Shoup: Free Parking to Blame for California’s Solo Car Commuting Habit

Nonprofit reporting group California Watch recently looked at how Californians travel to work and concluded that free parking provided by the state’s employers is leading to a lot of street-clogging solo car commuting.

The Boeing campus in Seal Beach, California. Photo: ##http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/08/business/la-fi-boeing-cuts-20121109##LA Times##

Californians are only slightly more likely than the average American to carpool (11.4 percent) or ride public transit (5.2 percent) to work, and their rates of driving alone are about the same (73 percent), according to the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey.

In response, parking guru and UCLA professor Donald Shoup pointed the finger directly at company parking perks. “If you can park free at work, it’s an invitation to drive to work alone. And almost everybody who does drive to work has this invitation,” he told California Watch.

The evidence is apparent in the outcome of a 1992 state law that Shoup helped enact. California’s “parking cash-out” program requires companies that provide free parking to employees to also offer a cash payment to those who forgo the incentive. There’s a major difference between companies that comply with the law and those that don’t, California Watch reported:

A study Shoup conducted 15 years ago for the state Air Resources Board found that employers who offered cash-out programs saw solo driving to work drop by 17 percent, carpooling increase by 64 percent, walking and biking grow by 33 percent, and transit ridership jump by 50 percent.

The cash-out program is not well-known or widely enforced in California, according to California Watch. If it was, said Shoup, the biggest beneficiaries would be women and minorities, who are less likely to commute alone by car.

There are other reasons so many of the state’s commuters choose to drive. Californians who opt for transit or carpooling are likely to have longer commutes; solo drivers spend an average of 25 minutes getting to work, while carpoolers clock just over a half hour and transit riders report 47 minutes in average travel time.

San Francisco residents commute by transit the most, while Contra Costa County commuters do the most driving alone.

  • I love the parking cash-out law, but I wish participation was mandatory for more employers. My workplace doesn’t meet the minimum threshold of employees (50!) so they don’t offer any alternative to free parking. As a result, I get a $120 parking pass every month even though I ride my bike every day. Gee, thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Offering free parking is a benefit that employers extend to their workforce because it reduces their expenses and improves their quality of life. 

    It’s not enough to focus on employers offering free parking; it’s necessary to look at the reasons that free parking is seen as a benefit.

    One of the reason people drive to work is because they need to travel between several different locations: their home, their workplace and places where they shop and conduct personal business.  They often need to make pick ups and drop offs at these locations.  A typical trip might involve making several stops; dropping off the dry cleaning, and stopping at a school to pick up a child, or at a store to pick up food.

    Often, these destinations are located far from each other and in different directions; especially in suburban areas.  It is simply not possible for transit agencies to serve these far flung locations, nor is it reasonable to expect people to wait for an extended period of time for a bus or to make several transfers. Nor is it reasonable to expect people to carry a large number of items with them on these trips.  To the extent that people do wait for buses and make several transfers, it is because they don’t have a  car and have no options. 

    Studies should focus on how people actually interact with their world, rather than on how we think they ought to.

  • mikesonn

    @pchazzz:disqus A good reason why all those places are so far apart is because of free parking…

  • keenplanner

    LA should have an ordinance that states the cost of parking spaces  must be passed on to the users.  Free parking at home and at work have made LA the nightmare it is today.

  • Alice S.

    I hope that they phase out all this free parking; it’d be the first step towards making California a less car-focused place. We have to accept that the auto-oriented model is not sustainable and coax people into a transit, walking, and biking-based model where car use is minimized or deprecated.

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