Now How Much Would You Pay?

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

“Parking appears free because its cost is widely dispersed.”Donald Shoup

UCLA Professor of Urban Planning Donald Shoup is a major influence on urban transportation planning. Shoup works on the West Coast, where cities grew up with cars. His experience in the concrete wasteland of LA inspired his massive book, The High Cost of Free Parking.

Ignore this book at your peril. Whatever you think of the problem and his solution, his ideas are popular. The federal government is handing out money to implement them.

One day you may drive into town early to beat the parking rush, pull up the the curb, and find your formerly free parking space demands $5 per hour to park. You may drive away angrily vowing never to return.

Shoup says society is better off with outraged parkers who drive away.

You may reluctantly return at noon one day, having an an important appointment, resigned to the long hunt for a space. Surprise, you found one immediately. $20 for two hours. Sold!

He may be right. Somebody only willing to pay $9 per hour left a space empty for your more important business. Simple microeconomics at work.

Will you instead scream “those greedy bastards have seen the last of me!” and really never come back this time?

You may be right too. It’s a terrible abuse of monopoly power. It might be a crime if private enterprise were responsible.

Much of the book is an economic look at parking. It was interesting reading and I agree with the basics. Parking is not created or used in an economically sound manner. We waste money on pavement that is used a few hours per year, if ever. Free parking is dictated based on a precise but flawed formula rather than letting the market decide how much to build and what to charge.

The whole argument is too long to go into here. I agree there is a good reason other than greed to charge a high fee for now free public parking spaces.

Is it a good enough reason?

Parking fees will not be administered by economists. They will be voted in by people eager for new revenue. How long will fees be set based on public good instead of municipal profit?

When it moves from economics to policy the book moves from analysis into biased advocacy.

It is a book best read by skeptics. Watch him like you would a magician. I made pages of notes on flaws in his reasoning, assumptions that are not universally true, inconsistent treatment of similar situations, and disagreements with his political arguments.

Nevertheless, this is an important book. Can you tell whether meter fees are too cheap or too expensive? Can you identify a revenue grab piggybacking on a legitimate parking fee? If you and your elected officials read and understand The High Cost of Free Parking you will both have a much more useful contribution to make than “meters bad!” “revenue good!”

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One Response to “Now How Much Would You Pay?”

  1. Spike Roberson says:

    In some other countries free parking is rare; their retail economies are not built around the automobile and the real estate is too valuable. Here, the legacy of most charge-for-parking schemes are downtown shopping and dining businesses abandoned for alternatives in malls and suburbs. The Internet now competes mightily with traditional brick-&-mortar retail business, so the taxation of parking — which is exactly what we are talking about — will have consequences that the advocates are unlikely to consider or even care about.