Letters: Parking, Cars, and Mobility

Editors’ Note: Michael Manville is a colleague of Donald Shoup’s at the Urban Planning Department of the University of California, Los Angeles. He sends the following contribution.

Somewhere in the world a straw man has received the beating of his life. Randal O’Toole has delivered a powerful rebuttal to a series of points Don Shoup didn’t make. Most of the points Shoup makes, O’Toole agrees with. But O’Toole spends most of his essay disagreeing with things Shoup never brought up. So we learn O’Toole doesn’t like urban growth boundaries, parking maximums, or the “elitist backlash against low-density development.” He is also plainly opposed to Portland’s approach to redevelopment. And he makes a good case that we are better off now than we were in 1900. All fair enough. None of this, however, has anything to do with what Shoup actually wrote. In fact, a lot of it has nothing to do with anything Shoup is even interested in. I have known Don Shoup for ten years (I work with him at UCLA), and I honestly have no idea of his opinions on urban growth boundaries.

So it’s fair to wonder why all these points came up, if they are not in the essay O’Toole was ostensibly reacting to. It appears O’Toole wants to associate Shoup with people and policies he doesn’t like, and to link Shoup to his bête noir, which is the aforementioned elitist anti-car/pro-density movement. I find this entire style of argumentation—call it a “culture war” approach to transportation policy—troubling, as it shifts the focus of policy analysis away from the policies themselves and instead toward insinuations about the ulterior motives of others. Hence O’Toole argues that Shoup’s “rhetoric about the evils of urban parking and its contribution to so-called sprawl helps to incite those who are trying to reduce our mobility.”

This is an odd statement, for a few reasons. First is the allusion to nameless enemies. Who are these people trying to reduce our mobility, and where is the evidence Shoup has incited them? For that matter where is the evidence that Shoup finds urban parking evil? I have watched Don Shoup park a car, in a city; if he thought he was performing an evil act, he gave no sign of it. Shoup has certainly made plain that he finds contemporary parking policy counterproductive, even disastrous. But urban parking isn’t urban parking policy, and disastrous isn’t evil.

Then there are the ideas, implicit in O’Toole’s argument, that “mobility” must mean automobility and that any reduction in automobility is by definition bad. O’Toole said as much when he criticized Shoup in a recent LA Times article: “I am an economist, and as long as Dr. Shoup is thinking like an economist … our thinking coincides … It is when he starts thinking like an urban planner, trying to change people’s behavior and in particular trying to reduce driving, that we have a problem. … Mobility is valuable, and any limits placed upon it harm people and the economy.” [1] (The ellipses are in the original; the comment was emailed to the reporter).

I’m an urban planner, not an economist. But I know a few economists, and the sentiments above seem wrong to me. Planners and economists differ in plenty of ways. However, I don’t think one of them is that planners try to change people’s behavior and economists don’t. After all, congestion pricing, whose explicit purpose is to change people’s driving behavior, is the brainchild of economists, not planners.

I’m also not sure how an economist would evaluate the statement that “any limits” placed on mobility would “harm people and the economy.” Any limits? That’s preposterous. Economic decisions are made at the margin. No economist asks “should we have mobility or not”? The relevant question is whether the next increment of mobility we pay for will have benefits that outweigh its costs. Mobility is certainly a good thing, but the world is full of good things, and tradeoffs are inevitable. Some of the money we spend on mobility might be better spent on other good things, like public health, or scientific research, or police officers. Is it really true that even large improvements in health or safety would be unjustifiable if they resulted in small reductions in mobility?

For that matter there are tradeoffs within the broad category of “mobility” itself. Some money we spend on infrastructure for driving might be better spent on other modes of travel. There are people, after all, who are physically or legally unable to drive, or too poor to own vehicles. Public investments in automobility do these people little good, and may in fact do them harm. For example, a city might widen a street to make driving easier, but a wider street can also make walking more difficult and more dangerous. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t widen the street. But it does mean that simply being a champion of “mobility” isn’t very helpful.

More importantly, there is a difference between placing limits on mobility and removing subsidies for it. The fact that parking and driving are important doesn’t mean they should be free. I am entirely in favor of some subsidies for mobility: I think it is wise public policy, for example, to help low-income people acquire cars, and I favor many (though certainly not all) investments in transit service, again primarily to help low-income people get around. But I see no reason for across-the-board subsidies to driving that accrue to rich and poor alike.

And here is where I disagree with O’Toole’s assertion that free curb parking is primarily a subsidy to nearby businesses, not to drivers. When government regulations mandate a below-market price for curb parking, cars occupy valuable land for longer than they otherwise would, and low-value parking sessions crowd out high value sessions. Does this subsidy deliver benefits to some nearby businesses? It can, if the businesses rely heavily upon customers who insist on free street parking. But it assuredly does not benefit nearby businesses that rely on high-spending, high-time-value customers, or who count on lots of vehicle turnover in front of their stores. Nor does it benefit landowners if the price-controlled street parking allows lower-value commercial uses to persist where higher-value uses might otherwise thrive. And it doesn’t benefit any type of business if the free street parking is consumed primarily by employees, which happens with depressing frequency. Price-controlled curb parking is a subsidy to lucky drivers, just as rent-controlled housing is a subsidy to lucky renters. Price controls of every kind deliver a direct benefit to the people who are (or should be) confronted with the price.

Before closing, I want to turn to O’Toole’s incorrect statement that California requires every city to have an urban growth boundary. Many cities in California have adopted urban containment policies—the urban economist Matthew Kahn and the political scientists Elizabeth Gerber and Todd Phillips have both studied the adoption of these policies by California localities. [2] But there is no state law, to my knowledge, that compels their presence, which is why they are often controversial, and frequently the product of ballot-box zoning. A 2002 survey of 470 California cities by Gerber and Phillips suggests that 85 had some form of urban growth boundary. Further, almost a quarter of these growth boundaries weren’t binding—the boundaries were drawn to include at least 25 years of developable land. [3] Not even SB 375, the recently approved climate change bill that explicitly focuses on changing land use patterns in California in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, includes mandated growth boundaries.

So where did this statement come from? I don’t know, but if you Google “California require urban growth boundary” you come to the Wikipedia page for “urban growth boundary” which says that “California requires each county to have a Local Agency Formation Commission, which sets urban growth boundaries for each city and town in the county.”[4] The Wikipedia statement, however, is in error. LAFCOs are required to evaluate existing growth boundaries when they make decisions about secessions and annexations, but they do not require cities to have them. In fact, the phrase “urban growth boundary” never appears in the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act of 2000, which is the legislation that empowers LAFCOs.[5] Perhaps I’m missing something, but I find this piece of O’Toole’s argument mysterious.

Actually, O’Toole’s entire essay is somewhat puzzling. O’Toole seems to think “mobility” is a sovereign virtue, one whose marginal returns don’t diminish and whose presence is immune to opportunity costs. If that were the case, his fear of a culture war about cars, one that pits him against a powerful group of government and academic elites who want to undo a century’s worth of progress, might be more understandable. But I’m not convinced. Mobility is only one of many goods for which we expend scarce resources, and an unhappy fact of life is that having more of one thing often means having less of another. And yes, governments have enacted a number of policies to reduce congestion and driving. Some of these are sensible, others wrongheaded. But they do not add up to a war. In fact, all of them pale in comparison to the longstanding and ubiquitous laws that prevent congestion charges; that keep curb parking free or underpriced; that mandate the private provision of parking spaces; and that force developers to widen streets if they so much as ask for a variance. Simply by virtue of the price controls they have placed on roads and street parking, governments have made plain which side they are on when it comes to the automobile. American transportation policy would be far saner if we picked off this low-hanging fruit of government regulation.


[1] Martha Groves. 2010. “He Puts Parking in Its Place.” Los Angeles Times. October 10.

[2] Kahn, Matthew. 2007. “Do California’s Greens Support Compact Cities? Evidence from Transportation and Housing Supply Policy.” Also Elizabeth Gerber and Todd Phillips. 2004. “Direct Democracy and Land Use Policy: Exchanging Public Goods for Development Rights.” Urban Studies. 41(2): 463–479.

[3] Gerber, Elizabeth and Todd Phillips. 2005. “Evaluating the Effects if Direct Democracy on Public Policy. California’s Urban Growth Boundaries.” American Politics Research. 33(2):310-330.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urban_growth_boundary

[5] http://www.kingslafco.com/cortese-knox-hertzberg.pdf

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.