Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Curse of Free Parking

Parking spaces are expensive. They are expensive to build and to maintain. They take up valuable real estate and subsidize motorists who need places to stash their car at the expense of property developers and everyday citizens.

Municipalities that set minimum parking requirements for their developments mean well, but they're solving the wrong problem. The problem isn't that there isn't enough parking, it is that the parking isn't properly valued.

Free parking isn't free. The costs are largely hidden, but bringing the price of parking back into balance with its value will help curb urban sprawl, reduce traffic congestion, build a healthier community.

On street parking should be paid. It's a scarce common resource, and charging for it will make it available for the people who most need the parking and are most willing to pay for it. It will also keep people from abusing the common parking in the next step.

Once street parking is paid, eliminate the minimum parking requirements for new developments or changes of use. These requirements artificially inflate the parking supply, which drives down the price of parking. In most places it drives it down to free. This is out of balance, and inflates demand for parking.

Once developers can decide how many stalls to build they'll build an efficient number, rather than the inflated regulated number which leaves most of the parking stalls empty most of the time.

This lean parking strategy will reduce sprawl because the parking doesn't take up so much space. Reducing sprawl increases the urban density, which helps enable viable transit and makes it easier to walk to your destinations, setting in motion a virtuous circle which leads to reduced traffic congestion and automobile dependency.

With a suitable transit system in place, people can get around on transit and join car-sharing programs where they don't need a vehicle of their own all the time, further reducing their costs and their dependance on cars.

Alternate forms of transportation, like walking, cycling, transit and carpooling will do better in this scenario.

Market rate parking would also reduce the amount of expensive new roads required, because there would be fewer cars on the road. This would improve city budgets and therefore reduce your taxes.

It's hard to think of 'free parking' and mandated minimum parking requirements as such a curse. But if you let the market determine the price for parking people will drive less, and the city will ultimately be better for it.

For more information, check out Donald Shoup's paper about this. Lots more detail than I've included here. Hat tip to @bpincott for pointing this out to me.

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