Thursday, January 5, 2012

Donald Shoup and the Economics of Parking

Los Angeles Magazine has a lively and well-informed article, "Between the Lines" written by Dave Gardetta about the history and present of parking in Los Angeles with frequent reference to one of my secret heroes, although I've never met him,: the economist Donald Shoup. (Thanks to Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution for the pointer here.) Here are a few excerpts:

"In the United States hundreds of engineers make careers out of studying traffic. Entire freeway systems like L.A.’s have been hardwired with sensors connecting to computer banks that aggregate vehicle flow, monitor bottlenecks, explain congestion in complicated algorithms. Yet cars spend just 5 percent of their lives in motion, and until recently there was only one individual in the country devoting his academic career to studying parking lots and street meters: Donald Shoup."

"Shoup is 73 years old. He drives a 1994 Infiniti but for the last three decades has steered a 1975 Raleigh bike two miles uphill daily in fair weather, from his home near the Mormon temple to the wooded highlands of UCLA’s north campus. ... This year Shoup’s 765-page book, The High Cost of Free Parking, was rereleased to zero acclaim outside of the transportation monthlies, parking blogs, and corridor beyond his office door in UCLA’s School of Public Affairs building. He wasn’t surprised—“There’s not even a name for what I do,” he says. Shoup, however, does not lack for acolytes. His followers call themselves Shoupistas, like Sandinistas, and on a Facebook page they leave posts suggesting parking meters for prostitutes and equations that quantify the contradiction between time spent cruising for free parking versus the “assumed time-value” cited to justify expanding roadways. (The hooker stuff is more interesting.)"

"After 36 years, Shoup’s writings—usually found in obscure journals—can be reduced to a single question: What if the free and abundant parking drivers crave is about the worst thing for the life of cities? That sounds like a prescription for having the door slammed in your face; Shoup knows this too well. Parking makes people nuts. “I truly believe that when men and women think about parking, their mental capacity reverts to the reptilian cortex of the brain,” he says. “How to get food, ritual display, territorial dominance—all these things are part of parking, and we’ve assigned it to the most primitive part of the brain that makes snap fight-or-flight decisions. Our mental capacities just bottom out when we talk about parking. ...”

"L.A. has been a wellspring for a parking guru like Shoup to become self-realized. Our downtown contains more parking spaces per acre than any other city in the world and has been adding them at a rate of about 1,000 a year for a century. ... Whereas a skyscraper of a million square feet in New York may be required to have 100 parking spaces, an equal-size structure in L.A., like the U.S. Bank Tower, is compelled by the city to provide closer to 1,300 spaces. The maxim is wrong: L.A. wasn’t built around the car. It was built around the parking lot....  L.A. sits on a mountain-size surplus of parking it doesn’t know what to do with. ... San Francisco or New York might have ten times the parking each has now if they had buildings like 1100 Wilshire, where the first 15 floors are all garage. But the downtown areas of those cities won’t allow it.  L.A. mandates it. In Los Angeles we attend dinner parties and wish out loud for more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, increased urban density, more mass transportation, less congestion, less air pollution, less reliance on our cars—and cheap, abundant parking wherever we go." 
 For those who would like a taste of Shoup, but don't quite feel up to 765 pages on The High Cost of Free Parking, I recommend Shoup's lead essay in the April 2011 issue of Cato Unbound: Free Parking or Free Markets. Some excerpts follow, although for much more detail and vivid examples from specific cities you need to click through to the essay:

"Cities should set the right price for curb parking, because the wrong prices produce bad results. Where curb parking is underpriced and overcrowded, a surprising share of traffic can be cruising in search of a place to park. Sixteen studies conducted between 1927 and 2001 found that, on average, 30 percent of the cars in congested traffic were cruising for parking. ... Free curb parking in a congested city gives a small, temporary benefit to a few drivers who happen to be lucky on a particular day, but it creates large social costs for everyone else every day. To manage curb parking and avoid the problems caused by cruising, some cities have begun to adjust their curb parking prices by location and time of day to produce an 85 percent occupancy rate for curb parking, which corresponds to one vacant space on a typical block with eight curb spaces. ..."
"Drivers want to park free, and that will never change. What can change, however, is that people can want to charge for curb parking. The simplest way to convince people to charge for curb parking in their neighborhood is to dedicate the resulting revenue to paying for added public services in the neighborhood, such as repairing sidewalks, planting street trees, and putting utility wires underground. That is, the city can offer each neighborhood a package that includes both performance-priced curb parking and the added public services financed by the meters. Performance pricing will improve the parking and the revenue will improve the neighborhood. ..."

"Requiring ample parking does give us all the free parking we want, but it also distorts transportation choices, debases urban design, damages the economy, and degrades the environment. Some cities have begun to remove minimum parking requirements, at least in their downtowns, for two reasons. First, parking requirements prevent infill redevelopment on small lots, where fitting both a new building and the required parking is difficult and expensive. Second, parking requirements prevent new uses for many older buildings that lack the parking spaces required for the new uses. A search of newspaper articles about minimum parking requirements found 129 reports of cities that have removed off-street parking requirements in their downtowns since 2005. ... Minimum parking requirements may be our most disastrous experiment ever in social engineering, and ceasing to require off-street parking is not social engineering.... If cities remove off-street parking requirements, they will have to charge performance prices for the curb spaces to prevent spillover, but this will produce another great benefit: All the money paid for curb parking will become a new revenue stream to pay for local public services. Curb parking will become too valuable not to meter. Removing the parking requirements for both housing and offices can produce a cascade of benefits: shorter commutes, less traffic, a healthier economy, a cleaner environment, and more affordable housing.... The upside of the mess we have made is that we have an accidental land bank readily available for job-adjacent housing. This land is now locked up in required parking, but if cities remove their unwise parking requirements we can reclaim land on a scale that will rival the Netherlands. ... Some people assume that America has a freely chosen love affair with the car. I think it was really an arranged marriage. By recommending minimum parking requirements in zoning ordinances, the planning profession was both a matchmaker and a leading member of the wedding party."