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The high cost of free parking
- Donald Shoup
Friday, June 3, 2005

Paving an entire state for a parking lot sounds outrageous. But because there are at least three parking spaces for each of the 230 million vehicles in the United States, the total space devoted to parking in America amounts to an area about the size of Connecticut.

Parking is free to the driver for most vehicle trips. Free, but not cheap. According to evaluations by Mark Delucchi of the University of California at Davis, we spend about as much to subsidize off-street parking as we do on Medicare or national defense. The additional driving encouraged by free parking also increases traffic congestion, air pollution and accidents. To fuel this extra driving, we import more oil, and pay for it with borrowed money.

Why do we have so much free parking? The short answer is that most cities require plentiful off-street parking for all new buildings. These off-street parking requirements often produce a surplus of available spaces, even during the peak shopping season. A 1999 study by the Urban Land Institute found that parking lots at 43 percent of shopping malls were never more than 85 percent occupied even the week before Christmas.

San Francisco differs from most cities by putting a cap on the number of parking spaces downtown. For a convention center, Los Angeles requires, as a minimum, 50 times more parking spaces than San Francisco allows as the maximum. As a result, Moscone Center anchors a pedestrian-friendly redevelopment area, while the L.A. Convention Center is surrounded by an ocean of parking spaces.

Even in San Francisco, however, 93 percent of all curb spaces are free, and the metered curb spaces are priced well below off-street rates. One survey found that the average price of downtown curb parking is only 20 percent of the price of adjacent off-street parking. This underpricing creates a problem, because drivers cruising in search of cheap curb parking add to traffic congestion and air pollution. Studies of cruising in downtowns have found that up to 74 percent of traffic was searching for parking, and the average time to find a curb space ranged up to 14 minutes.

Cruising is a common problem in San Francisco. A study on West Portal Avenue conducted by Robert Saltzman of San Francisco State University found that average cruising time to find a curb space was 3.2 minutes. For one driver, this does not seem like much time, but when you add up all the cruising by everyone who parked in the area during a day, it can add up. A similar study in Westwood Village in Los Angeles showed that over a year, cruising generated nearly 1 million excess vehicle miles of travel -- equivalent to 38 trips around the Earth.

City planners have tried to prevent cruising by requiring every new building to provide off-street parking, but everyone pays for this parking in countless, unseen ways. Most cities require commercial buildings to provide a parking lot larger than the floor area, and for restaurants the parking lots are often at least three times the size of the dining area. The cost of these parking spaces has to turn up somewhere, usually as higher prices for everything we buy. Even those who walk, bike or ride public transit pay for parking indirectly.

What can cities do to reduce the high cost of free parking? Here are two recommendations:

-- First, cities should charge the right price for curb parking, so that about 15 percent of spaces are vacant. That way, drivers will always be able to find one or two open curb spaces per block, and no one will cruise. We can call this the Goldilocks price. If no curb spaces are vacant, the price is too low, and if many spaces are vacant, the price is too high. If about 15 percent of the spaces are vacant, the price is just right. Parking is like gasoline: Cars use it, so drivers should pay for it.

-- Second, cities should return all the increased meter revenue to the metered districts. The parking revenues can pay to clean and repair the sidewalks, light the streets, remove graffiti, plant trees, provide security and put utility wires underground in the metered districts. These public improvements will attract even more customers, some of whom will walk from the surrounding neighborhoods.

These policies have helped to turn the Old Pasadena district in Southern California from a skid row to the region's premier shopping destination. Parking meters provide $1.2 million a year for public improvements in the area, and customers can always find a convenient place to park.

"The only reason meters went into Old Pasadena in the first place was because the city agreed all the money would stay in Old Pasadena" said Marilyn Buchanan, chair of the district's parking advisory committee. "We've come a long way. This might seem silly to some people, but if not for our parking meters, it's hard to imagine that we'd have the kind of success we're enjoying. They've made a huge difference. At first it was a struggle to get people to agree with the meters. But when we figured out that the money would stay here, that the money would be used to improve the amenities, it was an easy sell."

How can San Francisco return meter revenue to the neighborhoods that generate it without shortchanging the rest of the city? It can give any increases in parking meter revenue to the neighborhoods that want to raise meter rates or extend meter hours. This way, the city won't lose any existing meter revenue, but neighborhoods will have a reason to support charging market rates for curb parking.

No one wants to pay for curb parking -- that will never change -- but if cities spend the revenue to pay for public services next to the parked cars, many people will begin to see the advantages of charging for curb parking. The potential revenue is enormous in San Francisco, which, according to the Department of Parking and Traffic, has more cars per square mile than any other city in the nation. If the city shares the increased parking revenue with the metered areas -- so that drivers can always find a convenient place to park at their destination -- market-rate prices for curb parking look like a good idea for neighborhoods, the economy and the environment.

Donald Shoup is a professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of "The High Cost of Free Parking," published in March by the American Planning Association. More information is available at www.bol.ucla.edu/~shoup.

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2005 San Francisco Chronicle