There Is No Free Parking
Bloomberg Businessweek|September 06, 2021
The pandemic has reshaped cities’ ideas about the best uses for public space. A longtime parking-reform advocate and a growing number of city halls say it’s about time
Dayna Evans

Over a Zoom call from sunny Los Angeles, Donald Shoup— sporting a big white beard, a brown cardigan sweater, and a marketer’s telephone headset—was yelling at me. “Oh, how terrible, you have to move your car, so they can sweep the road. I think that’s just awful,” he said, with audible italics. “To overcome the base desires of people like you”—people like me?— “you have to give the money back to the neighborhood.”

I’d made the mistake of griping to the bona fide king of parking reform that owning a car in New York City was annoying. Twice-weekly street sweeping forces a large group of people to fight for a small number of free curbside spots that they must then vacate frequently. It’s the rare game of musical chairs that requires insurance. And for most people, exorbitantly priced garages aren’t really an option. The free spaces are the only way to make owning a car in New York feel sustainable.

Shoup wasn’t having it. “People have to ask—do they want free Wi-Fi, or do they want free curb parking for her?”

He didn’t say as much, but by his definition, I was a person suffering from paid parking derangement syndrome. In his writing, he describes this condition as “the acute onset of extreme paranoia in reaction to the prospect of paying for parking, leading the afflicted to speak in the hyperbolic language and to lose touch with reality.” Guilty as charged.

This wry octogenarian is a distinguished research professor in the department of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles. He wrote a 765-page book on this subject, The High Cost of Free Parking, which came out in 2005 and outlines his case against America’s decision to hand over an astonishing amount of free land to cars. Among urban planners, academics, economists, civil servants, and even some regular old city dwellers, the book stands as the most salient argument for renegotiating our toxic relationships with our vehicles. Shoup pitches parking as the most obvious, least-discussed way to make progress on a host of issues too often dismissed as intractable, including affordable housing, global warming, gender equity, and systemic racism. “All parking is political,” he writes in the book, especially because we refuse to pay for it. He says he debated calling the treatise Aparkalypse Now.

America’s 250 million cars have an estimated 2 billion parking spots and spend 95% of their time parked. To make cities more equitable, affordable, and environmentally conscious, Shoup makes the case for three simple reforms:

1. Stop requiring off-street parking for new developments.

2. Price street parking according to market value, based on the desirability of the space, the time of day, and the number of open spots.

3. Spend that revenue on initiatives to better the surrounding neighborhoods.

If people had to pay for street parking, he argues, it would bring in money to pay for local repairs, infrastructure (like that free Wi-Fi he was talking about), and beautification. It would also make public transit more attractive and force many curbside cruisers to head straight for parking garages and other paid spots—a win for neighborhood air quality, global greenhouse gas levels, and those still playing those two-ton games of musical chairs.

As anyone who lives in a city knows, the pandemic blew up most of what we understood about parking in America. Oh, it was possible this whole time to hand over parking spaces to restaurants? To turn whole streets into semipermanent pedestrian thoroughfares? To cut traffic enough to yield noticeable improvements in air quality? All it took was a once-in-a-century public-health catastrophe.

I asked Shoup if he saw all this coming. No, he said. For a long time, there was just nobody else talking about it. “The first article I wrote that had the word ‘parking’ in it was in 1970,” he told me. These days he’s the most frequently referenced figure in all contemporary conversations on civic parking reform, one whose ideas are only now starting to be put into practice in a handful of cities around the country.

For 50 years, Shoup has been trying to get people to admit that there’s no such thing as free parking. If the subject is finally up for debate, are the sufferers of paid parking derangement syndrome ready to listen?

“Nobody wants to grow up to go into parking,” Shoup says. He grew up in Long Beach, Calif., assuming he’d go into economics, which he kind of did. He chose land economics for his doctoral dissertation, so he sort of backed himself into it. According to his research, U.S. cities dedicate more land to parking than any other single-use, including housing and commercial space. No academics had paid much attention to why or whether that was the right call. In 1968, with his Yale Ph.D. in hand, Shoup decided to keep looking. “It seemed kooky,” he says, but important and undercovered. Such subjects require stubbornness, he says: “Often you have to stick to it for a while, even if it’s discouraging.”

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