Finding a free parking space on the street is sometimes a big hassle. But cheap parking is beginning to be viewed as an environmental problem. A growing number of city planners say free parking isn’t really free. It just shifts the cost to taxpayers and society at large. In the first of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee has a report on this new view of the ongoing search for a parking space:
Finding a free parking space on the street is sometimes a big hassle. But, cheap parking is beginning to be viewed as an environmental problem. A growing number of city planners say free parking isn’t really free. It just shifts the cost to taxpayers and society at large. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee has a report on this new view of the ongoing search for a parking space.
If you’ve ever played the board game Monopoly, you’ve probably crossed your fingers as you approached the spot called “free parking.” If your token lands there, it doesn’t cost you anything.
But a researcher says there’s really no such thing as “free parking,” at least not in the real world. UCLA Professor Donald Shoup has spent 20 years dispelling the myth that free parking is good for everyone.
In his latest book, titled The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup tries to show that empty cars are taking the public and the environment for a costly ride.
“Bad parking policies are connected to a lot of other problems we have in society, but people haven’t been able to trace them to parking, and I think I’ve tried to do that.”
Take one of the biggest traffic issues facing large cities: meter cruising. That’s when drivers circle a block again and again, waiting for a curb-side meter.
“The average time it took to find a parking space was about three minutes. That doesn’t seem like too much for an individual to spending hunting for a free parking space, but it adds up if everybody else does it.”
Shoup says meter cruising wastes millions of gallons of gas every year. It also creates a lot of traffic congestion and pollution. Meter cruising’s common to downtowns, but even neighborhood shopping areas face the cruising problem.
Here’s an example. Devon Avenue is a bustling commercial strip on Chicago’s far North Side. There are lots of Indo-Pakistani restaurants, Muslim book stores and Jewish bakeries there. On a typical Saturday, the area’s so popular that only a handful of parking meters stay open for more than a few minutes. And it’s no wonder. Parking at the meter only costs 25 cents per hour.
The situation’s made worse by neighborhood parking permits. That’s a policy that keeps nearby residential streets off-limits to shoppers and restaurant-goers. Walking down the sidewalk, Grace is toting several shopping bags that heave with fresh fruit and Indian condiments.
“I went on the side streets and found a place about six blocks away without a need for a permit and took it and walked in. It’s one of the first really beautiful days of spring, so it wasn’t a hardship.”
If it hadn’t been such a nice day, Grace might have been circling the nearby blocks, wasting gas, trying to find a space at a parking meter.
Local shop owners say too many customers don’t like the parking situation. So the store owners complain to the local alderman, Bernard Stone. Seated in his office, Alderman Stone says no politician can afford to ignore demand for cheap parking. So he’s come up with a solution.
Stone: “If you look over your head, you’ll see a drawing of a new garage that’s gonna be built at Devon and Rockwell.”
Allee: “When’s that gonna be up?”
Stone: “Well, it should be started very shortly, I’ve been working at it for ten years.”
Developers for that project promised to create 200 low-rate parking spaces. It’s a deal they’ve struck in exchange for free city-owned land where they want to build. But the expert on parking, Donald Shoup says as politically appealing as that type of solution is, it doesn’t work. It really doesn’t keep cruising in check.
Well, he takes a page from both the free-marketeers and grassroots activists. First, he says raise the price for metered parking. A lot. He says how much takes a little calculating.
“We could call this the Goldilocks principle of curb parking prices. The price is too high if too many spaces are vacant and too low if no spaces are vacant. If about fifteen percent are vacant, the price is just right.”
Traffic engineers say keeping fifteen percent of spots open stops meter cruising. To save money, people leave their parking spots sooner and everyone can find new spots faster. Next, make higher parking prices politically attractive to shop owners by letting the neighborhoods keep the meter money. Critics say that’s a hard sell because many times, people worry the money will go to city hall instead.
But Shoup says it works. He points to some California towns, where the money goes to repair streets and even hire security guards. Professor Shoup’s supporters say he might be too optimistic about the prospects for change in our impulse to hunt for the closest, most perfect parking space.
Shoup says he wants to be remembered as the first who showed, unless you’re just playing games, there’s no such thing as free parking.
For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.