Parking Reforms Could Be the Easiest Pollution and Economic Fix

In his 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup, a distinguished research professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA, laid out the three reforms that cities need to undertake to make parking available, sustainable, and profitable for the town and the neighborhood.

In his 2018 edited book, Parking and the City, Shoup and 45 other academic and practicing planners studied the impact of cities implementing these policies. 

We asked Shoup via email about the progress he sees as cities start to make these changes.  

Prof. Donald Shoup

Shoup’s first proposed reform is to charge fair market prices for on-street parking. Having meters with different prices at different times, charging the market-clearing price for that location (the lowest price they can charge that still leaves one or two open spaces) would ensure that parking is “well used, but readily available.” This way, drivers know that they could easily find a spot at their destination, avoiding wasting time, fuel, and more congestion while looking for parking.

His second proposal is to establish parking benefit districts to spend the meter revenue in the neighborhoods that generate it. A reform Shoup cites as the political key to managing the curb lane properly. He referenced a scenario in Redwood City: Once merchants understood that all the parking meter revenue would remain in the metered district, they strongly backed the idea of charging market prices at meters. It passed unanimously in the city council. 

Shoup’s third reform is to reduce or remove off-street parking requirements. He recommends not requiring additional parking when a building’s use changes. In Planetizen’s course Parking and the City, he argues that, if you don’t have a shortage of on-street parking, you can build and still have one or two open spaces on every block, then why are more parking requirements needed? 

Cities removing their parking requirements is one of the major changes Shoup has seen. In his email, he told us that even Edmonton, which has the largest parking lot in the world, recently voted to remove all minimum parking requirements from real-estate developments in the city. Shoup says that Calgary also removed all parking requirements for all uses other than housing. 

“We’ve politicized what should be a market decision,” Shoup says in the Planetizen course. He argues that while parking may look free, it hides the cost of parking spaces in the price of housing, food, and everything we buy. Often those with a lower net worth, generally minorities, are paying for parking spaces they’re not even taking advantage of. 

When asked if there were certain commonalities between the cities implementing parking reform, Shoup said that green activists often argue for the changes. Still, they find a coalition with merchants and other stakeholders to help them reform the parking policies. 

The current pandemic has sped things up, Shoup says. He added that streets filled with bicycles, pedestrians, and outdoor restaurants instead of cars made previously unthinkable changes now conceivable. 

Shoup cites Henry Grabar, who said in a recent Slate article, “The wave of traffic washing out of cities has quickly exposed how much car use distorts everyday life—the filthy, hazardous air, the constant noise, the tens of thousands of deaths and injuries… Thirty-six percent of Manhattan is street space. It’s the most valuable land in the world, and the city gives it away for free, provided you use it for nothing but your car.”

This year’s pandemic has created a crisis, and parking reforms that once seemed politically impossible may become unavoidable, Shoup says, because cities suddenly need the money that parking can provide. Municipalities can charge the right prices for curbside use, spend the revenue on the right public services, and remove off-street parking requirements. He added that each reform alone may not look compelling, but that they work well acting together. 

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