By Josh Stephens
Anyone who has ever eaten the exhaust of a Lamborghini understands the visceral charms of driving. Its appeal lies similarly in the curves of the Big Sur Highway, the preening queues on the Sunset Strip, and the anticipatory thunder of a NASCAR starting line.
The notion of a “love affair with cars” has gone from metaphor to cliché to hardened myth in the course of the past century, and even the dowdiest of America’s engineers, transportation planners and public officials have been seduced into serving the auto’s every need. Meanwhile, parking, which is the obvious, and necessary, corollary to driving, gets only whispered about, like condoms at the back of a drug store. Indeed, the most shocking claim in Professor Don Shoup’s magnum opus The High Cost of Free Parking is not that cities have implemented bad policies -- that happens all the time for all sorts of reasons -- but that almost no one has bothered to study those policies.
As it turns out, every car on the road equates to roughly seven patches of asphalt off the road. Cars get stored at home, at work, at the grocery store, and all about town. They take up valuable real estate, and, even then, any given space is more likely to be empty than not, whether they come in the form of flat expanses of asphalt or towering monoliths of concrete. They amount to the greatest, most pointless failure in American planning and design. Were parking not an aesthetic crime, it would, at the very least, be a sin against efficiency.
Yes, call me biased. But to say that a transportation writer shouldn’t descry parking lots is like saying a crime reporter shouldn’t be opposed to murder.
For all the effort that planners exert to create regulations and, on occasion, envision better cities, their approach to parking has been based on specious assumptions and utter irrationality. Why measure peak annual parking rather than averages? Why give away desirable spaces for free? Who knows what an abattoir is, much less how many parking spaces it needs? Arbitrary minimum parking requirements have not only stretched cities out physically -- so that buildings are enshrouded by surface parking lots and therefore separated from each other -- but also stretched them financially. The costs that parking imposes are in the price of every bag of Cheetos at K-Mart, every minute stuck in suburban traffic, and, indirectly, in lost revenue to cities.
It’s tempting to think that in the postmodern world that we’ve outgrown paradigm shifts, but Professor Shoup has done his best to give us one. He calls for a dramatic reinterpretation of the ills and possibilities of parking, and he’s kind enough to prescribe some compelling solutions: higher street parking rates, communal lots, maximums instead of minimums, parking benefit districts, and the rest. The ball is now in the public officials’ court. My article is but the latest (though perhaps longest) in a series of articles dedicated to Shoup’s studies, so no planner or city engineer has any excuse not to consider his prescriptions.
Shoup himself has taken enthusiastically to the lecture circuit, translating dense, statistics-laden work into a call to action. Refreshingly, he is the opposite of the proverbial bureaucratic planner: He is excited by his own work and believes that it can make the world a better place. And his tools offer cities the chance to rebuild themselves in unconventional, inexpensive ways by centering not on infrastructure or unproven technology, but rather on pricing signals and revision of outdated, inefficient regulations.
Cities that have no money for infrastructure investments, are crushed by byzantine planning codes, or are otherwise skittish about upsetting the status quo now have no excuse not to consider parking reform. What developers would not be happier to have their parking requirements cut in half? What merchant open in the daytime wouldn’t be thrilled to share parking with the dinner theater next door? What big box developer wouldn’t be perfectly content to cut down a few fewer trees -- if only the laws allowed them to?
Studies have shown that abstinence education has largely been a failure. The future for parking abstinence, is, however, far brighter. A city with less parking, less traffic, and more pleasant places to live, work, and stroll hand-in-hand would be sexier indeed.
As for what goes on in the backseat: you kids are on your own.
Josh Stephens is the author of "Putting Parking into Reverse," published in the winter 2009 issue of InTransition. He is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.