In a scene from Seinfeld, George Costanza talks about why he refuses to pay for a parking spot. “My father never paid for parking, my mother, my brother, nobody," he says. "It’s like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?"
So in response to the George Costanzas of the world, parking philosopher (my words) Donald Shoup wrote the book The High Cost of Free Parking a few years ago. In it he explains that the way we have always thought about parking has been mistaken:
Somehow we expect that it should stand apart from other car-related things that we are used to having regulated - think price of gas, emissions standards, or wearing a safety belt.
But Shoup offers a game-changer of an idea. He proposes raising the cost of street parking in urban areas in order to find the maximum price that people will pay, and still leave a few open spots on every block. The reason: “Traffic is caused by people who have already arrived to their destination,” he told Fusion in a phone interview.
He cites studies showing that cars cruising for curb parking in dense business districts account for nearly a third of the traffic at any given time. “People take advantage, and camp out when [the price] is too low,” he said. “If the price is high enough, people can get their business done, and then they leave.”
Additionally, the cruising and extra traffic makes public transit slower. That causes people who have a choice of using public transit or driving to opt to drive themselves. From there, our cities devolve into a hateful spiral of honks and congestion.
Somebody Is Getting Right
The San Francisco program SFpark has turned Shoup’s theory into a reality. Parking prices are adjusted up and down periodically, to match the demand of the parking at the moment. When the demand for a parking spot goes up, so does the cost.
It's just like how normal markets work. And in the process of changing the way parking spots are priced, congestion has gone down, and city trams are shown to be running faster.
In September, the Guardian named the project one of the top five innovative city programs from North America.
Aside from the adoption of the SFpark program, there's another thing that sets a city like San Francisco apart. Unlike most cities that have minimum parking spaces per dwelling unit, San Francisco has adopted maximum parking spaces per dwelling. New York City enforces a similar zoning law.
But while notoriously innovative cities, like New York and San Francisco, find themselves on the cutting edge of urbanism, there are a few others who are just starting to flirt with the idea.
When the Miami 21 project was approved in 2009, it fundamentally changed the way that the city approached its zoning laws, parking included. It made a uniform zoning code for swaths of Miami, some of which would not have to abide by these minimum parking requirements. The city used to decide these matters on a case-by-case basis.
One of the affected projects is a new development getting ready to break ground, Centro Lofts, in the city’s downtown area. Developers at the Newgard Development Group have foregone a garage of their own, but have struck up a deal with the city, enabling access to a municipal parking garage around the corner.
“We are able to provide parking for those who want it, but not for everybody across the board,” says Oscar Rodriguez, senior vice president of the company.
Instead of the garage, the development will have a node for Car2Go (a car-sharing program), a bike lot, and a valet service. In theory, not having to provide parking for every unit should bring down the cost of development (and thus housing in general) significantly.
Since these developments have become more common, the ridership on the Metrorail has increased. Rodriguez also adds that 65 percent of the units have already been sold.
The Three Ways to Change Parking
There are exactly three ways to fix the parking epidemic of this country, according to Shoup. First, cities must raise the price of parking until they find that sweet spot that minimizes cruising. Second, they need to spend the money where they raise it. It's basically the recommendation he made to the Rio De Janeiro Mayor’s office during a recent visit.
“They are in a panic about the parking situation for the World Cup [in 2014],” he said.
For Brazil, that means that by raising the cost of parking significantly during the World Cup, they can simultaneously raise money for increased policing and city clean up.
And finally, cities must get rid of minimum parking requirements in urban communities. If we don’t take any action on the issue, he worries that long, traffic-filled commutes might only get worse.
“We are too used to expensive housing for people, and free parking for cars," Shoup said, "and then we wonder where we went wrong.”
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.