There’s No Such Thing as a Free Parking Space

Following up on thoughts in the previous post about what is to be done about the Washington Metro… Here is a basic maxim to remember: If we want more people to avail themselves of shared ridership, be it commuter rail, bus, or shared ride-hailing services, they need to pay the full cost of their transportation choices. At present, nobody pays the full cost. Just as mass transit is heavily subsidized, so is automobile mobility.

Here in Virginia, motorists pay a portion of what it costs to maintain and build new roads, bridges and highways through retail and wholesale taxes on gasoline. But they also pay taxes on the purchase of new cars, which is unrelated to how many miles they travel and the wear-and-tear they put on the road system. They also pay a sales tax, which has no connection to transportation at all.

Transportation funding is just the tip of the subsidy iceberg. The current system for allocating parking spaces represents another wealth transfer, and the subsidies are all the more insidious for being invisible. However, Donald Shoup, the nation’s foremost academic authority on parking, has published a new book that sheds light on those subsidies. I have not yet read the book, “Parking and the City,” but I crib here from a review in Public Square, a publication of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

The first nationally representative survey shows that urban garage parking is costly to renters, for example. “We find that the cost of bundled garage parking for renters is approximately $1,700 per year, and the bundling of a garage space adds about 17 percent to a unit’s rent,” CJ Gabbe and Gregory Pierce write in Chapter 11. This is true even though many of these renters don’t own cars, and many of these spaces go unused.

A study in San Francisco showed that off-street parking requirements make housing more expensive. Having off-street parking raised the average household income needed to qualify for a mortgage to $76,000, from $67,000. “If the parking requirements had not existed, 26,800 additional households could have afforded condominiums,” report Bill Chapin, Wenyu Jia, and Martin Wachs. Parking reform downtown and in several adjacent neighborhoods allowed for development with 60 percent less parking and a 30 percent reduction in the construction cost of dwelling units—“enough to allow for market-rate housing that is more in line with the typical San Francisco household’s income.”

As of 2009, the average value of a motor vehicle was $5,200. Yet the average cost of an underground parking space is $34,000, and the average cost of an aboveground garage is $24,000 per space. “One space in a parking structure … costs at least three times the net worth of more than half the African-American and Hispanic households in the country,” Shoup points out.

Parking requirements play a part in determining what kind of housing is built and discouraging the “missing middle,” according to researchers. “Because parking can consume so much space and money, parking requirements needlessly reduce variety in the type and location of housing available,” notes Michael Manville.

Policies to promote off-street parking reduced the economic development in cities studied by Chris McCahill, Norman Garrick, and Carol Atkinson-Palombo. “For the six cities we considered, each parking space added since 1960 reduces potential property tax revenues by between $500 and $1,000 per year,” they write. Parking is both a cause and effect of driving, “yet the changes in commuting behavior in cities that added more parking suggest that more parking increases driving.”

Parking is expensive. In a functioning free market, automobile owners would be willing to pay for some of that parking, just as they pay for gasoline, auto insurance, tolls, and other mobility-related costs. But the practice of mandating parking is absurd. If motorists paid the full cost of parking their vehicles, people would own fewer cars, drive less, and choose more shared-ridership transportation modes.

Alas, Virginia’s transportation system, like that of every other state, is so permeated with subsidies, cross subsidies, and subsidies to counter other subsidies, that rational economic decision making is impossible. Political decisions to support “mass transit” or “road building” are driven by ideological, partisan and special-interest considerations. The scale of the misallocation of resources is mind-numbing.

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16 responses to “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Parking Space

  1. The “gasoline” part of the general sales tax is not a small thing. It amount to more than a third of the total transportation funding. It brings in a billion dollars a year and everyone, no matter where they live or what they drive – pay that tax.

    On the parking in urban areas. I that parking is in a parking structure and not an open parking lot – is there a difference in how you analyze the two?

    The reality is that most companies with a lot of employees don’t want to limit their recruitment to only those that will live near transit and use transit instead of cars. Even the Federal Govt does this.

    Fredericksburg has more than 50,000 daily commuters to the Washington MSA – every day – and most Govt agencies do provide parking They subsidize those that do take METRO or Van pools or VRE to the tune of over $200 a month but they also provide parking – gratis… and parking spaces cost 10K or more per spot.

  2. The theme here — too damn many subsidies for POV parking — certainly runs deep in our post-WWII city/suburb planning and it’s long over-due for reform. But without wholesale reductions in those subsidies, how can mass transit survive without similar subsidies? It would be helpful to know how large the parking subsidies are, at least to ensure that the subsidies to mass transit are comparable.

    I try to imagine what the early-20th Century streetcar-suburb life in northern Virginia would be like if transported into the 21st Century. Our young people say they want walkable neighborhoods; they say they want local businesses mixed in their neighborhoods; they say they want mass transit, they even talk adoringly of the hassle-filled lives they lead in places like Capitol Hill and Brooklyn without automobiles. Yet the buses run half-empty. Richmond’s Fan District swells with the on-street-parking demands of two or more autos per typical VCU-student apartment, let alone an entire town-house. Yet there is plenty of pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks, and plenty of patronage in grandfathered shops and restaurants without parking lots.

    Somehow, automobiles and the Fan are at peace with one another — without any huge garages or lots to supplement the on-street parking, people put up with the scarcity of parking perhaps because they feel a little guilty needing to bring an automobile there at all. It’s certainly true in Brooklyn — people just don’t use their cars daily in Brooklyn although there’s the weekly shopping trip, the escape to the country getaway, when having a car parked somewhere on a nearby street is a big plus. But imagine bringing that attitude to Henrico’s Mooreland Farms? The Short Pump ‘Town Center’?

    OK, so tell me what advice to give: my friend runs a business with a large office and he’s thinking of relocating to Richmond and he has to choose where to locate and how to design that space. In a Glen Allen office park, or downtown? If the latter, near a good bus line or near a ramp to the Downtown Expressway? With ugly but free parking for employees, or in that historic building near Shockoe Slip (employee fend for thyself)? What do most office workers really want — as opposed to what they say they want — by way of transportation subsidies in Richmond today?

    I submit, the D.C. area faced the same choices and has tried since the ’70s to invest (more than Richmond) in making the urban living/mass transit option a viable one. But it’s still very much a work in progress. Gentrification and demographics are ramping up support for the urban “walkable” life; inadequate city schools and METRO’s incompetence and initial design flaws and lingering racial and regional rivalries are holding things back. Slowly, the City and inner suburbs are returning to a “streetcar suburb” mentality (and resenting METRO’s frequent setbacks), while the outer auto-dominated ‘burbs are struggling with what to do with ’50s zoning and ’50s transportation assumptions.

    Why is this so painful? Will Richmond learn anything from the Washington area’s mistakes?

    • Excellent comment, Acbar –

      There is a huge paradox and myth at work here.

      In year 2000 the kids had finished their educations, had good jobs, lived in downtown DC, and so were long gone out of our big house in Potomac Md. I was time for us empty-nesters to get some downtown living, a walker/biker/ Metro/ urban neighborhood place chock full of shops, entertainment, & culture.

      We moved into NW DC, a townhouse within a few blocks of two big Metro Stops – One at Western & Wisconsin on the DC line, and another Metro stop several blocks to the south in DC. In Maryland, right across the DC Line from the first Metro Stop, every thing was booming big time, smart growth galore. Ground Zero for action and growth now in DC, I figured.

      Problem was my politically active DC neighbors (high priced lawyers, professors, consultants, Gov. types), most all progressives politically, fought tooth and nail and quite successfully on the DC side of the border to prevent that absolutely perfect storm smart growth community from happening in their neighborhoods in the DC side of the border. The contrast, in its own way, was as sharp as the border dividing San Diego from Tijuana, Mex.

      The lesson – politics, culture, government, strong leadership or its lack, mean everything. For example, in established and highly affluent neighborhoods, ones with high incomes and education, and high levels of political activism of the liberal progressive variety, when mixed with weak kneed politicians, this combination will thwart smart, healthy and balanced growth every time in DC.

  3. Another example of this paradox and myth was Georgetown’s refusal to allow Metro to build subway stops in Georgetown. And thirty years later up Wisconsin Avenue at the northern District Line where Western Ave. crosses Wisconsin Ave, the wealthy locals filed a petition to find and declare that horrible Metro Bus Maintenance garage and yard an historic national landmark. And this thus thwart the building nearby of a high-rise residential building.

    I am however opposed to cut backs in underground parking for high rise buildings, whether for residential or commercial, believing that markets should regulate and that as many options as possible is the only true solution to free, open, and efficient transports of people throughout urban and suburban areas. Limiting options is the killer evil at play here.,

    • This brings to mind personal recollections of the early proposal for a subway line that would take off from Washington Circle under Pennsylvania and M St. through a Georgetown station roughly at the Old Stone House, then one fork to Rosslyn, the other continuing west under Canal to a station at Georgetown U, then west on the old trolley ROW to near Dalecarlia with stations along the Palisades, then switching to the old CSX rail ROW (now the Bethesda to Georgetown bike trail) and on to Bethesda. I rode along much of that route in 1959 or ’60 on one of the last DC Transit trolleys to Glen Echo. But only 10-15 years later that replacement subway line was killed by: “We don’t want the City’s riff-raff (i.e., blacks) invading Georgetown.”

      As you say, “The lesson – politics, culture, government, strong leadership or its lack, mean everything.”

      As for residential parking, I agree with Jim, it adds to the cost of new housing stock; but that is not an issue in tony neighborhoods in Northwest DC. So go ahead, add parking where you add living spaces. But added parking does not make a place walkable, any more than banning it does either. Walkability is many other things, including having places to walk to.

      • Acbar’s post remind me of comments to Jim’s earlier article the Quest for Smarter Parking, dealing with Richmond’s effort to centralize and update the control of its parking.

        To this effort Don replied:

        “I am not at all sure of this.

        1. Claiming that there is sufficient parking somewhere within a 23 block area is kind of crazy. A person driving into Richmond to attend a meeting, shop or eat will look for parking in the immediate vicinity of their destination. If those lots are full – how is the person supposed to figure out where there are available spaces within the 23 block area? I would guess that 3 – 5 blocks is a better area to consider available parking.

        2. Raising prices alleviates the parking problem. Wow. Talk about penny wise and pound foolish. Yes, raising prices will reduce demand for parking. People will just stop coming to meet, shop and eat where the parking is overpriced. Parking problem solved!

        3. Richmond has no effective mass transit. There is no subway and the bus system is poorly rated. What do you expect people to do? Ride their bikes into downtown?

        You have to think about these things systematically, rather than as a series of isolated decisions. If you want people to come to downtown Richmond to meet, eat and shop then you have to make it easy. The worst retailer in America knows this. Yet it seems that there is always this bizarre discussion about how to optimize one piece of the puzzle while de-optimizing all the rest.” End of Don’s comment.

        To all of this I then replied:

        “My sense is that Jim has written a fine article and Don has written the perfect nutshell critique of that article …Yes, parking is so complicated and subjective it can’t be left to knuckleheads and experts either one – together or separately both will kill the golden goose in blink of an eye.

        Here are some general thoughts. Richmond’s government has an important roll to play on many levels here, a recognition that parking is to a degree a government asset that often must be managed for the public benefit, including for the city’s financial benefit. So Richmond’s hiring of the experts, and its serious pursuit and application of expert advice as described in article is an important step forward.

        On the other hand …

        I thought Don counter was excellent. It pointed out for example, the market distortions and absurdities that can follow if experts put blinders on when they focus too sharply on one view of the problems that parking might present and/or the opportunities that parking might afford.

        In connection with the opportunities, for example. Yes, parking can generate substantial “tolls”, that is “space rental fees,” that are dearly needed perhaps by the city. But as Don suggests, if those tolls are not wisely applied, they can quickly and easily cost the city FAR MORE in lost sales and property taxes than they generate in parking meter income.

        Indeed, those parking tolls can throttle the city’s wealth and its power to generate more wealth in its downtown and the wealth potential of its citizens living, working, and recreating there. This leads to one crux of a central reality of building best practices in parking policy … Parking is at base a lost leader. But it is a hugely important lost leader.

        Parking can generate huge “Collateral” revenues if properly managed. Conversely, if improperly managed, it can do huge collateral damage. Pure Parking Experts too often can fail to see this, particularly in nuance, including in urban situations where the stakes are very high. (as I pointed out in our earlier Fiscal Fix article.)

        So good parking policy and management is hugely important to private interests, beyond the fact that it is often on private property, and built underground only by private interests. In most cases I believe it is a very good thing done right. Here recall my earlier comments regarding whether to build beyond by parking codes for a downtown office building next to a metro stop. I will supply that citation of the parking discussion later.

        The second big crux of parking is, I believe, its complexity aspect. Parking must be looked at in a holistic way within the huge matrix of the city and all its almost endless parts. In that sense its like traffic, indeed related.

        To bring this conversation full circle, I suggest the cities like Richmond most likely have to look at their parking from a broader perspective.

        First, they need to analyze their parking policy as a tool to create wealth in their city, by serving private enterprise in ways that build inter city prosperity in a myriad of nearly endless ways for citizens, corporations and small businesses. These policies should be redesigned in ways that will not only help citizens of all kinds within the city to thrive, but should also turbo charge city revenues through the growth of property, sales, corporate, and personal taxes. Thus new parking technologies can be combined with new land use and transportation metrics to enhance the power of parking policies that create exponential wealth within the city.

        Second. the city should analyze it parking potential from the viewpoint of developing parking schemes that best finances the construction of best mix of parking spaces (the short, long, and mid-term parking fees, public and private in all kinds of different uses, public, residential, commercial) to serve the ends of developing a thriving and multifaceted base of private enterprises and public interests.

        Thirdly, the city should look at the best way to turn parking into a revenue generating profit center for city, after coming up with what works best accomplish 1 and 2 above.

        Thus, after it has considered its parking policies from the broader perspective, the city might quite likely discover that they need to bring their parking policies into a far better and more productive balance.

        This in particularly true in a city like Richmond. I gather that the city is still lacks the mix of mass transit infrastructure enjoyed by some cities. If so than the cities parking and auto transport policies are more important than they might otherwise might be. Second, it appears from the Google map that Richmond continues to have large holes in the fabric of its as build land uses. That is large numbers of under developed properties.

        Thus city needs to mix in good, targeted, and wealth creating parking strategies and tactic with enlightened land use, and transportation policies that, working together, fill in these gaps with the best most productive kinds of mixed use development.

        This is not usual. Each city and neighborhood anywhere is unique, one of a kind. So all require unique, customized solutions. One size solution never all. The reverse is always true. Real estate, no matter its type, is always unique unto itself. Only tailor made solutions by locals work.

        And all cities profit from taking a far boarder perspective before implementing any new parking plan with the new tools now available.”

        NOTE: these comments are edited from original.

    • Let me stipulate a few things up front:

      I have not yet read Donald Shoup’s “Parking and the City.” Nor its review by the Congress for New Urbanism. I have read its crib published above. It reads to me like a highly unreliable sales piece, propaganda really. But that is what cribs are often designed to do. So perhaps I am unfairly harsh.

      Here are some more stipulations:

      Georgetown DC has awful traffic, miserably little parking, no metro, and extremely poor transport access in and out across all its four sides. It’s main streets, Wisconsin Ave. and M Street, are mostly jammed. Today it is one of the most sought after and prized residential and commercial neighborhoods on the planet. How come? It’s hard to figure logically, including mathematically or by any typical planning and use standards.

      As a related matter:

      Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenue in DC traverse some of the most affluent residential and commercial neighborhoods on the planet. Both otherwise are naturally blessed with equal advantages, Metro Stops for example. Yet one thrives with some 18,000 mid and high rise residential units, while the other, its shabby sister has a faction as much, say 2000 units, and it also suffers greatly for lack of parking along 95% of its length. That is Wisconsin Ave, the mostly shabby sister that spins off a small fraction of the revenue earned daily by its beautiful sister along 95% of their length. Yet equal amounts of auto traffic burden both grand avenues daily.

      This illustrates that real estate in all its iterations are profoundly local, unique unto themselves, like individual people, including twins, are unique.

      This is also one reason why the crib for “Parking and the City” has elements of truth, but in my view these are shards of very limited application to the great majority of the real world in America today, and the book feels like the typical work product of a professor with a very narrow parochial point of view, likely quite ideological. Again, this is the sense, I get reading the crib.

      I will provide more details tomorrow morning.

      • I have read one of Shoup’s previous books, and it is critical to say that he is not “anti-parking.” Some Smart Growthers are anti-parking — they want to force people into mass transit. But Shoup is not. Shoup opposes mandatory minimums for parking spaces, which he suggests has contributed to a vast excess supply of parking and constitutes a subsidy for automobility. As I interpreted his work, he believes that the market should set the supply of parking spaces. I totally agree.

        • Jim –

          Thanks for that insight on Shoup. I have no reason to doubt you. However, I have now read the review of his book in Public Square, a publication of the Congress for the New Urbanism, written by the editor of Public. Everything said about parking in the review is negative on the subject of parking.

          Based on the review along, the writer has taken the work of Professor Shoup to launch at diatribe against parking. This is typical of ideologues. Based on what he writes, the man does not have any practical experience and is wholly unreliable. This is common as mud among the breed, thus dangerous.

          For example, Portland and San Fransisco do not have too much parking, they have far too little parking in the right places. That is one reason why both cities are so functional. The fact that both cities have perhaps far too much parking in some places in noteworthy, but not the real issue in play. Indeed hardly relevant at all to the real problem.

          Finding was is relevant about parking and using it and parking for the greatest advantage is the real issue and solution here. Most of these people don’t have a clue and are running off into the wrong direction.

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            Corrected third paragraph above. Corrections in CAPs.

            For example, Portland and San Fransisco do not have too much parking, they have far too little parking in the right places. That is one reason why both cities are so DYSFUNCTIONAL AND ONE REASON WHY HOUSING IS SO EXPENSIVE THERE. The fact that both cities have perhaps far too much parking in some places in noteworthy, but not the real issue in play. Indeed it is hardly relevant at all to the real problem.


            Finding WHAT is relevant about parking and using it and parking for the greatest advantage FOR ALL CONCERNED is the real issue and solution here.


  4. When it comes to parking – need to recognize the big differences between retired people and people who work and how that affects settlement patterns and “walkability”.

    Beltways fundamentally changed how settlement patterns “work”.

    Retired folks are not looking for the same things that working people are and that changes the nature of the settlement patterns.

    On an extreme basis – working folks are willing to live far from their work and depend on a car – and parking at work and employers recognize this and provide the parking so they can have access to quality workers.

    Retired folks have an entirely different perspective and their choice of a settlement pattern – reflects that

    The beltway, the rush hour congestion, the long-distance commutes – are not the world of retired…

    We have a particular irony in the Fredericksburg Area and that is Grandparents who lived in the Washington Area where they worked – are now moving south to Fredericksburg to be near their kids who now commute from Fredericksburg to Washington for THEIR jobs. As a result – we see more and more “active seniors” communities with upscale compact homes with tennis, golf, pickleball, a pool, etc

    My guess is that this is not unique to Fredericksburg but instead all the exurbs arrayed around the Washington MSA

    • Plus, Fairfax County’s inability to exercise fiscal discipline is pushing up real estate taxes much faster than increases in income for most working people, much less those on fixed incomes. The County continues to experience net outward movement. But for births and foreign immigration, Fairfax County’s population would be falling. More and more Fairfax County residents retire elsewhere.

      While many of our new residents are highly educated and have well-paid careers, a lot more aren’t and don’t.

      • “More and more Fairfax County residents retire elsewhere.”

        Of course they do. Who the hell would want to retire in Fairfax County? Or Baltimore County? Or Henrico County? There’s a reason Florida is packed with retirees and it’s not because all those people spent their careers in Estero!

        Counties like Fairfax are economic zones. People should leave once they stop working. I see no compelling reason for Fairfax County to want to attract and/or retain retirees. Let them move to Charlottesville where the living is easy and the healthcare is world class.

        If Fairfax County’s problem with net outward movement is people retiring and going elsewhere … that’s not much of a problem.

  5. How does Fairfax compare to other urbanized areas with regard to taxes?

    I get the impression – it’s not the tax rate but the assessed value of the properties…


    • You probably ought to think in terms of NoVa rather than Fairfax County. The way cities are handles politically in Virginia makes county to county comparisons hard.

      I spend a lot of time in Westchester County, NY. It seems a lot like NoVa to me. Very dense on the border with New York City (Yonkers) switching to small city, small town and rural as you get further and further from New York City. Adjacent counties are more rural still.

      My sense is that combines state and municipal taxes are higher in Westchester County although it also seems to have considerably better government provided amenities.

  6. Everything is subsidized. Chicken farmers pollute the bay without recompense to the fishermen whose livelihood they harm. Ethanol buoys the corm farmers because the Farm Lobby pushes its questionable environmental benefits. Poor people in Northern Virginia watch their real estate taxes flow to poor people in other jurisdictions while their own schools fail. Suburbanites fertilize their lawns and never notice the algae blooms in the Chesapeake Bay that are, at least in part, catalyzed by the suburban runoff.

    How do you untangle the endless subsidies? Is it fair to start with mass transit while letting the Farm Bureau subsidize BigAg?

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