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Beyond reptilian - freeing parking from cities

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/03/19 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

Most urban planners don’t get their own cartoon character or form a following of groupies, but then UCLA Professor Donald Shoup doesn’t think like most planners. When it comes to unpacking parking — and how whole cities and suburbs have been built around it — Shoup isn’t boxed in.

Parking is a science, and Shoup's book, The High Cost of Free Parking, lifted the veil on how it distorts market choices and sets the stage for why many people can’t afford to live in cities. It turned an obscure planning professor into a cultural icon for vibrant, walkable urbanism.

Cleaning out my attic over the break, I rediscovered a 1999 article by Shoup titled, “Instead of Free Parking". It's still relevant after two decades, because most cities don’t think about parking in the big picture.

<br />Downtown Cleveland, the Warehouse District, circa 1990, still looks largely the same today because of the surface parking crater.

Cities have unwittingly enshrined parking requirements into laws that produce giant unused lots or big decks with plenty of empty spaces — and unintended consequences. Shoup — and Jeff Speck in his latest book, Walkable City Rules, which also came across my desk — offer alternatives to the mindless city zoning code that requires too much parking.

In three, solid-gold pages, Shoup delivers on why “free” parking hurts cities, and what specifically they should do to avoid the trap.

“Planners who set parking requirements rarely think about the price motorists pay for parking,” Shoup writes. “But demand depends on price, and most motorists park free. Planners who require enough spaces to satisfy the existing demand for parking make the mistake of requiring enough spaces to satisfy demand for free parking, no matter how much it costs.”

That last part — the cost of “free parking” gets passed along in higher rents and prices for goods at locations that require developers to add parking. Shoup recommends in-lieu of parking fees, which is cash that developers pay at a rate below the actual cost to build parking. When a developer gets to choose between more than enough parking or paying cash, it’s Capitalism at work. The City benefits by choosing to build public parking with the developer’s cash, or spending it on amenities. Shoup looked at 46 in-lieu of parking programs and summarizes the advantages of reducing parking:

  • It gives developers an option
  • It allows cities to use existing parking resources more efficiently
  • It improves the street experience by not placing too much parking on it
  • It improves historic preservation by making old building reuse not tied to new parking

By removing required parking minimums from zoning codes, cities and developers are then free to focus on important matters like reducing the demand for parking, Shoup says, mentioning Palo Alto where the in-lieu of parking fee is used to subsidize free transit passes for all employees of a new development. Demand for parking was reduced by 19% — a figure that is used to calculate future parking deals.

In Walkable City Rules, Speck rightly credits Shoup for the analytics that show when the number of parking spaces is decided without regard for the existence of transit, walkability and economies of scale. It’s important to note that Speck doesn’t say do away with parking; he says there are proven steps that help undo the deadlock you see in many downtowns with surface parking lots. He recommends they:

  • Form a Downtown Parking Authority
  • Institute in-lieu of parking fees
  • Anticipate ride share and autonomous vehicles in plans
  • Eliminate parking minimums from zoning codes

Sadly, most cities are not willing to challenge the hegemony of thinking, ‘there’s never enough parking’ even when faced with real-world examples of cities proving otherwise. A step in the right direction is the Parking Benefits District (PBD), Speck says. “A PBD makes a commitment to the merchants that the additional revenue collected from higher meter prices will be spent in the location where it is earned. Typically, it can be directed toward street and sidewalk improvements, street furniture like lighting and benches, new trees and landscaping, and even facade improvements to private businesses. Eventually, it can pay for new parking structures as well.”

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