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Freed parking? Better add up the costs 

They say there's no such thing as a free lunch. But we can always count on a free parking space next time we go to the mall, the movies, or Wegmans, right?

            Not so fast, says Donald Shoup.

            The urban-planning professor at the University of California at Los Angeles wants to dispel the notion that any parking is truly free.

            The American Planning Association published Shoup's book The High Cost of Free Parking last month. At more than 700 pages, it's an exhaustive look at the economics, sociology, and planning of an activity most of us take for granted. Shoup mixes copious footnotes and analytical graphs and charts with pithy quotes and quirky allegories to make a single point: Free parking carries a steep price tag.

            Many of us understand that dependence on automobiles comes with negative side effects like dependence on foreign oil, air pollution, global warming, and suburban sprawl. But there's relatively little critical thought devoted to why people keep choosing to drive.

            Shoup fills this gap, pointing out that artificially free parking skews transportation choices wildly in favor of the automobile. The first of his innumerable statistics: parking for 99 percent of all vehicle trips in the nation is free.

            But it isn't cheap. By Shoup's reckoning, the hidden subsidy for free parking is on par with the federal defense budget or Medicare's price tag. And that's just counting the value of wasted land and capital going to create and maintain "free" off-street parking --- a cost we bear in higher prices for "everything from hamburgers to housing." Never mind associated costs from more congestion, air pollution, and accidents that accrue from providing an incentive to drive.

            The main villains in Shoup's plot are zoning codes that require a specific minimum number of parking places based on building use. Some examples: The City of Rochester requires every tavern, bar, or nightclub that offers entertainment to provide a parking space for every two people at maximum capacity. For a place of worship, it's one per four seats. At an elementary school, every two classrooms necessitate one parking space. There's a category for almost every use you can imagine, some pegged to employee numbers, others to sleeping units, and in one case --- tennis clubs --- the number of courts.

            "Off-street parking requirements 'externalize' the cost of parking by shifting it to everyone but the parker," Shoup writes. "Because we pay for parking indirectly, its cost does not deter us from driving." That means more trips behind the wheel and more suburban sprawl. Those requirements also limit the density and vitality of downtown areas. Shoup cites a 2003 study which found that half of downtown Buffalo was dedicated to parking. In Albuquerque, parking usurps more land than all other uses combined.

            "We'll look back on free off-street parking like we now do on urban renewal and high-rise public housing," he says.

            But metered curbside parking doesn't get a free pass either. The small change you pay to park there amounts to an artificially lowered rent on prime downtown real estate, Shoup claims. And with prices often lower than those at garages, motorists circle to find a meter, needlessly adding to traffic congestion and air pollution.

            Shoup proposes charging rates as high as the market will bear for metered parking, using the money to benefit the streets and neighborhoods where it is generated --- a mechanism called a "parking benefit district." Shoup also proposes abolishing or reducing minimum parking requirements. Both solutions rest on the principle that users --- not the rest of us --- should pay for what they use and pay at the rate the market dictates.

            The first solution has seen success in Pasadena, California, where businesses backed it after the parking benefit districts were added to the mix. As for the second solution, Rochester's already ahead of the curve.

            The need for market-driven off-street parking requirements "was understood and appreciated in the Rochester area," a few years ago, says Rochester Downtown Development Corporation President Heidi Zimmer-Meyer. That led to zoning changes in recent years exempting downtown from minimum parking-space requirements. The changes encourage new residential and mixed-use developments, and they're changing the number of parking spaces perceived as necessary.

            "Already it's recalibrating it downward," Zimmer-Meyer says.

            But market forces will still create demand for more parking in Rochester's downtown than in larger, denser cities, she acknowledges.

            That's because two factors distinguish Rochester from many cities Shoup cites. Thanks to the rare degree of home rule in New York State, the city's in stiff competition for business with its own suburbs where --- again, due in part to minimum requirements --- there's a wealth of free parking. Downtown can ill afford to erect roadblocks to potential customers from outside city limits.

            A second factor is the relative lack of transportation alternatives. Historically, neighborhood groups in areas bordering business, retail, or entertainment districts have been consistent proponents of the requirements Shoup criticizes. They don't want customers (particularly bar patrons) parking on their streets and taking their parking spaces.

            But imagine if parking rates in the East-Alexander area were raised to reflect the high demand on a Friday night. In Boston or Philadelphia, revelers might switch to the subway to keep enjoying their favorite watering holes. Can you picture droves of Rochester twenty-somethings hopping on RTS buses to head downtown?

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