fathers decided was necessary for survival in our town. Shoup’s theories don’t take people in mind, especially the “unimportant” people who would be hurt the most by expensive parking.

2 comments for ““High Cost of Free Parking” Review

  1. Alai
    June 26, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    “Why not just sell permits to allow people to park on any block they choose citywide?”

    I’m can’t speak for Shoup, but my guess is this: it wouldn’t fly, politically. After all, the whole point of the permits is precisely to reserve the parking for the locals. Selling citywide permits would clearly nullify their effectiveness. Doing it on a block-by-block basis would allow the residents of each block to weigh the costs/benefits for their particular situation.

    “they will build the minimum amount of parking to ensure that their businesses remain profitable.”

    Of course! But it’s only profitable if people are willing to buy it. If people actually demand parking, developers aren’t going to be profitable without building parking, because no one would buy what they’re selling. The point is that if someone wants to buy a cheaper apartment without parking, they should be allowed to. If a shop thinks it can get by without offering parking, perhaps by focusing on a pedestrian clientele, more power to them.

    “Decades ago L.A. officials decided to build the city around cars.” Ok, and that’s going swimmingly, is it? Take the Disney Concert Hall: in order to get it built ($130 million) the city had to contribute $110 million to build a parking garage. Is it not possible that maybe, just maybe, the city could have found a better use for that money?

  2. Richard
    July 21, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    “Decades ago L.A. officials decided to build the city around cars.”

    I beg to differ. Los Angeles was originally built around the Los Angeles Railway Company Streetcar system (and its predecessor companies) and the Pacific Electric Interurban Railway from about 1900 to 1920. It was not until the 1920’s that automobile owners and automobile interests began imposing themselves on the urban development of the City of Los Angeles. One key factor that is either forgotten or ignored is that California at one time was the equivalent of what Saudi Arabia is today for crude oil production, not in terms of volume but in terms of percentage of world crude production. All that changed with the discovery of the East Texas oil field in 1931 as well other greater oil discoveries since as well as the depletion of California oil fields over the last hundred years. It is no accident that in 1920, not too far from the Wilshire Oil Field, Beverly Hills was the site of an auto speedway. (remember those old photos of the Fairfax District from the 1920’s?)

    The land use zoning laws for the City of Los Angeles that were enacted in the late 1920’s gave clear preference to automobile owners and interests. The absence of any public transit requirement in urban development plans (other than a token bus line at most) from that time on when Los Angeles spawled out is clear evidence that automobile ownership was an essential requirement for living in Los Angeles or anywhere in the rest of Southern California outside of the old LARY and PE lines that would soon be abandoned.

    On the subject of Saudi Arabia, if you are curious, check out the U-tube videos of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Looks like Southern California urban sprawl with Islamic architectural motifs. No public transit to speak of in a huge metropolitan area of 5 to 7 million people. Don’t forget that women are not allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia.

    As far as parking goes, all that would happen with tough parking restrictions or high parking fees is that people will take their business elsewhere or move to where they have free parking. It would accelerate urban sprawl, not stop it. The price of gasoline is a far more critical factor than the price of parking in getting people out of their cars.

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