Last year I wrote a bit about the topic of parking and how that might be of interest to those interested in autonomous vehicles. After I wrote that, it stuck in my mind and I was observant for interesting information about parking. I kept seeing references to UCLA professor Donald Shoup’s book, The High Cost Of Free Parking. Finally I was able to get the book from the library and I just finished slogging through its 700 pages.

I’m not going to lie; that was tedious. Shoup is not a bad writer, but the editing in this book is terrible. It should have been trimmed down to about 200 pages. Shoup makes the same (absurdly good) points over and over again in a jumbled order. There is a vast landfill of industrial engineering studies and numerical data. If you are a professional city planner, you need to own this book and read every bit of it. Maybe twice.

But here’s the thing, for the rest of us, well, if you’ve got a brain the title is enough. This especially superb article in The Economist is actually an extremely sensible synopsis of the entire 700 page book. Just as I’ve suggested, the article paraphrases the title, "Free parking is not, of course, really free."

As I started reading the book, Shoup was just pounding on that idea over and over from the get go. By about page 30 I got it. Free parking is not free. Got it. By about page 60 I was horrified at myself for failing to consciously think of this disturbing fact every time I had ever parked a car in my life. How had I failed to sense this issue as one of civilization’s most important? By the end I was starting to have a mental breakdown and looking into how I can donate large sums of money to the John Birch Society.

You see, they say that communism is dead (here’s our friends at The Economist saying just that). But it is not true in one area. In Russia it thrives, in Britain it thrives, but nowhere does it thrive like the USofA! The greatest communist plot ever conceived has been enormously successful and that insidious agenda has been to give every person, as a matter of human rights, socialized parking.


You don’t need to read this book, do you? Come on, just think it through. Let’s say that every bank, veterinarian, dry cleaner, yoga studio, shooting range, Walmart, hotel, etc. was required by law to give customers all the ice cream they could eat. Who could argue with that policy? Ice cream is delicious! Are you some kind of ice cream hating monster to oppose such a brilliant plan? Well, free parking is exactly like this.

Do you think if free ice cream were mandated by law that people would be healthier? How would ice cream consumption be different? Would it really be free ice cream? No, of course not. Just as I pointed out last year that parking lots are really quite dangerous yet until 2008 nobody bothered to keep statistics on just how bad the situation was, the same is true with the cost of parking in general. Who is thinking about this explicitly? Nobody!

The reason for this is that planning departments create a situation where businesses automatically must pass the costs of parking on to customers. They do this by requiring certain levels of parking to go with certain land uses. For example, maybe a prospective hair salon is required to provide two parking spaces for every 1000 square feet of their business. The planning departments don’t pay anything or even see how much this costs. The hair salon buys N times 1000 square feet of land for their business and then another half N more land for parking. Here in California where land is absurdly expensive, this slashes proper utility of the potential space. And obviously the hair salon will pass on what costs it can and simply not exist where it can’t. This replaces consumer choice with poorly utilized wretched parking lots.

In a word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.

— Communist Manifesto

Besides the Communist Manifesto, where do these requirements come from? Shoup goes into painful detail about the provenance of these guidelines and, to my satisfaction, demonstrates that they are completely bogus and nonsensical. The planners may know the requirements, but I’m properly convinced they have no idea why those requirements exist. Mostly because they are spurious. The whole question of whether it is a good idea or not to a create a communist plot giving every human being parking "to each according to his needs" is never even considered. (I should point out that Shoup just tries to sensibly address a planning problem; the sardonic Red-baiting is mine.)

When you arrive somewhere, looking for parking sucks, right? So isn’t it good that it’s plentiful? Nope. It turns out, strangely, not really. As was pointed out in the book Traffic (which I reviewed here) building more roads doesn’t make less traffic; it just makes more cars. Ditto parking. Shoup convincingly shows that free parking actually exacerbates congestion in several different ways.

As I mentioned, parking can be quite dangerous. Of course as a society, we don’t really care about pedestrians and the last couple of cyclists need to be quietly killed off as soon as possible, but I was surprised to learn some things I didn’t already know about how parking reduces safety. For example, off street lots break up the sidewalks with dangerous curb cuts leading to dangerous car/pedestrian interactions. Shoup actually lauds San Diego’s idiotic diagonal parking which, from my point of view, is a life-threatening nightmare (especially tragicomic are the diagonal spots on W. Mission Bay Dr. that drivers are required to back into; what a circus of death that is).

Shoup talks a lot about "cruising" which is the term of art for someone who is at their destination, but can’t find a place to park. Apparently this is a much bigger problem than one would imagine (if you gave it no thought as is the custom). The pollution, congestion, and, perversely, parking problems this creates are pretty serious.

Obviously parking lots are ugly. If you disagree, just let me know about any beautiful car park anywhere in the world that you know of. I have seen some beautiful bicycle parking garages in Germany and Holland, but if cars are parking there, everyone wants to get that part of their day over with as soon as possible. I know of no exceptions.

The more parking you require, the more parking there will be which means that the distance between places will be puffed out with parking lots. Where a cross town trip in 1920 would be a mile, today, with parking lot metastasis, it would be maybe double that. I’m making up numbers because I was too tired to follow Shoup’s details here but, suffice it to say, again from obvious first principles, this sprawl comes with problems.

Although Shoup didn’t spend too much time on it, I personally suspect that having so much of a city be impermeable to rainwater can’t be good for the region’s climate. I’d also be curious about how all that asphalt changes the weather by soaking up heat in the day in an unnatural way.

Thanks to the glorious communist revolution we are basically screwed, right? Well, probably. I actually don’t think the John Birch Society is going to see this communist plot as worth fighting. But there are some things that could be done if there was a will to do them. Shoup points out that parking meters are good. Fancy modern ones are convenient and quite fair. He’s a fan of peak demand pricing. Basically the panacea, which you’d think that every gun loving red neck Ayn Rand blathering American with crappy privatized health care would be delighted to switch to immediately is…. capitalism. Yes! Free markets! What a concept! Don’t hold your breath comrade.

UPDATE 2018-02-26 Looks like this topic is on the mind of the NYTimes. They just published this article which talks about a very similar issue of just charging cars for being in congestion zones in general. The main point is that subsidizing the enormous cost of cars will make people choose to use them stupidly often. Passing on the correct market costs to drivers causes people to make more sensible decisions about driving.

UPDATE 2018-02-28 I was just reading this sensible article at Naked Capitalism about the world’s greatest welfare queens, the US military. The article says "Most Americans are probably aware that the Pentagon spends a lot of money, but it’s unlikely they grasp just how huge those sums really are. All too often, astonishingly lavish military budgets are treated as if they were part of the natural order, like death or taxes."

Parking is like this too apparently, but this reminded of something specific from Shoup’s book that I wanted to write down so I wouldn’t forget it. Shoup claims that the cost to society for providing free parking is greater than the cost of our cars. That’s pretty impressive right? He goes on to say that the cost of our free parking is actually even greater than the cost of our roads. With cars parked 95% of the time, this seems plausible I guess. But what really made it sink in for me was that Shoup claims that the cost of parking was greater than the cost of national defense. Now, maybe he’s wrong. Maybe all the math and figures he cites to demonstrate this are wrong. If you feel that’s the case, get the book and set us all straight. Details aside, I think we can all see that parking is not just not free; it is enormously expensive, perhaps contending to be the most expensive expense you can imagine.