Tag: free parking

Cato Unbound - There Ain’t No Such Thing As Free Parking

This month at Cato Unbound we’re discussing a practical, everyday issue – parking!

Yes, Cato Unbound is supposed to cover big ideas, deep thoughts, and the like, but parking policy is both important in its own right and also points to what I consider a very interesting problem: Given a theoretical or abstract commitment to free markets, well, how do we get there in the real world? What would a free-market policy look like in this or that issue area?

The answer isn’t always obvious, and the map isn’t the territory. Parking is interesting in this respect and possibly helpful. Parking is all around us, most of us deal with it every day, and the unintended consequences of parking policy are I think maybe easier to see than the unintended consequences in other fields. Parking affects how we live, how we shop, and how we work. It touches our cities, our family life, our environment, and even our health. Learning to look for such unintended consequences is part of developing a political culture that values economic insights and puts them to work.

That’s why this month we’ve invited four urban economists, each of whom can fairly be said to value the free market. Still, there will be a few disagreements among them – as I said, the map isn’t the territory. Donald Shoup leads the issue with his essay “Free Parking or Free Markets?” – arguing that our expectation of abundant free parking is both bad for our communities and the product of anti-market planning.

The conversation will continue throughout the month, with contributions from Professor Sanford Ikeda, Dr. Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institution, and Cato’s own Randal O’Toole. Be sure to stop by throughout the month, or else subscribe via RSS.

Donald Shoup on Free Parking

Donald Shoup, the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, has posted a response to my first post about Tyler Cowen’s op ed against free parking. Shoup points out that I erroneously attributed proposals to him that are in fact only urged by his followers, such as maximum-parking requirements and requirements that all businesses charge for parking. I apologize for that.

In fact, Shoup’s book argues that cities should eliminate minimum-parking requirements and charge market rates for on-street parking. I favor these things as well. Where we may disagree is about the effects of these policies.

My post pointed out that many municipalities do not have minimum-parking requirements, but businesses still offer plenty of free parking to their employees and customers. Shoup asks for “a list of some of these.” Virtually all counties in Texas, most counties in Nevada, and many counties in Indiana have no minimum-parking requirements, and I am sure I could find counties in many other states as well. Unlike California, where Shoup lives, and Oregon, where I live, these states do not restrict urban development to within city limits or urban-growth boundaries, and developments in unincorporated parts of these counties offer plenty of free parking.

Much of Shoup’s response seems to assume that my posts were defending minimum-parking requirements. “City planners have no training that would enable them to estimate the demand for parking, and no financial stake in the success of a development,” says Shoup. “They know much less than developers do about how many parking spaces to provide for each project.” As I pointed out in my later posting on this issue, I entirely agree. My goal was to defend private provision of free parking.

That said, I think Shoup’s worries about the “high cost” of parking are overblown. As I pointed out in my first post, surface parking is cheap, and even structured parking is not terribly expensive in the long run. Most of Shoup’s analysis is not of the high cost of free parking but the high cost of minimum-parking requirements, and there the cost is only of the spaces that developers are forced to provide that they wouldn’t otherwise provide. Shoup and I seem to agree that businesses who want to free parking should be allowed to do so.

Unfortunately, many urban planners disagree; they want to set maximum-parking limits, and they often cite Shoup in their plans and proposals. The negative effects of such limits are likely to be as bad if not worse than minimum-parking requirements. Planners promote such limits in order to discourage driving, which planners say is bad.

Shoup himself relies on anti-auto rhetoric. “Ubiquitous free parking helps explain why American motor vehicles, by themselves, consume one-eighth of the world’s total oil production,” Shoup says, for example. “America’s extravagant consumption of imported oil to fuel our cars is not sustainable, economically or environmentally, and anything that is not sustainable must eventually stop.” But we can find many alternatives to “extravagant consumption of imported oil” without limiting people’s mobility the way many urban planners want to do.

Planners with Portland’s Metro, for example, have set a goal of allowing congestion on most of the region’s highways to reach level of service F (meaning stop-and-go driving). They also promote “traffic calming” (a euphemism for congestion building), “boulevarding” (a euphemism for taking lanes away from autos in busy thoroughfares), and other anti-auto policies. But their own analyses found that these policies would have very little effect on the amount of driving people do. The biggest effect came from a plan to require that all businesses in the region charge for parking – yet even that effect was small, estimated to reduce per capita driving by about 2 percent. Even though such a plan has not been put into effect, at least a few years ago Metro’s transportation models assumed that it would be put into effect sometime in the next couple of decades.

As I have shown at length, trying to save energy or reduce auto emissions by reducing driving is not cost effective, and the resulting reduction in mobility could have serious negative effects on our economy. Instead, it is much more cost effective to make the cars we drive more energy efficient and/or capable of using alternative fuels, and if oil prices go up that will happen without government coercion anyway.

Although Shoup teaches in an urban planning school, he is actually an economist, and he and I share many areas of agreement. I won’t even mind if it turns out that I am wrong: if cities get rid of minimum-parking requirements without imposing maximum-parking limits and it leads businesses to charge for parking that are now offering it for free, that’s just the market at work. My only concern is that many planners are using Shoup’s work to promote their own coercive agendas. I hope he responds to them as vigorously as he responded to me.

One more thing: Shoup asks, “Can you tell me if the Cato Institute offers free parking for its employees? If so, does it also offer commuters the option to cash out their parking subsidies?” I do not work in Cato’s Washington, DC, office, but as far as I know it does offer free parking to at least some of its employees and does not provide a cash-out option. Cato is currently expanding its building and I understand it is installing showers for cyclists, as required by DC zoning codes, and is not providing a cash-out option for cyclists (or other employees) who do not plan to use those showers. As a cyclist, I’ll probably use those showers from time to time on my visits to DC. Perhaps someday Dr. Shoup and I will write a paper titled, “The High Cost of Free Showers.”

Free Parking and the Geography of Cities

Unlike Randal O’Toole, I was delighted by Tyler Cowen’s New York Times article on the high cost of free parking. And indeed, if I’m reading O’Toole’s post right, it sounds like Cowen and O’Toole don’t actually disagree on the policy issue: both agree that business owners should be free to decide how much parking to supply.

The debate so far has focused on whether parking mandates push the price of parking below the market rate. But I think the more important effect is on the geography of cities. Parking mandates (and other regulations) preclude developers from catering to people who want to live in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

Parking mandates necessarily mean that every large building is surrounded by a large parking lot. And for someone who doesn’t own a car, a parking lot is just a nuisance: a big, empty space he must walk across to get anywhere. Regulations that effectively require a parking lot around every store and restaurant almost guarantees that walking to them won’t be practical.

As Jane Jacobs pointed out, pedestrian traffic is highly sensitive to density. Even a modest reduction in the density of a neighborhood can have a big effect on pedestrian traffic. And as the number of pedestrians falls, so too will the number of businesses that cater to pedestrians. So it’s probably true, as O’Toole says, that charging for parking spaces wouldn’t dramatically reduce the amount of driving people do. But this is partly because the proliferation of parking lots has made walking impractical. Fewer free parking spaces wouldn’t just raise the price of car ownership; it would make car non-ownership more pleasant and convenient.

Government regulations often have subtle unintended consequences. Parking regulations have been on the books so long that the results have come to seem perfectly natural to us. But free markets are unpredictable. If developers had the freedom to decide how much parking to supply, the results might surprise us.