There's No Such Thing as Free Parking

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Donald Shoup, a.k.a “parking rock star” and “prophet of parking” and author of “The High Cost of Free Parking”, spoke in Austin last week, in an event organized by the City of Austin Transportation Department and Austin City Council Member Chris Riley. The gist of Shoup's argument is that free parking isn't really free, in the way that free lunches aren't really free.  Someone is always paying, and in this case we are basically subsidizing congestion and pollution.

According to the paper, one of the main problems are minimum parking requirements, which require a certain number of parking spots per expected customer or tenant, even when there's enough demand for parking to charge.  According to Shoup:

“Because planners base minimum parking requirements on the peak demand  for free parking, the result is  usually a surplus of parking spaces, which explains why motorists can park free for 99 percent of all automobile trips  in the United States.

“But in many of these places, especially urban centers, maintaining this level of free parking is becoming less and less viable.  Riley's staff explains:

“As Donald Shoup discussed in his Austin visit, free parking affects our urban environment in many ways. It increases congestion, diminishes public transit options, deteriorates the pedestrian realm, and actually makes finding a parking space more difficult. Good parking policy can make parking easier and decrease these undesirable effects.”

The New York Times has a good summary of the general concepts of Shoup's paper, and the Austin Chronicle covers it too.

Don't worry – the solution is not to begin gouging for parking spaces.  Rather, Shoup's suggestion is to charge a reasonable market price – one that actually takes demand into account.  Use the revenue from the parking to make the immediate area more walkable.  And then, of course, beef up public transportation.

Things are already moving in this direction in Austin.

As you've probably noticed, there are extended hours on the meters downtown, meaning fewer hours of free parking.  Last week, the Austin Transportation Department issued a memo to the Mayor and City Council showing that by extending parking meter hours Monday through Saturday, revenue has increased by $2 million to date.

So maybe you don't get a warm, fuzzy altruistic feeling when you pay for parking. But paying a small fee for parking actually makes it easier for you to get a spot.  According to the Transportation Department's data, when meters only charged during the day, there was an average turnover of .5 turns per night in the 3,000 downtown on-street spaces.  Now with extended hours, there are an average of 3.3 turns per space per night, which means about 6,000 more cars can access on-street parking each night.

And in March, the City Council launched a pilot program that would let Royal Blue Grocery convert two adjacent public parking spaces into a patio.  It's a small space, but it's about much bigger issues, and has attracted much larger controversy among those worried about losing the parking.  If it works, the Council has allowed for a longer-term program for other businesses.  

The move away from free parking will probably be a gradual one.  But as free parking decreases, other, more sustainable, forms of transportation will naturally become more appealing.  According to Riley's staff:

“Because there is a free parking space at almost every destination in Austin, driving is the easiest choice.  But if we didn't all drive our own cars everywhere, other choices would become more of a priority, like increased bus service and bicycle lanes.  Other means of transportation will become more appealing.  We'd all like to take the bus or bike, but those options aren't as viable when we have free parking everywhere we go.”

As Austin continues to grow, it wouldn't be surprising for the amount of free parking to grow with it.  But it's an even better opportunity to be smarter about growth, and allow more sustainable types of transportation to grow – subsidized by what people are willing to pay for the type of transportation still in highest demand.  


About Author

Emily Cadik

Emily is a Texas ex-pat and proud Longhorn living in Washington, DC, where she remains connected to the Lone Star State through her work on BOR and her enthusiasm for breakfast tacos. She works on affordable housing policy, and writes about health care, poverty and other social justice issues.

1 Comment

  1. important angle
    Don't forget that core neighborhoods that insist on small businesses providing parking are making this so much worse – because a business that has to pay to build its own parking has every incentive to make sure it is full – but ONLY with its own customers – meaning you park five times to hit five stores.

    All so some rich guy doesn't have to deal with you parking in front of his house on the street we all pay to maintain.

    Even worse is the fact that the suburban zoning code we have, if neighbors rigidly force it to be adhered to, rewards car-dominated businesses like lube shops, convenience stores, and carwashes – because those require fewer spaces per square foot.

    You end up with the awful streetscape of Guadalupe near 38th – and you can thank the Austin Neighborhoods Council for it.

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