There’s No Such Thing As Free Parking

by Ann Mesnikoff, via Sierra Club’s Compass

What does parking have to do with our addiction to oil? Quite a bit, it seems, once you dig into the issue.

Americans are said to love their cars, and along with that is a love, or really, an expectation of parking – whether that’s free or cheap parking — it’s a lot of parking.  And so we have policies in place that encourage parking. Take for example current federal tax policy allows commuters to deduct $240 a month from pre-tax income to pay for parking for your commute, but only $120 per month for using transit.

The parking issue is hot in Seattle where Mayor Mike McGinn proposed to let developers who are building housing within 1300 feet of transit decide how much parking to provide for residents. The Seattle Times was appalled – calling it “utopian” to think residents will drop the car.  Streetsblog notes that “[m]inimum parking requirements are, essentially, a tax on development meant to encourage driving.”

Parking is a frequent issue among Sierra Club transportation activists, most recently in our own debate over the New York Times invitation to readers to respond to a letter posted by Randy Salzman on the need to change our car culture.

It so happens that Sierra Club’s San Diego Chapter transportation chair Mike Bullock is a parking expert, so I asked him a few questions about how changing parking policies can help reduce driving and our addiction to oil.

How does so called “free” parking feed our addiction to oil?
Well, of course it’s never free. It’s very expensive to provide parking. And we pay those costs, as employees, as residents, and as consumers. The “addiction feeding” comes from hiding those costs and making them essentially mandatory. If we had the free choice to not drive, once in a while, and save some of the money we are losing because of “free” parking, we would in fact drive less.

We often think of parking spaces – surrounding big box stores, in our downtowns, or near housing – as free.  How much does it cost to build a parking spot?
In many locations, it comes down to the cost of land. An acre of land only parks around 120 cars. So, where an acre is worth $1.2 million, the cost of the land is $10,000 per space. Parking garages would seem to be a smart choice where land is expensive, because the cars are being stacked. However the construction is expensive and the higher up you go, the larger the steel members have to be.

Construction costs are typically between$20,000 and $40,000 per space. Of course the prettiest parking is underground, because it is invisible to the urban landscape. However this is the most expensive parking. Developers have told me that this parking is around $100,000 per space. So the simple answer is that parking costs a lot.

What are some ways parking could be addressed to help cut our addiction to oil?
Except where parking is being operated to provide a legitimate profit for investors, the best way would be to unbundle the cost of the parking. This means that the cost is made visible and optional. There are several ways to do this. I have written a paper that described one way and it is a way that would always work. Using this method, any bundled cost could be unbundled. To those that are losing money due to the parking, the system would feel like getting paid to not drive.

Are there some examples where pricing parking has cut driving?
My paper on parking has a table with 10 cases of locations where parking became priced. These cases are put into three groups: those having poor transit, those having fair transit, and those having good transit. The overall average decrease in driving was 23%. The smallest change was 15%. Obviously, I wish we had more data.

Ann Mesnikoff is Director of the Sierra Club Green Transportation Campaign. This piece was originally published at the Sierra Club and was re-printed with permission.

15 Responses to There’s No Such Thing As Free Parking

  1. Bruce says:

    The parking space for a Chevy Volt is the same as the parking space for a Jeep Wrangler.
    What would it take to cover large parking areas with solar panels and turn them into charging stations?

  2. M E Foley says:

    Parking lots as solar harvesters and chargers — that’s a really fabulous idea!

  3. S. D. Jeffries says:

    My cousin and her husband recently bought a brand new condo in Chicago. They have two cars. The condo cost $400,000, which did not include an off-street parking space. Deeded parking spaces in a heated garage were available for an additional $40,000 each. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, they finally decided to buy one parking space and get rid of one car. I suggest we would see a lot more of this type of behavior if people had to purchase their parking spaces separately from their living spaces.

  4. fj says:

    From the military, insight into the dopey way transportation is done:

    ” . . . huge fleets of colossal ships are not only prohibitively expensive but also undesirable

    Unmanned nanomaterial Piranha

  5. KC says:

    I live in the inner-city. I need a car because my commute to work is 20 minutes and transit takes an hour on a good day. I need my car for business purposes during the day. Transit is not an option because I don’t have 50% of my day available to stand and wait. I am not unique as many car owners have similar circumstances. I need a parking spot at home, at work, and in various places from time to time during my work day. I have family out of town and travel to visit, seldom driving alone. Within the city’s core I bicycle when I can or take transit. My city has done everything possible to discourage driving (to the extent that much infrastructure has been compromised yet the fact remains that for many of its citizens, the automobile is still an absolute necessity and will remain so regardless of its source of energy (fossil, electric, hydrogen, etc.) For better or for worse, the fact remains that the need for parking spaces is not about to evaporate anytime soon.

  6. David Smith says:

    There have been many discussions involving the true cost of oil or nat gas etc. What is the true cost of driving a car?… including things like road costs and subsidies, parking, facilities for maintenance and repair…. The part that’s paid by the government, state & federal. And maybe, who is using it vs who is paying for it.

  7. They did that at my city hall.
    It looks cool!

  8. John Mashey says:

    1) The definitive book is Don Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking.

    2) Parking spaces are still needed, indeed … but the issue is the hidden subsidies that can actually raise costs and mis-apply resources.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    How about simply doing away with your military? It’s coming up to 200 years since the 48 states were attacked by a real military, yet you spend over a trillion a year to terrorise the rest of the planet in the name of market capitalism (thinly disguised as ‘freedom and democracy’). One hundred billion a year for twenty years would make the world of difference. Why, the military-industrial complex could simply re-tool to produce ecological repair equipment and renewable energy. Why it has not happened, and will not, is a vital question, and I know the answer.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    What!!? Two hours, there and back, is half your day? I take two buses in the morning, three in the arvo, and spend the time reading, and taking in the human comedy. It’s better than the alternative.

  11. Joan Savage says:

    The price of asphalt has been going up. Expect repair costs of open lots and roads with metered parking to climb.

  12. Joan Savage says:

    I meant roadside parking spaces- metered or unmetered.

  13. Anne van der Bom says:

    Is your conscience bothering you? Do you feel guilty and think you need to explain so people don’t think bad of you? Why this elaborate public excuse?

    Grow up! Your life is the consequence of your own choices. Either do what you do and don’t feel guilty or stop doing it.

  14. dooberheim says:

    One hundred billion dollars for 20 years isn’t squat when you discuss the cost of repowering America. $100 billion will buy 100 GW of solar panels at $1/watt (good luck with that – the world only makes about 20 GW of them per year) which only makes about as much energy as 25 GW of fossil or nuclear capacity. 20 years of that might replace half of our electric power generation, which does not include energy backup, transmission lines, electric cars and trains, etc, etc. It will take more like $100 trillion to repower America. We’ll never afford it.


  15. dooberheim says:

    The fundamental problem is you’re charging cars, which require 80-90 units of energy to move one ennrgy unit of person (in a typical drive-alone scenario). The problem is not what we run the cars on, the problem is the fundamental inefficiency of the regular American automobile.

    This is the reason why so few electric cars exist. One has to move so much more weight than the driver that the batteries can’t give much range.