There's No Such Thing As Free Parking


Nothing new about this; shopping mall parking in 1958. Library of Virginia.

Alex recently asked Can Great Design Redeem the Parking Garage? He was talking about a new parking structure by Herzog and de Meuron on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road, which is a pedestrian street designed by Morris Lapidus. The late architect was fond of over-the-top glitz and in reaction to Mies Van Der Rohe's "less is more", titled his autobiography "Too much is never enough." Unfortunately, the same can be said of parking.

Economist Tyler Cowen writes in the New York Times that free parking comes at a price.

Cowen writes that the parking lots that surround our malls and big-box stores are "a classic tale of how subsidies, use restrictions, and price controls can steer an economy in wrong directions. Car owners may not want to hear this, but we have way too much free parking."

Many suburbanites take free parking for granted, whether it's in the lot of a big-box store or at home in the driveway. Yet the presence of so many parking spaces is an artifact of regulation and serves as a powerful subsidy to cars and car trips....The subsidies are largely invisible to drivers who park their cars -- and thus free or cheap parking spaces feel like natural outcomes of the market, or perhaps even an entitlement.

Cowen quotes Donald Shoup, who wrote "The High Cost of Free Parking." Shoup calculated the price of a parking space, and found that it was often higher than the value of the cars parked in them. (TreeHugger has noted that there are three parking spaces for every car). Shoup calculates the value of the free parking subsidy to be $127 billion- in 2002.

Cowen concludes that free parking has a huge external cost.

If we're going to wean ourselves away from excess use of fossil fuels, we need to remove current subsidies to energy-unfriendly ways of life. Imposing a cap-and-trade system or a direct carbon tax doesn't seem politically acceptable right now. But we can start on alternative paths that may take us far.

Imposing higher fees for parking may make further changes more palatable by helping to promote higher residential density and support for mass transit.

As Professor Shoup puts it: "Who pays for free parking? Everyone but the motorist.

More in the New York Times
More on Parking:
The Hidden Costs of Free Parking
Parking Lots to Parks: Designing Livable Cities
LEED or Not, Parking Garages Are Not Green

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