Even within urban planning circles, parking is considered to be something of an academic backwater. Not much attention has been paid to the subject, so it may seem surprising that there is a real buzz around the recently published book entitled The High Cost of Free Parking, by UCLA Urban Planning Professor Donald Shoup. I met the author in Los Angeles to learn more about his book. Few understand the important implications of the connection between the structure of our communities and municipal parking requirements as clearly as Shoup.
It's a tall order to condense this weighty tome (733 pages) to some blog notes, but the key takeaway is that we all pay a lot more than we should for goods and services because of the abundance of free parking. Off-street parking requirements that municipalities impose on developers disguise the true cost of parking, which becomes embedded in the price of everything else. I suppose that if Wal-Mart were to place parking meters in the asphalt wastelands that surround their centers, they might even start giving away the tee shirts we otherwise pay a few bucks for.
I don't want to make light of this, especially since many of the requirements Shoup condemns have been passed along from municipality to municipality, to generation after generation of city planners, often without much scrutiny. Times change, and some old practices don't necessarily get better with age. Furthermore, this work goes far beyond the traditional arguments to limit the use of cars offered by urban planners searching for a utopian order dominated by public transit, cycling and even walking (don't we all need to do more of that).
Shoup argues that cities under-price parking and that jacking-up metered parking rates creates a greater buffer stock of open spaces. Political opposition to such a move (both by merchants and drivers) could be assuaged if the revenues from such a move were redeployed in the affected areas in the form of better sidewalks, lighting, etc.
While not covered in the book (we're still in development), CarHarbor represents only one piece of the parking puzzle; empowering residential and commercial property owners with a safe and convenient means of listing their parking space from time to time. Pricing for the resulting set of parking solutions will get set at the most local of levels, and will reflect the circumstances then prevailing. No urban planner could hope to do better.