Are Minimum Parking Requirements Social Engineering?

Were an alien visitor to hover a few hundred yards above the planet, it could be forgiven for thinking that cars were the dominant life-form, and that human beings were a kind of ambulatory fuel cell, injected when the car wished to move off, and ejected when they were spent.—Heathcote Williams

Sanford Ikeda makes many good points, and in my first response to him I said, “I certainly agree with Sanford Ikeda’s recommendation that neighborhoods should be able to spend their curb parking revenue on their highest priorities.” I did not respond to his six points where he thinks we may disagree, and I regret that he therefore inferred that I “evidently think them not worth addressing.” So let me try to respond to some of his points.

First, I did not say that “zero-price curbside parking is the most disastrous experiment ever in social engineering.” I did say that “Minimum parking requirements may be our most disastrous experiment ever in social engineering.” Minimum parking requirements, not free curb parking, are the social engineering. Free curb parking is a sin of omission—failing to charge the right price for curb parking—while minimum parking requirements are a sin of commission—forcing up the supply of parking at every land use.

Second, Ikeda says, “It’s easy to think of quite a few other social-engineering experiments here that have been at least as bad if not orders of magnitude worse: rent control, The Great Society, nation building, slavery.” I confess that I had not considered slavery and nation building (which needs more explanation) as social engineering. As for rent control, it never extended to more than a small share of the housing stock, and it didn’t last long in most cities that tried it. In contrast, cities have imposed minimum parking requirements for almost all housing in the nation for decades. So I do not agree that rent control is “as bad if not orders of magnitude worse” than minimum parking requirements.

In The High Cost of Free Parking, I estimated that the total subsidy for off-street parking in 2002 was between $127 billion and $374 billion. Because the U.S. gross domestic product was $10.5 trillion in 2002, the subsidy for off-street parking as a share of the economy amounted to between 1.2 percent and 3.6 percent. This subsidy is huge by any comparison. In 2002, the federal government spent $231 billion for Medicare, and $349 billion for national defense.

Can the subsidy for off-street parking be anywhere near that big? Well, why not? Since the 1950s, most American cities have required every new building to provide ample off-street parking. American households now have more cars than drivers, and their cars are parked 95 percent of the time. Because motorists rarely pay anything for parking, their cars live almost rent free. American cars and light trucks logged 2.6 trillion vehicle miles of travel in 2002, so the subsidy for off-street parking ranged between 5¢ a mile (if the subsidy was $127 billion) and 14¢ a mile (if it was $374 billion). If we use the rule of thumb that increasing the gasoline tax by 1¢ a gallon increases gasoline tax revenue by about $1 billion a year, it would take an increase in the gasoline tax of between $1.27 and $3.74 a gallon to offset the subsidy for off-street parking. De-subsidizing off-street parking could thus produce the same effect on travel as increasing the gasoline tax by between $1.27 and $3.74 a gallon. Because parking costs so much and motorists pay so little for it, the hidden subsidy for off-street parking is truly gigantic.

And then there is the subsidy for on-street parking. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that the value of roads is 36 percent of the value of all state and local public infrastructure (which also includes schools, sewers, water supply, residential buildings, equipment, hospitals, and parks). Because curb parking occupies a substantial share of road space, it must be a substantial share of all state and local public infrastructure. Drivers do not pay gasoline taxes while their cars are parked, except perhaps on the gasoline lost through evaporative emissions, which pollute the air. Since drivers do pay gasoline taxes while they are driving, curb spaces are subsidized much more than the travel lanes are. Free curb parking may be the most costly subsidy that American cities provide for most of their citizens.

The size of these subsidies for both on-street and off-street parking explain why I said, “Minimum parking requirements may be our most disastrous experiment ever in social engineering, and ceasing to require off-street parking is not social engineering.” I even hedged the statement by using the word may.

Finally, in his first post, Ikeda says I urge that curb parking revenue should “be used for sidewalk and street repair.” In his most recent post he says, “Both Professors Shoup and O’Toole seem to think they know what the ‘free-market solution’ will be: for the former it’s expenditure on sidewalk repair and for the latter it’s more spending on parking.”

I think Sanford Ikeda has misinterpreted my proposal for what to do with curb parking revenue. I never said that the revenue should go for repairing sidewalks or streets. In my first response essay, I said, “I certainly agree with Sanford Ikeda’s recommendation that neighborhoods should be able to spend their curb parking revenue on their highest priorities.”

In my first response, I did not focus on the points where we disagree, and this omission was not because I thought them “not worth addressing.” Instead, I focused on the points where we do agree. After being asked to discuss the points where we disagree, I appreciate the opportunity to make a stronger case for my statement that minimum parking requirements may be our most disastrous experiment ever in social engineering.

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