Best of the Blogs: There Ain’t No Such Thing as Free Parking

Here’s a roundup of some of the most noteworthy conversation stemming from this month’s issue.

Lewis McCrary comments at The American Conservative:

Much of America is chained to the steering wheel because postwar sprawl — created by government mandated parking lots and interstate highways — made the car the only pleasant way to get around this country. We have the illusion of choice where none exists at all, unless you mean choosing which drive-thru or big box store to visit next.

At the National Review, Reihan Salam adds to the conservative praise for performance parking (adding a swipe or two at San Francisco):

[I]t turns out that the City of San Francisco occasionally embraces pretty good public policies as well. A case in point is the city’s embrace of performance parking, an idea that’s long been championed by UCLA’s indefatigable Donald Shoup…

Now, I have no confidence that the good people of San Francisco will elect the kind of cost-conscious public officials who’d use performance parking revenue effectively. But that’s an entirely separate question. The right mayor could use performance parking and congestion charges to slash sales and income taxes and other measures that punish commerce and work rather than congestion.

Eliza Harris at My Urban Generation takes issue with some factual claims made by Randal O’Toole:

[O’Toole] admits that Texas cities may have zoning and parking minimums but still claims that the counties surely don’t. Putting aside the fact that dense development would be most likely to develop in cities not the counties anyway (I haven’t done the research but I would take the bet that cities are denser than counties despite zoning minimums) and that there appears to be a mechanism by which Texas cities have zoning or similar powers via “municipalities’ extra territorial jurisdictions,” he’s still just missing the mark on the facts.

While it is true that Texas counties don’t have zoning power, they DO have subdivision regulations. Much of what we think is zoning is actually subdivision regulations which is why form-based codes often merge the two. And low and behold a look at Montgomery County Texas subdivision standards shows a set of pretty conventional off-street parking standards. Check it out for yourself at MONTGOMERY COUNTY SUBDIVISION GUIDELINES AND RECOMMENDATIONS Appendix I. Also see Llano County: “Adequate off-street parking space must be provided in business or commercial areas.”

I do not pretend to understand the intricacies of how subdivision and permitting in Texas works but to all appearances they’ve got enough to tip to scale in favor of free parking and dumb growth.

Stephen Smith offers a lengthy discussion of similar questions at Market Urbanist. Here’s an excerpt:

Donald Shoup, you may recall, is the granddaddy of free market parking policy, and Randal O’Toole is the self-styled Antiplanner. Though they both claim to be libertarians, they seem to have some pretty fundamental disagreements, which we heterodox libertarians at Market Urbanism can relate to. Shoup has made a career out of pointing out the sprawl-enhancing effects of minimum parking regulations and under-priced on-street parking, whereas O’Toole’s made his on the idea that sprawl is the free market equilibrium and that smart growth, not anti-density NIMBYism, isthe greatest threat to free markets in land…

There’s a lot about what he wrote that I take issue with, but to keep this post to a manageable length (I could easily make my reply to O’Toole a three-part series), I’ll stick to this paragraph. O’Toole is arguing that in most of America, parking minimums don’t contribute to sprawl since developers would build that much parking anyway:

To find out what cities would be like without minimum-parking requirements, we must turn to Texas, where counties aren’t even allowed to zone, much less impose minimum-parking requirements. This means developers are free to build for the market, not for urban planners. While cities are allowed to zone, for the most part they maintain minimal restrictions so as not to lose potential tax-paying developments to areas outside their jurisdiction. The result, as anyone who as toured Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio knows, is large amounts of low-density development supported by plenty of off-street parking, all without minimum-parking requirements (at least outside of city limits).

The first sentence is misleading, at best. His wiggle-room comes from that easily-missed parenthetical reference at the end of the paragraph, where he admits that his analysis only applies “outside of city limits” – but even then, he’s still wrong…

[D]ense development – the kind that would benefit from not having to adhere to parking minimums – must occur in already built-up places, so the fact that it’s allowed (which it’s at least sometimes actually not) in places that aren’t built-up is really not very helpful or relevant. O’Toole is basically saying that you can go ahead and build parking-less new developments – as long as it’s in a place that not even the most wide-eyed first-year planning student would think to build. Without actually delving into the codes myself, Michael Lewyn’s study of land use regulation in Houston (academic version here, shorter article here) gives some examples of parking minimums that seem just as high as, if not higher than, the average American zoning code.

Cato adjunct scholar Timothy B. Lee takes issue with O’Toole as well, albeit for different reasons:

O’Toole almost seems to be responding to a different article than the one Shoup published. I cannot find a “diatribe against urban sprawl” in Shoup’s essay. Shoup does point out that minimum parking regulations promote sprawl, but that seems hard to deny and in any event does not constitute a “diatribe.” Similarly, I’m hard pressed to find any “rhetoric about the evils of urban parking” in Shoup’s piece. All I see is an argument that minimum parking rules produce more parking than is economically efficient. Again, this is a claim that a Cato scholar should regard as almost self-evident.

What’s going on here? O’Toole is right that “American cities are at the heart of a battle over the future of American mobility.” But he’s wrong to think that only one side has enlisted government assistance. As O’Toole notes, some jurisdictions have enacted pro-density regulations like “urban-growth boundaries that create artificial land shortages, maximum-parking limits, and subsidies to high-density development.” But there are plenty of government policies pushing in the other direction.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Free Parking or Free Markets by Donald Shoup

    America’s supposed love affair with the automobile is more like an arranged marriage, says Donald Shoup. Car and parking policies make cities and suburbs less livable for human beings. He recommends three reforms: First, adjust parking meter prices according to supply and demand. Second, return parking revenue to local communities for civic improvement. And third, remove minimum parking requirements that lock up useful land, lengthen commute times, and contribute to urban and suburban sprawl. These policies, he argues, are good for the community, good for the environment, and represent sound, market-based urban planning.

    America’s supposed love affair with the automobile is more like an arranged marriage, says Donald Shoup. Car and parking policies make cities and suburbs less livable for human beings. He recommends three reforms: First, adjust parking meter prices according to supply and demand. Second, return parking revenue to local communities for civic improvement. And third, remove minimum parking requirements that lock up useful land, lengthen commute times, and contribute to urban and suburban sprawl. These policies, he argues, are good for the community, good for the environment, and represent sound, market-based urban planning.

Response Essays

  • Using Markets to Enhance Mobility by Randal O'Toole

    Randal O’Toole argues that the automobile brings mobility to the common people in a way they could never have otherwise. As such, it is a great social good, and those who criticize urban sprawl are neglecting the many good things about our highly mobile contemporary lifestyle—among them better housing, higher labor productivity, and better access to consumer goods. These may well be worth the commute.

    Some parking subsidies, such as minimum parking requirements and cheap on-street parking, should indeed be removed. But using parking fees to subsidize local public works projects simply redistributes the automobile subsidy to local landowners. O’Toole proposes to privatize parking; private entities would then use the money they collected to build additional parking in response to consumer demand.

  • Zero Price Parking and Nickel Beer by Sanford Ikeda

    Sanford Ikeda calls Shoup’s proposal “an important, and presently… politically feasible step in the right direction.” He contrasts it favorably to congestion pricing, which represents, to him, a needless added layer of regulation. He recommends several refinements to Shoup’s thesis and situates it in a larger constellation of free-market transit policies, including especially deregulated private conveyances. Moving toward these policies, Ikeda argues, should be the ultimate goal.

  • Efficient Road Pricing for Stationary Vehicles: The Case for Curb Parking Charges by Clifford Winston

    Clifford Winston offers a variety of suggestions for further research and implementation of optimal parking charges. What are the current shares of various types of parking capacity? How much of it actually is free right now? How would congestion fees on roads interact with efforts to price parking efficiently? What can new information technologies offer us in this area? Although Winston is clearly sympathetic to Shoup’s thesis, his essay points to the magnitude of work yet to be done.

The Conversation