A growing number of city planners say we’re building more parking than we really need. They say the fact that nearly all parking is free, makes the situation worse. Their ideas are turning nearly fifty years of urban planning on its head. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee has this second report in a two-part series:
A growing number of city planners say we’re building more parking than we really need. They say the fact that nearly all parking is free, makes the situation worse. Their ideas are turning nearly fifty years of urban planning on its head. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee has this report:
If you had to pay for a parking space, would you think twice before making a frivolous trip, say, to a convenience store for a candy bar?
City planning researcher Donald Shoup bets you would stay home if you had to pay, or maybe you’d walk instead. That’s a point he makes in his recent book, The High Cost of Free Parking. In it, he tries to show that free parking entices us to waste gas. He says paved lots also compete for better uses of land, like parks or housing. Shoup says the problem’s very real – but to see it, you need to step out of your automobile.
“Any view of suburbia from the air will show you a lot of parking lots and a lot of these parking lots will have empty parking spaces.”
I decided to take a look at what’s Shoup’s talking about in Lincolnwood Illinois, a Chicago suburb. I cheated by skipping the air fare, though. Some new Internet sites can provide satellite photos of your area. I joined two of Lincolnwood’s city planners, Tim Clarke and John Lebeque, in their office to get a birds-eye view of their home turf.
Clarke: “The plus is closer.”
Allee: “Right, and go ahead and see if you can find… There it is. Lincolnwood.”
Allee: “So find a retail strip.”
Turns out, Donald Shoup was right. Within a minute, we find a popular grocery store, with a huge parking lot. Tim Clarke recognizes it.
“It’s probably one-third filled. I’m not sure when this aerial was taken. I’ve never seen the parking lot full.”
So why should a busy store’s parking lot be two-thirds empty most of the time? Shoup says it’s the cities’ fault. Cities make the rules. They say how many spaces each new business, house, and apartment building must provide.
By his estimation, city government does a poor job at guessing how much parking we really need. Shoup says governments force businesses to provide enough spaces to meet peak demand, such as the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year.
“Everyone understands the advice, don’t build your church for Easter Sunday, but we build our parking for the week before Christmas.”
In other words, cities tell stores to build parking for the year’s busiest two weeks, even if most of the spaces are empty the rest of the time. He says, without city pressure, a lot of businesses would create smaller lots or they’d sell off parking space they don’t need.
Tim Clarke, the Lincolnwood planner, says suburbs do err on the side of too much parking, but they’re often planning for future growth. He gives an example of a small Lincolnwood dental practice that had 7 examination rooms, but only used three of them. The dentist wanted to build fewer parking spaces than the village required, because it was small and family-run.
“But one could imagine that that family at some time in life would sell that business and someone would come in and want to use all 6 or 7 examining rooms at one time.”
So city planners have to look at the long term use of a building.
Many of Lincolnwood’s largest retailers actually build more than they need to. Bob Johnson runs a Lowe’s Home Improvement store built in late 2003. He says stores like his don’t gamble with having too few spaces.
“I think customers are going to shop, again, where they feel most comfortable and what’s convenient for them. The key word there being convenience. If they’re inconvenienced, they might drive another couple blocks down the road.”
Shoup says that’s a calculation that businesses have to make. He says market forces can help decide how many spaces should be built, but government should not force retailers to have too many spaces. Nor should it force them to offer only free parking.
In fact, Professor Shoup says cities, especially suburban cities, could use land more efficiently if businesses controlled demand for parking like they control everything else: by setting the right price.
“I’m just saying that cities should not force anyone to provide more parking than drivers are willing to pay for.”
Killing our appetite for cheap, abundant parking could be difficult, but Shoup says pressure’s building for change. He says, as suburbs grow, space gets tight. And that raises prices for all land uses.
“I think most people now are focused on the high cost of housing. I think we’ve got our priorities wrong if housing is expensive and the parking is free.”
In his battle against too much parking, Shoup says the most effective weapon might be a little comparison shopping. Free parking might not seem so cheap once it’s compared to the cost of other needs.
For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.