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.