The High Cost of Free Parking

It’s a common trope in urban planning debates to cast the car-centric suburban lifestyle as the result of an unregulated free market in contrast to urban development patterns, which are often portrayed as the result of explicit government policy. I’ve already pointed out one way that reality doesn’t fit this narrative: the decision by government policy makers to run freeways through the heart of many urban downtowns made suburban living relatively more pleasant and urban living relatively less so.

In Saturday’s New York Times, Tyler Cowen offers another example:

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. Legally mandated parking lowers the market price of parking spaces, often to zero. Zoning and development restrictions often require a large number of parking spaces attached to a store or a smaller number of spaces attached to a house or apartment block.

If developers were allowed to face directly the high land costs of providing so much parking, the number of spaces would be a result of a careful economic calculation rather than a matter of satisfying a legal requirement. Parking would be scarcer, and more likely to have a price — or a higher one than it does now — and people would be more careful about when and where they drove.

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. Yet the law is allocating this land rather than letting market prices adjudicate whether we need more parking, and whether that parking should be free. We end up overusing land for cars — and overusing cars too. You don’t have to hate sprawl, or automobiles, to want to stop subsidizing that way of life.

A key point to emphasize here is that parking mandates aren’t just a subsidy to car ownership, they’re also a burden on pedestrians, who must trek across parking lots to get to almost any building. So not only does walking mean giving up the state-mandated subsidy of free parking, but it also means walking significantly further than you’d have to in a city where the availability of parking was determined by market forces.

And this results in the opposite of the virtuous cycle I wrote about a few weeks ago: as density falls, you get fewer pedestrians, which depletes the market for small, pedestrian-friendly establishments. And fewer pedestrian-friendly businesses establishments means that even fewer people walk. The result is the situation in most cities in the Midwest and the Sun Belt, where even people who strongly prefer to live in a “walkable” neighborhood find there are few if any neighborhoods that cater to that preference.

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13 Responses to The High Cost of Free Parking

  1. Rhayader says:

    It’s a strange world indeed when San Francisco is pioneering a market-based approach to urban parking.

    Government subsidies like this should bother libertarians just as much as sin tax schemes and other nanny state tomfoolery. The distortion of the market is just as severe — maybe even more so, since subsidies so often go unnoticed by market participants. Of course, the proposed solutions typically involve further “corrective” market distortions instead of simply rescinding the offending subsidies. Sigh.

  2. Don Marti says:

    You can think of a parking space in downtown San Francisco as a little vacuum that sucks a car in over the congested Bay Bridge. (photo here). The bridge and the parking space are complements. Mandating parking drives up the cost (in time and wasted fuel) of using the bridge.

  3. Brian Moore says:

    It just seems to ridiculous to have laws for the amount of parking space. There’s no market failure to address here, anyone who wants people with cars to come to their business will just build parking (and then may or may not charge for it). If they weren’t doing so, it was because it wasn’t worth it, and they felt fine punishing (relatively speaking) their car customers.

    I know Cleveland does a crappy job on just about everything, but at least my university realized, that when they needed more parking, that aboveground lots completely screwed up their layout, so they built a massive underground one that covers a huge chunk of their campus. They still have a lot of parking lots, but they’d need even more without it.

  4. Jess says:

    Brian, any parking lot, above ground or below, encourages more driving and less walking. Please tell us that they at least charge for parking in the massive expensive underground lot? How long will it take for parking fees to pay back the cost of such an expensive construction technique? What other programs were foregone to pay for hiding the shame of more parking? Could some of the money gone toward making the university more accessible by public transport?

    In my limited experience, universities do well to build additional parking lots in remote areas, served by regular shuttle buses. Remote areas are always cheaper, and the nonuniform traffic that universities create means that most parking is vacant for long stretches anyway. Large parking structures have the same effect on collegiate life that, as Timothy has described, limited-access divided highways have on urban areas. Regular shuttle buses benefit everyone on campus, not just drivers, and make travel at all hours safer for many students.

  5. Matthew J says:

    Yes, but we now seem to be in a slightly intractable situation. Having established a car culture starting in the 1950s, it would be difficult to suddenly remove any mandatory parking from city codes and zoning ordinances. We’ve built a culture (particularly in major cities in the sun belt) which expects parking, and will not frequent businesses that don’t provide it. Having too little parking in the hotter climates of the US is essentially a suicide pact for a business. Not only that, but if the parking is tucked behind the building and not readily visible, a business will quickly die.

    Houston, where I live, seems to have evolved the extreme of this behavior, where many people will not stop at businesses that don’t provide valet parking—even if the valet is literally parking your own car right in front of your nose, in a spot that you could easily have parked in.

    One hopes that a more sustainable strategy (in the broad, nondogmatic sense) evolves, particularly in places like Houston or Atlanta. The difficulty, however, stems partly from the desire or need for perpetual air conditioning in the brutal summer months. Walkability at these times becomes the last thing anyone wants.

  6. Tim says:

    I don’t see anything in O’Toole’s post that contradicts what I said here.

  7. Matthew J says:

    First (and sorry to be snarky, but I’m a designer so I’m sensitive to these things), the Antiplanner website that Sean L mentions is not very well-planned. Shells? A sunset? Electric blue? What does it all mean?

    Second, the author of that website gets a few facts wrong. Los Angeles is not the densest city in the US per capita. New York City is, then San Francisco. Both have fairly well functioning public transportation systems which for many people removes the need to drive anywhere and therefore obviates the need for parking.

    Third, I’ve lived in both Portland, Oregon and Houston, Texas. One city is heavily planned; the other exists without zoning. One is perfectly walkable and accessible; the other has no walkability at all—you must drive to get anywhere. As a result, vast stretches of the city are simply asphalt. As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with the pricing of parking. It has to do with historic attitudes to city development: planned versus laissez-faire.

    If Houston began mandating pricing for parking or reduced parking space requirements, drivers would not drive less. They would simply go to other free areas, or move to the suburbs, where they would drive just as much. In Houston, there is no alternative to the car, so pricing schemes or reduced parking density will have no effect.

    On the other hand, most of Portland’s public parking is expensive. But in Portland there is an alternative: the Max and the streetcar. So in Portland, drivers drive less, because there is good public transport and the city is set up for walkability. I went for four straight months once without using my car, because I could.

    With unlimited flatland to develop into and no zoning, you get a condition very much like Houston. With a region delimited by topography and boundaries and with strong zoning, you get something more like Portland, Oregon. A car culture versus walkability.

  8. My favorite graphic on this shows what a fantasyland US densities are, even in New York ( I can flip these density calculations any way you want: drop Manhattan out of NY, the whole region starts to look like everywhere else; drop the financial district out of Manhattan and the numbers shoot way up. There’s a neighborhood in LA that is just a weensy bit less dense than Manhattan–a goodish sized district at that, too (K-town). San Francisco is only denser than LA if you pretend San Francisco has no suburbs; sorry, Matt.

  9. Matthew J says:

    Lisa, agreed. My point was that Sean L. linked to someone called the Antiplanner, who was using his skewed data to show that LA was the “densest” city in the US. I only wanted to demonstrate that this isn’t the case…that it depends on how you read the data, and what you include.

  10. Rhayader says:

    Having too little parking in the hotter climates of the US is essentially a suicide pact for a business. Not only that, but if the parking is tucked behind the building and not readily visible, a business will quickly die.

    That’s certainly not an argument for state-mandated parking lots though. In fact, it’s exactly the sort of situation that demonstrates the uselessness of such regulations. If parking space is necessary for a business to survive, the last thing a business owner needs is for the city to force him to put parking in.

    If Houston began mandating pricing for parking or reduced parking space requirements, drivers would not drive less. They would simply go to other free areas, or move to the suburbs, where they would drive just as much. In Houston, there is no alternative to the car, so pricing schemes or reduced parking density will have no effect.

    Any idea what Houston enforces in the way of parking availability for businesses or residences? I mean, even if what you’re saying is true, it would still be worthwhile to connect parking space regulations to increased car use — which could in turn suppress the need for the development of effective city transportation services. At the very least, it would provide another data point to inform ongoing urban development debates.

  11. Brian Moore says:


    I didn’t provide enough back story. The underground parking garage not only serves the university, but the Cleveland Orchestra, Museum of Art, University Hospitals and a number of other businesses. I think it might be owned by the university group, and they certainly charge for its use, but it’s actually used by far more than just university staff. No students, as far as I know, though I haven’t been there recently, use it with any frequency.

    They also have the kind of satellite parking lots you describe, and a well established bus system (called “Greenies”). But the area definitely needed more parking, but the university is pretty disjointed already (due to historical issues) and so I think putting it underground, where it wouldn’t disrupt it even more, was the best compromise.

  12. Jess says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Brian. That makes much more sense. I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge; I’ve certainly used underground parking before!

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