Free parking and/or markets.

William Brafford

William Brafford grew up in North Carolina, home of the world's best barbecue, indie rock, and regional soft drinks. He just barely sustains a personal blog and "tweets" every now and then under the name @williamrandolph.

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19 Responses

  1. doug says:

    I am currently reading the High Cost of Free Parking. The city I live in is beginning a process of reconfiguring their parking systems and I have been asked to volunteer on the committee. I am using the High Cost of Free Parking as a reference guide for looking at the problem of parking in our city. Colleagues in the sustainable transportation industry have sworn by Donald Shoup. He came to a local university for a speech, I’d be interested to hear if other readers know of better references in the field. I also purchased “Parking Management: Best Practices” because it was suggested by Amazon… but I’m at a loss for other books or journal publications looking at 21st century parking solutions. I imagine there’s a trade journal. I’ll search for that now.

  2. Tim Kowal says:

    Oddly, Cowen’s piece makes no mention whether the idea is meant to refer to dense urban centers, suburbs, exurbs, or all of the above. I can imagine the idea could have some appeal for dense cities. But in most other settings where a comprehensive transit system is infeasible, it seems unwise to discourage folks from using the only practical mode of getting oneself out to places where they might be likely to buy stuff—and thus contribute to the public fisc.Report

    • Aaron in reply to Tim Kowal says:

      @Tim Kowal, but the point is that comprehensive transit is infeasible because of the conscious choices city governments have made, e.g., to require x numbers of parking spaces for whatever given type of development.

      The fact that parking is subsidized by local governments and developers is a giveaway to car owners, not a state of nature. If that land was used more efficiently (and, I dare say, as the market dictated), there would be far more dense urban areas and far fewer sprawling, acres-of-parking lots filled exurbs.Report

      • Trumwill in reply to Aaron says:

        @Aaron, you may be right on the first part (denser urban areas), but I don’t think you are right about exurbs. The exurb and suburb models simply depend on driving. Now it’s possible that absent the subsidies people would not want that model, but I’m honestly skeptical. The things about suburbs and exurbs that people genuinely like, the large houses, residential zones with little commercial activity, and so on are inconducive to public transportation and walking. They require cars that require parking spaces.

        This isn’t to say that I oppose lifting parking space requirements. Merely that it will not have the effect that a lot of urbanites imagine outside of the city. A lot of urbanites’ perceptions of suburban/exurban living is that people don’t really want that. Sometimes it’s true, but not as often as they think.

        There may be some people that are “trapped” in the car-centric suburban lifestyle because of the policies, but there are many more in the suburbs/exurbs to support parking policies because they want to drive.Report

        • Aaron in reply to Trumwill says:

          @Trumwill, I certainly agree with everything you said — the suburbs/exurbs depend on cars in a way that’s not going to be easily corrected. That being said, I don’t think it effects my underlying point — right now, that life style is being underwritten by the rest of us at great cost. Oil isn’t getting cheaper. It’s going to be more expensive in the future to have and maintain an automobile. We need to start looking at moving away from such a car-centric culture. It’s going to cause a lot of people a lot of pain, but so did moving towards the current car-dominated equilibrium. A lot of people had a lot of sunk costs in transit before 1950. They adapted, and I feel safe in believing that people will adapt again.

          I really think that we’re looking at a lot of changes in the next twenty to thirty years that are going to make owning cars (at least cars as they are now) a lot more expensive. Sure, a lot of people have sunk costs in car culture, but a lot of people had sunk costs in leaded gasoline. Or street trolleys. People got over that. They’ll get over this.

          I also think people overstate how popular suburbs are. Sure, people like them — but it’s what they know. People like well maintained and transit-oriented cities, too. I know I do. But the fact is, real estate is more expensive in urban areas than in suburban areas. That says the market wants more urban, transit-oriented options. The current parking regime is getting in the way of giving that market what it wants. Shouldn’t we let the market sort this kind of thing out?Report

          • Trumwill in reply to Aaron says:


            But the fact is, real estate is more expensive in urban areas than in suburban areas. That says the market wants more urban, transit-oriented options.

            Real estate in urban areas is also scarce almost by definition. Each ring outside of a city encompasses significantly more area for every mile away from the city center it is. So it is pretty natural that real estate costs are going to be higher in exchange for access to the city center, regardless of what people’s preferences are.

            The question is what would happen if someone set up a dense, walkable, transit-oriented suburb 15-miles outside of downtown. How well would it compete with the next suburb over where everything depends on cars? To which suburb would businesses relocate to? Would having easy access to downtown by way of bus or rail routes sufficiently compensate for the smaller housing and yards that would be required to make it work?

            I have my suspicions, though I can’t say that I know anything for a certainty. We’re (mostly) on the same page as far as subsidizing drivers and their cars through regulations and roads, but as gasoline becomes more expensive I honestly see employment centers moving out of the city more than I see people moving into denser housing.Report

  3. Sam M says:

    My question is what happend to established neighborhoods. For instance, a few years ago when the Redskins built FedEx field, they had a huge problem when people seeking to avoid parking fees decided to park in surrounding neighborhoods. These were neighborhoods where people relied on on-street parking. Maybe the neighborhoods should not have been designed that way, but they were. And if someone had to be in charge of providing parking spots ofr Redskins fans, who should that be? The owner of the team, or the people in those neighborhoods? This happens on a smaller level every time someone opens a grocery store or a restaurant in a residential neighborhood.

    I am a free market kind of guy. And I recognize that mandating parking spots is hardly a free-market policy. At the same time, we’ve had these policies in place for decades. Has anyone come up with a response to that fact other than, “Screw you, neighorhood?” Not allowing people to keep livestock or operate really noisy concert venues in residential areas violates free-market principles, too. But I think we all recognize that simply eliminating these ordinances would impact at least some people negatively. I lean towards eliminating the parking mandates anyway. But it WILL be a huge mess, and some people really will get screwed.Report

    • William Brafford in reply to Sam M says:

      @Sam M, presumably, some move toward establishing market prices for residential on-street parking would have to happen alongside removing parking ordinances. In theory, I can imagine some combination of annual parking passes and congestion-priced meters helping neighborhoods cope with event overflow.Report

      • David Schaengold in reply to William Brafford says:

        @William Brafford, Shoup recognizes and addresses this problem at some length in the book. His proposed solution, which has already been implemented in neighborhoods of LA, is the Parking Benefit District, structured like a Business Improvement District. A council of local residents decides how many residential permits to give out, and at what cost, and also the meter rates. The money gained from the meters, after covering the cost of the program itself (meter maintenance, enforcement), is used in the community for purposes like street beautification. Overflow parking (though I don’t like calling using the term, since it implies that every use should have its own parking lot) then becomes a boon and not a curse for the neighborhood.Report

        • Sam M in reply to David Schaengold says:

          @David Schaengold,

          Whether it becomes a “boon” or not is open to interpretation. A lot of people would rather keep their parking spot and forego nice landscaping.

          But that’s neither here nor there. In terms of “free markets,” the solutions proposed above don’t seem to get us much closer. Instead of a zoning board mandating parking requirements, we have a “commission” of some sort doling out permits and setting prices.

          Again, that’s fine. But I’d like to focus on this: “Furthermore, cities often keep the cost of street parking well below what the market would bear.”

          Yes, well, cities often keep the cost of many things below what the market would bear. For instance, they offer free parks and free libraries and free street cleaning. That’s because these things are seen as public goods.

          If you live in a neighborhood where minimum parking requirements make a certain lifestyle possible–and has made it possible for generations–then yes, free street parking is seen as a public good. People will perceive that changing that is bad.

          I understand that there are some things that might ease the transition. And change is inevitable. But if the ultimate plan is to get people to stop using their cars so much, people who use their cars a lot get screwed, no matter how much beautification goes on. And one of the reasons they use their cars so much is because a generation of regulations incentivised them to do so.Report

          • Aaron in reply to Sam M says:

            @Sam M,

            Yes, well, cities often keep the cost of many things below what the market would bear. For instance, they offer free parks and free libraries and free street cleaning. That’s because these things are seen as public goods.

            Well, first off, these things aren’t free — they’re paid for by taxes. The same as parking spaces — they’re subsidized by the choices we make and what we want to prioritize. There are certainly some places that have almost no parks or libraries, because they citizens have decided that they don’t want to pay for them through increases in taxes.

            Beyond that, it’s true that the current situation is based on regulation, but it wasn’t always the situation — remember when the automobile industry bought up trolley companies for the express purpose of shutting them down so that people didn’t have any alternative to automobiles? That change required people to make changes to their lives. Making parking cost what it actually costs would make them change, too — but by and large the changes would be for the better.

            And it’s not fair to say, “Well, but people like the lifestyle that free parking entails and want to continue to live it.” No one would be stopping them from living that life style — they’d just have to pay for it. That’s the point.Report

            • Sam M in reply to Aaron says:


              No, they don’t just have to pay for “it.” They have to pay to unravel a decades long system of incentives that they invested in at the government’s prodding. This goes beyong parking, and it’s far more complex than you are letting on. When we open a military base somewhere, a whole host of support facilities spring up. Decades later, when we close that base, whole communities are devastated. I guess we could say, “Well, nobody is forcing you to live here anymore.” But of course, those people can’t sell their homes because nobody wants to live there. So generally, we end up subsidizing the transition.Report

            • Aaron in reply to Aaron says:

              @Sam M, boy, I thought you guys were all about “creative destruction!” Or is it just when other people’s ways of life are being destructed?

              I hate to break it to you, Sam M, but oil isn’t getting cheaper. The way we live now is going to change, just as it always has — the current suburb/exurb situation isn’t tenable, nor is it some sort of state-of-nature. When the street trolleys were torn up by the auto industry, it changed a lot of people’s way of life — and when they built the interstates through people’s neighborhoods, it changed a lot of people’s way of life. Of course things are going to change. Nobody is talking about herding up the suburbanites and forcing them into some sort of nightmare urban world of mixed-use neighborhoods and corner bodegas. However, we really need to look at things like the parking situation and decide if we want to subsidize a life style that doesn’t make sense. Traffic and congestion is a problem. The current planning and zoning regimes in almost all of the United States is exacerbating the problem, not alleviating it.

              I get that people like their cars and their big houses and their suburban lives. That’s fine. No one is going to make them stop. But that lifestyle is going to get more expensive as the years go on, and it’s unreasonable (and unlibertarian!) to expect people making smart choices (using less oil) to subsidize those making poor ones.Report

          • David Schaengold in reply to Sam M says:

            @Sam M, “Instead of a zoning board mandating parking requirements, we have a “commission” of some sort doling out permits and setting prices.” The proposed commission is to address the question of the price of street-side parking. Currently, parking minimums usually require actual lots or garages to be built with any new development, and it’s the abolition of those requirements that’s being proposed. I myself wouldn’t necessarily oppose the total privatization even of street-side parking, but that’s a much more radical idea, and would require among other things the sale of part of the public street to private parties.Report

  4. PD Shaw says:

    Cowen’s piece did not resonate with my experience in a city of just over 100,000 with developable land around the edges. Big retailers come in with their own studies on parking needs, and whether these are more or less than the zoning requirements is probably marginal. Do people really think Wal-Mart would have significantly smaller parking lots without government intrusion?

    In our Central Business District, I don’t believe there are any parking requirements. I think the assumption is that metered spaces, parking lots/garages, and a developed public transportation network suffice.

    The issue would appear to be in the older residential neighborhoods that are mixed-use with commercial. The government either needs to find a balance that keeps the uses compatible, or get out of the zoning business all together. I suspect the latter is the actual true libertarian position.Report

    • David Schaengold in reply to PD Shaw says:

      @PD Shaw, “In our Central Business District, I don’t believe there are any parking requirements.” Then it would be a rare exception. What’s your town, if you don’t mind my asking?Report

      • PD Shaw in reply to David Schaengold says:

        @David Schaengold,

        Springfield, Illinois. I checked the zoning ordinance on MuniCode, and I think I am correct. No new building, major modification or repair to an existing building can take place without necessary off-street parking except in the S-3 district (central shopping district).

        If this is odd, it might be because it’s a somewhat older city with buildings over a hundred years old. Those that haven’t been maintained get torn down and replaced by parking garages or lots. There is probably not a desire to make it more expensive for these older buildings to be modified from time to time to maintain their usability and appearance as historic structures.Report

    • Aaron in reply to PD Shaw says:

      @PD Shaw, I think you’re kind of missing the point. In the town I grew up in, an Ohio industrial city of about 70,000, my parents owned a deli on the town square, just across from the county courthouse. Great location — the city and county buildings were there, the courts and prosecutor’s offices, the police station, two or three major banks, all in about a three block radius. The city had made all parking free during the days to encourage people to come down and frequent the shops in the area.

      The problem was, all of the city workers and basically everyone who worked in the area parked in the metered spaces around the square. Even before the city made parking free, workers filled up all the spaces downtown — and this was in spite of the fact that there was a large, new almost empty parking garage less than two blocks away from the square. Parking in the garage was also free.

      The point being, the city workers, who didn’t frequent the businesses on the square, sucked up all the parking — because it was cheap. If parking had been more expensive than the garage, maybe people would have parked there, and left some spaces for people to come in and do some shopping. Even when the meters were charging, they charged an amount too low to encourage people to park in a garage less than two blocks from where they worked. So, you could never find a space to park.Report

  5. Ken says:

    William Brafford writes: “it’s strange to me that a libertarian would be all right with regulations that make this decision for the businessmen. Perhaps he sniffs out an urbanist agenda behind the argument…”

    Or – and this is just a theory – mandatory free parking benefits him, unlike all those illegitimate uses of government power than benefit other people.Report