The High Cost of Free Parking

November 16, 2017

This is the title of a seminal book on the role of public parking in cities by Donald Shoup, PhD.  Dr. Shoup is a former professor of urban planning at UCLA with a PhD in economics from Yale.  His book, published in 2011, was the first detailed documentation of the magnitude of the economic damage created by “free” parking from a land use perspective.  In over 750 pages he makes a detailed and substantiated case for the need for charging for curb side parking.

Shoup makes the case that not charging customers to park encourages the use of single occupancy vehicle trips and wastes valuable urban land for car storage.  Simply put, if parking does not cost me anything then why shouldn’t I drive?  Thus biking, walking or taking the bus is discouraged.  This dynamic of drive don’t walk (or take any other transportation option) sets up a reinforcing spiral.  Why put any money in buses if everyone drives?  No money for transit means the bus routes are limited and inconvenient.  If everyone drives why put in bike routes that make biking safer and more convenient.  Why bother with pedestrian upgrades if most people drive a car.  If everyone drives then, of course, we need more parking.  If everyone drives then you need to build more garages that take up land that could be redeveloped into mixed use affordable housing or other downtown businesses or office space, all of which would draw more people downtown and make for a more vibrant business atmosphere.

In contrast, what if we did the opposite?   Why not make the customers who use the parking pay for at least part of the cost of parking?  If it is going to cost me to park maybe I ought to walk.  The money from paid parking can then be used to improve transit options.  Make the bus more convenient.  Improve bike and pedestrian safety.  If it is easier and cheaper to get there by some means other than driving then I am further encouraged not to drive and the need for parking diminishes.

But parking is free at suburban malls.  If parking is free there then why shouldn’t it be free everywhere?  Well actually parking is not free at all those suburban malls.  All that extra land for parking, all that asphalt is paid for by the businesses in higher rents.  So I suppose we could make parking free to customers downtown and add a parking tax to all the area businesses.  We could try to level the playing field.  Make all the businesses pay for the maintenance of the current parking garages, plus the land for new garages, plus the construction costs of new garages because, if parking is free, and we need to provide parking for anyone who wants to visit or work at the Downtown Mall, we are going to need a lot more parking.

The City of Charlottesville has recognized that parking downtown is a major issue.  So, they asked a nationally recognized transportation consulting firm for their analysis of what was going on and what was the best way to deal with it. Nelson Nygaard recommended a three pronged approach.  First, try to get the maximum utilization of the on-street parking by improving turnover with paid parking.  Second, use the money from the paid on-street parking to encourage business customers and employees to walk, bike or use the bus instead of driving.  Third, actually add more parking by buying or leasing land and building parking or create convenient park and ride options.  The City is doing all three.  The on-street meter pilot is designed to improve turnover and make it easier to find an on-street parking space.  Even those who oppose the pilot would, I believe, agree that it is now easier to find an open space.   New bike lanes and sidewalk improvements were part of the recent repaving project on Market Street.   To add additional parking the City made an investment in the purchase of a parcel on East Market Street between 8th and 9th Streets. As you can see the City is moving forward on all three recommendations.

This is not just an issue in Charlottesville.  This is a nationwide issue.  Here in Virginia, Roanoke and Lynchburg just completed pilot programs for paid on-street parking.  Staunton is in the process of planning for on-street paid parking.  The good news is that if you are concerned that existing on-street parking is not sufficient to meet the downtown business demand, then you have a vibrant business environment.   In some boarded up sections of downtown Detroit you can easily find on-street parking all day long.

So is free parking really the only option for a successful downtown business environment?  Before the on-street parking pilot was parking easy and convenient?  It always costs money to build and maintain parking.  The question is who should be paying for the parking and what can we do to get off the treadmill of more and more cars and pursue a future of vibrant business districts with less parking and more walking, biking and mass transit?  Industry and academic experts say the answer is clear.

-Rick Siebert, Parking Manager

OED Updates:

  • 3 City businesses were recently selected to receive Advancing Charlottesville Entrepreneurs (ACE) micro grants to help build capacity in their enterprises.
  • GO Driver 8 began on October 27th with six participants and will conclude with graduation on December 1st.
  • Made In Charlottesville will host a “Making in Charlottesville” event at Random Row Brewing Co. on 12/7 featuring live demos from local artisans.

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