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No Such Thing as Free Parking

And if we'd only charge what it really costs, says Donald Shoup, you'd never have trouble finding a spot again.

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Donald Shoup didn't title his new book "Aparkalypse Now," but he considered it--anything to get across his thesis that the U.S. has too much parking and it's too cheap. He went for the oxymoron over the pun and called it The High Cost of Free Parking instead.

Shoup teaches city planning at UCLA but thinks like an economist. He argues that just as there's no such thing as a free lunch, there's no such thing as a free parking space: the cost just gets added to the price tag of other things. If you get free parking at work, then something else has to be cut, most likely your paycheck. Your Jewel has free parking? Not really--you pay for it with every cucumber. This is known as bundling, and it's arguably unfair (those who walk or bike to the store have to pay parking-enhanced prices for their cukes) and inefficient (people would drive less if they paid what it cost to park).

While some stores and institutions might choose to bundle on their own, Shoup maintains that in many cases city planners have forced them to do so by piling mistake on mistake. Mistake #1: They made on-street parking cheap. Mistake #2: When it filled up right away and stayed full all day, they jumped to the conclusion that there was a parking shortage, not that the price was too low. Mistake #3: To combat the supposed shortage, they set up specific parking requirements based on land use. "A gas station must provide 1.5 parking spaces per fuel nozzle," writes Shoup, "and a mausoleum must provide 10 parking spaces per maximum number of interments in a one-hour period. Why? Nobody knows." According to Shoup, the authoritative-sounding numbers are nothing but guesswork and follow-the-leader.

Together the three mistakes are a recipe for urban death by parking. Parking lots push the working parts of the city farther and farther apart, making sprawl even more sprawling. Shoup is fond of the medical analogy and observes that it took centuries for physicians to quit treating their patients with lethal doses of lead. "By prescribing massive overdoses of parking spaces," he writes, "planners are poisoning the city."

But who's to say how much parking is an overdose? Here Shoup plays a stronger hand than most liberal reformers: if cities charge what parking actually costs, drivers will decide.

Cheap on-street parking encourages cruising, with drivers circling the block several times in hopes of scoring an open meter. In some places such parking vultures make up three out of every ten vehicles clogging the street. Shoup would have cities set the price for on-street parking at a level that would leave roughly one empty parking space on each side of a block at any given time. Obviously that price would vary depending on time and place, but even crude approximations would give drivers clear incentives as to where and when they park, or whether they drive at all. Once on-street parking is properly managed, Shoup says, the city should quit requiring off-street parking altogether. And don't get him started on residential parking permit districts!

The problem, as Shoup sees it, is political. Who wants higher parking fees? He suggests creating a constituency by dividing a given city into "parking benefit districts," which would use on-street parking revenue for local improvements. And he'd insulate the city council from public outrage by having it declare public policy that about 15 percent of on-street spaces will be available at any given time; appointed officials would then work out the exact prices to bring that about.

Shoup claims his ideas would "produce enormous benefits at almost no cost." Anyone who uses that line deserves a merciless cross-examination; maybe he'll get one when he appears Wednesday under the auspices of the Metropolitan Planning Council, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Chicago Metropolis 2020, and the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Donald Shoup

When: Wed 11/2, noon

Where: University Club of Chicago, 76 E. Monroe

Price: $25

Info: 312-863-6011, metroplanning.org

More: Registration is required

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