On a slow afternoon back in 2005, I found myself thumbing through one of the oddest books I had ever come across. It was a 733-page treatise on parking by Donald Shoup, an economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who had devoted much of his career to collecting every available nugget of information on the subject. What made the book so unusual wasn’t just the level of detail. It was Shoup’s palpable enthusiasm for the material and his ability to make it interesting. He quoted Albert Einstein and Robert Frost, Lewis Carroll and Graham Greene. He filled up the pages with quirky little details about the way ordinary people go about their lives.
All this detail was made to serve a fairly simple point: “Free” parking costs cities and their residents a fortune and gives us little more than traffic congestion and ugly downtowns. Abolishing all those free spaces could bring about a renewal of high-quality urban life. Despite his verbosity, Shoup made his main point concisely and rather convincingly. Intrigued as I was, however, I dismissed him as an erudite eccentric certain to be branded as a crackpot by the pragmatic engineers and politicians who design and govern American cities.