Earlier this year, Planners Press released a paperback version of Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking,” which was originally published in a hardbound edition n 2005. While the updated edition contains a new preface and afterward by the author, the bulk of the text remains the same. For those who missed it the first time around, or for those not wanting to shell out $70 for a parking book (the paperback edition costs $35), High Cost remains essential reading for anyone interested in the topic and arguably anyone concerned with cities, transportation, and urban design in general.
Throughout the 750-page book, Shoup makes an extensive case for three fundamental policy suggestions: set the “right” price for curb parking, return parking revenue to local public services, and abolish minimum parking requirements. While those may seem like simple and rational suggestions, they inevitably run into opposition upon implementation.
Part of the problem may simply be that planners, along with allied professions ranging from engineers and architects to city managers and landscape architects, have failed to revise what are now outdated notions about how parking should be provided, and as a result, citizens have unreasonable expectations as to what to expect in terms of parking (which Shoup would argue harms them in the long run). Essentially, when automobiles started to appear and congest city streets, the reasonable policy was to require each establishment to provide enough parking for its own users in order to eliminate conflicts. It sounded like a plausible solution.
However, taken to an extreme, over the years it has resulted in or at least contributed to the sprawl that most in the planning profession have rallied against: business districts void of buildings and overflowing with parking, degraded urban design, oceans of unused parking lots, etc. Moreover, businesses eager to attract customers offer free parking to lure customers, but those customers ultimately pay the cost of providing the parking (much of which goes to waste as being unused) because the providers absorb the cost initially but eventually pass it back onto consumers.
Exacerbating the problem has been the tendency for local municipalities to simply copy and adopt others’ parking ordinances without questioning their appropriateness or efficacy, resulting in a proliferation of very specific-sounding but ultimately arbitrary and possibly harmful parking policy.
Given that, as Shoup points out, massive amounts of land are devoted to parking yet few texts existed on the topic existed to its publishing in 2005, that the topic is skipped entirely in many foundational texts, and that those that did cover the topic were flawed in their approach, the book is likely headed for classic status. In fact, in retrospect, considering how fundamental parking is to land use in the United States (in which, you may be aware, people tend to drive places in automobiles), it now seems astounding how little disciplined attention has been paid to the topic.
The main problem with Shoup’s policy recommendations may be, as always, the difficulties and uncertainties involved in implementation. For example, the simple admonition to charge the “right” price for curb parking may be more difficult than it seems. For example, he points to a program called SFPark in San Francisco which installed what amounts to an intelligent transportation system (ITS) including specialized meters and sensors to track usage and help set prices. While this may serve as a model for other cities to emulate, it nonetheless required a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to implement, and it remains to be seen whether such an investment in time, effort, and capital will be embraced by small- and medium-sized municipalities on a topic that is likely to be politically unpopular.
While “High Cost” goes a long way in setting up a theoretical basis and analytical backing for Shoup’s policy recommendations, what would really be helpful to practicing planners facing day-to-day pressures would be an implementation guide or at least a set of relevant case studies. Until that text appears, if parking is a topic you are interested in, you are nonetheless being remiss if you have not read this book.