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Americans Like Free Parking. They Don’t Realize It Doesn’t Exist.

When you zip into a space and don’t pay for it, somebody is still footing the bill. It’s not just somebody else – it’s you. You’re paying for the traffic jams and pollution you’re getting stuck with.

Street parking in New York City. (Shutterstock)
We bought a car recently, our first in many years. We don’t use it as much as we would like, because we don’t want to lose our on-street parking space here in Brooklyn. Yes, that’s right. Before we drive we ask: Is it worth it to lose our spot? Can we get one when we return? 

Throwing an extra snap into this game are the alternate side parking rules. Cars in New York City streets must be moved once a week for street cleaning, and the days vary by street. So when you park, you have to consider whether street cleaning is coming a few hours from now, or a few days. 

You may think this is just a New York City problem, but versions of the parking game are played in towns, cities and suburbs all over the country. I used to play it when I lived in Norfolk in the 1990s. I’ve seen it played in more suburban locales, as apartment buildings sprout up on cul-de-sacs, and on-street parking becomes more necessary. 

In these areas, drivers with a parking space become like children with a toy. They don’t want to share, because they fear they might not get it or a similar one back. The benefit here is that on residential streets, parking is usually free, at least in monetary terms. But it carries substantial other costs. It’s not free at all. 

We spend, when you add it up, many hours of our time each month or even weekly looking for a place to put our car and thinking about the subject. Then there are what economists call the “opportunity costs.” These are all the trips we didn’t take because we feared the difficulty of finding a space when we return.

These are just direct costs to us. There are also the collective costs. A big one is that a substantial share of traffic, sometimes more than half, comes from drivers circling the blocks, looking for parking. The cars circling the streets looking for places are polluters. They also clog streets and intersections, slowing overall traffic. 

There is, however, a way for drivers to have more toys, to be able to find a “good” parking space most of the time and improve things all around. It’s called market-rate parking. 

With a market-rate system, the city charges the parker a shifting amount for taking up a rectangle of publicly owned space. Prices can vary by hour, day and season. The more the demand, the higher the charge. The price is set so that there is usually a space or two free on a given block. In neighborhoods and cities that have tried this, drivers give up their spaces easily, because they know they can find one when they return. Having drivers move in and out of spaces increases the number of slots available at any one time. 

Then there’s the money that market-rate parking brings to a community, which can be millions of dollars annually. A portion of this money can be put back into the neighborhood it comes from, cleaning up sidewalks, paying for new streetlamps or giving residents free transit passes. 

The guru of market-rate parking is Donald Shoup, an economist who is a professor of urban planning at the University of California in Los Angeles. It was Shoup who wrote the 800-page magnum opus, The High Cost of Free Parking, published in 2005 and updated in 2011. It took the urban planning world by storm, in part because it was so well-written. Along with market-rate parking, Shoup wants to end off-street parking requirements for new residential developments. 

Now 83, Shoup is still a player in the game he helped start. A follow-up work, Parking and the City, composed of articles and essays by him and others, came out in 2018. Looking over his contributions, I made a list of what I began calling “Shoupisms,” which means saying something both meaningful and well about a subject most people consider boring and not very important.  

Shoup often uses political, literary or historical references to make a point. He is not averse to quoting Shakespeare or a TV sitcom. That’s seldom done in planning literature. I applaud his example. 

 “Many people think that parking is like sex—if you have to pay for it, it’s just not right.” 

“On-street parking is the most contested public land outside the Gaza Strip.” 

“The lack of an open parking space may seem as minor as the lack of a horseshoe nail, but the unfolding chain of consequences is similarly disastrous.” 

Cities all over the world are now experimenting with versions of Shoupist market-rate parking. Los Angeles with its LA Express Park has a smartphone app that shows where a space is available and how much it costs. San Francisco has Sfpark, a similar system that works through sensors embedded in the street. Baltimore, Boston, Washington, D.C. and New York are implementing some aspects of market-rate parking.  Miami Beach has a system that uses license-plate recognition to charge locals and tourists different rates. 

These systems are mostly on business and shopping streets, where flat-rate meters have often been used already. “Residential neighborhoods,” Shoup said to me over the phone, “are the new frontier." 

The hurdle is political. Drivers vote, and while they don’t like the parking game they have to play, they are reluctant to try a new one. To politicians, Shoup wrote in Parking and the City, “market-priced parking looks like an expensive way to commit political suicide.”

But I have hope. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the value of the curb lane more visible, as cities allow restaurants to move into it for outdoor dining. Sometimes this is even done on primarily residential streets. This raises more explicitly the question as to why cities should let drivers use for free a slot of publicly owned space that is clearly quite valuable. 

Still, my wife, who owns, primarily uses and parks our car, does not embrace the idea. Now that she is a car owner, I thought she would like a system that would end her often visible frustration about parking, including time taken away from her valuable day thinking about it. She instead scrutinizes very closely anything that would have her pay hard money for something she now does not.

In this, I expect she is like most car owners, which is why pushing market-rate parking into residential streets has been slower than getting it onto commercial ones. Shoup suggests surveying residents scientifically about their priorities and preferences. This is more accurate, he argues, than holding a public hearing, which tends to attract loud, irate drivers.

I have found no cities or neighborhoods that have tried a market-rate approach and returned to free or flat-rate parking. So while progress may be slow, I suspect it will come, even to the last frontier, the residential street.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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