If Americans Paid for the Parking We Consume, We’d Drive 500 Billion Fewer Miles Each Year

Most parking spots might cost you nothing, but parking is never really free. We just pay for it in ways that are completely divorced from our actual consumption of parking.

Free parking at the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania. Photo: Montgomery County Planning Commission/Flickr
Free parking at the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania. Photo: Montgomery County Planning Commission/Flickr

Most parking spots might cost you nothing, but parking is never really free. We just pay for it in ways that are completely divorced from our actual consumption of parking.

Instead of paying directly for parking, the costs are almost always bundled into the price of other things we consume. These costs are very real — it takes a lot of land, material, and labor to build and maintain parking spaces — but in the name of cheap driving, we’ve made them invisible. Everything else costs more so that driving can cost less.

Pricing a good this way produces what economists call a market distortion. Because the price of parking is hidden, Americans purchase more parking than we would if we paid for it directly.

Let’s say, for example, that the rent for an apartment also includes a parking space that costs $100 a month. The parking appears to be free, but if the rent was reduced by $100 a month and the parking was sold separately, how many people would still pay for it? Some would choose to pay for car storage and others would not — the net result would be less parking consumption than when the price of parking is hidden.

All these hidden parking costs add up to a huge subsidy for cars and driving.

In a new report, Todd Litman, a transportation economist who studies the effects of subsidies for parking and roads at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia, estimates that the annualized cost of land, construction, maintenance, and operations per parking space in the U.S. comes out to $600 [PDF]. Since there are about four parking spaces per vehicle in America, the cost per car is $2,400 each year.

But most parking is “free,” so Americans only spend about $85 annually on parking per vehicle, according to Litman, meaning the annual parking subsidy per vehicle is more than $2,300. That exceeds what Americans spend on fuel.

“The implications are huge,” Litman told Streetsblog.

If we paid for parking directly instead, Litman projects that Americans would drive about 16 percent less. That equates to about 500 billion fewer miles per year.

Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation. Pricing parking, on its own, could make a significant dent in the nation’s carbon pollution, not to mention the terrible loss of life on the roads.

It should be noted that Litman considers this to be a conservative estimate of America’s cumulative parking subsidy, which doesn’t account for the full value of all on-street parking spaces or the environmental degradation caused by parking facilities. Incorporating those costs too would lead to a 20 percent reduction in traffic, he estimates.

Parking is one of the larger hidden subsidies for driving in the U.S., but it’s not the only one. If America priced roads, fuel, insurance, and other components of the vehicular transportation system to account for the full costs of congestion, car crashes, infrastructure wear-and-tear, emissions, and other impacts, Litman projects that traffic would fall about 43 percent.

  • In Denver you have to be wealthier on-average to live in the city than you do to live in the suburbs by approximately double, and the US Census ACS says that wealthy people don’t ride public transit either.

    Here in Metro-Denver housing on the suburban fringe costs half what housing costs in the city, leaving lots of money left over to buy and drive a car with.

  • Andrew

    Where my wife and I live for convenience to multiple non-urban destinations, for multiple destinations in different directions, and because city felony crime rates are 10-20 times as high as they are here, our Walk Score is 9 out of 100. We were promised both two rail mass transit lines and a BRT line within walking distance back in 2004 and unfortunately, after RTD wildly overspent on grandiose train stations and wildly-expensive unnecessary bridges, now they are flat broke for the next 25 years and are cutting staff and deferring maintenance on their aging buses that average 11 years old already.

    This has nothing whatsoever to do with the comment to which it purports to respond. Nice rant, though.

  • Andrew

    Or you can save a nice bundle by not owning a car and use the proceeds to pay for housing in a walkable setting.

  • Andrew

    Oh dear, don’t tell him that you don’t pay for car insurance, or else he’ll call you a freeloader!

  • That condo above has a high walk score and is just a mile from downtown Denver but the asking price of $4.1 million is 5 times what I can afford too.

  • Andrew

    $688? You poor soul!

  • Or you could live in walkable central city Denver and pay five times as much as it costs to live in our suburbs where a car will be required.

    Do rich people ride public transit where you are from Andrew as they almost never do here?

    My Jeep Grand Cherokee ran me $30K brand-new and its operating cost is maybe 40 cents per-mile. So far I have put 44K miles on it in the 5 years since I bought it brand-new.

    Since I was 16 in 1972 I have owned 19 cars and two 18-wheel trucks. Nothing like bulldogging 4-wheelers driving up 2nd Ave on Manhattan.

  • You could buy this condo 3 miles from downtown Denver for only $1.4 million, plus HOA dues of probably another $500/month, double what my house in the suburbs costs, for 1500 LESS square footage, and still drive to your job downtown as well as drive to the airport and to the grocery store or ride Uber too.

    You can walk to Cheeseman Park but not much else without having to walk a mile or more, and between this place and downtown is a high-crime area too. Why would anyone want to live like this when you can live for half as much in the suburbs?


  • If we are going to die of climate change within 20 years it is already too late to prevent it due to greenhouse gases already emitted. Where does your food supply come from and how is it hauled?

  • kevd

    $0 for me!

  • kevd

    Sounds like Denver needs more dense housing in walkable/transit accessible neighborhoods. Demand is clearly outstripping supply and driving prices through the roof!

  • Down from 411 lbs. I have and had several medical issues that caused me to gain lots of weight and both my one great, great grandfather, who lived in the 1800s and early 1900s, as well as his father, who was a Civil War officer, were both my size too, so it is also hereditary.

    I also have COPD and an asthmatic reaction to certain pollen, molds, and certain industrial chemicals which make doing a lot of walking much more-difficult than for those of us not similarly affected.

  • You would also need a car if the urban area you lived in had virtually no housing with a high walk score that anyone earning less than 6 figures could afford. Not all of us live in high-cost/high-wage/extremely high-density urban areas, in-fact the 80% majority of urban Americans don’t.

    As I said before, just take whatever you earn in NYC and subtract 60-70% from it, which is what the median professional wage is in the vast majority of American urban areas.

    Do you have teens or young adult kids living at-home, who don’t work downtown, and can’t ride public transit or bike to their jobs, like I have?

    Even my wife works 2 out of 5 days weekly in a small city 20 miles north of us where there exists no public transit connection that wouldn’t involve riding 4 buses approx 4 times the straight line distance and would still require driving 5 miles to the closest bus stop or 10 miles to a park & ride facility that would save 1 of the 4 required bus rides too.

    We are not asses out here in heartland America but you must realize that our situation is much different than yours is too.

    For instance, how far would you have to walk to reach any bus route in northwest Detroit within the city limits? Each one of those little roadway boxes on the northwest side is one mile square.


    Think that SEMTA has precious little coverage within Detroit’s city limits, with no rail service and only bus routes. check-out these three maps of suburban Detroit. Including Detroit and its suburbs the urban area covers roughly 3000 square miles and has less bus service than Staten Island has. Moreover, the current median household income in Metro-Detroit is only about $50K.

    West and Southwest suburban Metro-Detroit:

    Northeast Metro-Detroit, which is built-up solidly all the way up to at-least 25 Mile Rd to the northeast part of this map, and several more miles from downtown to the northwest part of this map. Again, those little roadway squares are one mile square.


    This is the northwest side of suburban Metro-Detroit. The entire map is built-up suburbs, which go another 10 miles north, northwest, and at-least 6-8 miles west of the map extent too.

    How far do you have to walk to get to a bus in Waterford, MI, which is about 10 miles west of Pontiac, itself 28 miles from downtown Detroit? About 10 miles. How far do you have to walk to get to a bus from While Lake Twp, about 5 miles west of Waterford, which is also heavily built-up? About 15 miles.

    How many bike routes do they have between Waterford and Pontiac? Zero, as they can’t even afford to maintain the roads there.

    What do you do if you live in White Lake Twp like a senior Delta Airlines pilot I grew-up with? You own a car and drive, or you walk or ride the 25 miles each way to work, half the distance without any bicycle infrastructure in traffic density that rivals that of the NYC metropolitan area.

    PS: Your chance of getting robbed on the street averages probably 10 times as high where there is bus service in Metro Detroit as where there isn’t any.


    You keep going on living in your own special little version of reality Andrew and I will go on trying to plan for the other 80% of US urban areas where public transit, bike, and pedestrian reality is far different than it is in NYC, most-often marked by a critical lack of mass transit funding and with a high percentage of urban residents stuck driving no matter how much it costs.

  • $688/month for a normal-sized car for parking, which only runs $75-$150/month in our heartland, which is the same place that your income is only 30% on-average of what your income averages in NYC too?

    Oh boy, the Denver Convention Center garage just raised their rates again.

    Parking Rates:

    Park up to 8 Hours: $12.00

    Park up to 12 Hours: $15.00

    Park up to 18 Hours: $17.00

    Park up to 24 Hours: $25.00

    Monthly Parking Rate: $150

    Park 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 30 days. Individual monthly
    permits can be purchased from our pay stations by using a major credit
    card (display a printed paper receipt valid for 30 days). All monthly
    parking occurs on level P2 in the garage. For more information regarding
    monthly parking permits or multiple purchases of monthly parking
    permits for businesses, please call our Parking Offices, 303-228-8070.

    That is pretty high for a heartland urban area.


    Looks like we heartlanders aren’t subsidizing nearly as much cost per-parking space as you NYC residents.

    Here is a good map of what parking runs in downtown Cleveland. The one place where the cost is $50 is valet parking.


  • Andrew

    If there is nowhere affordable to live in your area that allows you to get by without a car (I don’t care about a “walk score” and it doesn’t need to be a mile from downtown), then there are likely serious flaws with the laws in your area, which I suspect are severely constraining the supply of transit-accessible housing units. For example – and to get back to the topic at hand – if the laws mandate parking, even near transit lines, then the laws require even people who don’t own cars to pay for parking that they don’t use, while at the same time significantly reducing density (because parking takes up a of of space), which reduces walkability and reduces the number of housing units that can be situated in short walking distance of a transit stop.

  • Andrew

    Do rich people ride public transit where you are from Andrew

    Of course they do, because even they recognize the impact of limited roadway space and parking. Only about 23% of travelers into the Manhattan CBD enter by auto, taxi, van, or truck, while 75% use some form of transit (subway, railroad, bus, or ferry): https://www.nymtc.org/Portals/0/Pdf/Hub%20Bound/2015%20Hub%20Bound/DM_TDS_Hub_Bound_Travel_report_2015.pdf#page=14

    During the 7-10 AM period, the auto/taxi/van/truck mode share drops to 12%, while the transit mode share jumps to 88%: https://www.nymtc.org/Portals/0/Pdf/Hub%20Bound/2015%20Hub%20Bound/DM_TDS_Hub_Bound_Travel_report_2015.pdf#page=15

    as they almost never do here?

    Of course they don’t. If you guarantee (at great public expense) that every motorist will have plenty of parking wherever he or she wishes to go, if you keep expanding your highways (at great public expense) whenever there’s any hint of congestion, then the only reason anybody might not drive is if they can’t afford the basic price of admission – a personal automobile – to this grand scheme of subsidies.

    Here in New York we don’t make those guarantees, so – despite the heavy subsidies here as well to motorists – plenty of people find that transit is the best way to get around, even if they own, or could easily afford, a car.

  • Andrew, you are flat our wrong. Just admit it.

    My Jeep Grand Cherokee is 4WD and can pull a trailer of up to 6000 lbs.

    It cost $30K brand-new plus gets about 19 mpg in the city and 24 mpg highway.

    Right down the street gasoline is $2.15/gallon.

    It costs half as much in Metro-Denver for a low walkscore suburban house than it does for a condo, loft, or single-family house in a high walkscore neighborhood within 3 miles of downtown.

    Grocery prices, restaurant prices, and bar prices average 50% higher to double downtown than they do in our low walkscore suburbs.

    Most single-family homes in our suburbs don’t have HOA costs, while all inner-city condos and lofts do.

    I can park 7-8 vehicles for free on my 10,000 square foot suburban subdivision lot in our 3-car garage or in the driveway off-street, plus street-parking is free on the street too.

    The cost of car insurance in our distant suburbs is half what it is within 3 miles of downtown due to very high auto theft and smash and grab auto burglary rates while the rates for these same crimes are far lower in our suburbs.

    We are closer to Denver International Airport than downtown Denver is by about 75% of the distance. Driving there from our house takes 25-30 minutes 99% of the time on a wife-open suburban freeway while driving to DIA from downtown Denver takes 45 minutes and at-least 20% of the time averages double that too.

    So let’s look at costs. Metro-Denver’s median home price is just under $500K, though the median cost of condos, lofts, and single-family homes within 3 miles of downtown Denver where walk score averages greater than 75 is about $750K plus HOA dues that average $500/month.

    So just on housing central city Denver runs $250K extra plus $500/month for HOA, with your central city HOA completely covering more than 90% of car payments. Then comes double grocery, bar, and restaurant prices which together probably cover the cost of car insurance.

    Public transit here is $4, $6, or $12 depending on how far you want to ride and on whether it is local service or express. Long-term parking at DIA is only $10/day for uncovered and $14/day for covered parking.

    Over the 40 year life of suburban home ownership you will need 6 cars at under 7 years per-car, and 5 cars at 8 years each, so if net value per car is less than $41K (cost less residual value) for 6 cars over 40 years, and less than $50K for 5 cars over 40 years, it is cheaper to live in Denver’s suburbs and own a car than it is to live in a high walk score neighborhood within 3 miles of downtown.

    Not including an average 250% advantage on finding employment here in our suburbs than in the central city depending on transit access too.

  • Andrew

    If you design an area to be easily accessible by car – with low densities and separated uses, with virtually unlimited free parking, with super-wide high-speed roads and highways – it will be very difficult to get around by transit or by foot.

    Conversely, if you design an area to be easily accessible by transit and by foot – with high densities and mixed uses, with very limited free parking, with mostly narrow streets that might not always be wide enough for everybody who might think of driving – it will be very difficult to get around by car.

    I have no doubt whatsoever that the area in which you live is very hard to get around by any means other than a car. This, of course, poses major hardships on anyone who cannot drive, due to age (too young or too old) or physical condition or financial standing – for any trip longer than walking distance (and, due to low densities, there won’t be much of interest in walking distance), they will have to make do with a bare-bones transit system that caters to the indigent. A transit-oriented area, on the other hand, can make provisions for those who, for whatever reason, have difficulty using transit.

    We made the terrible mistake in the mid-20th Century of assuming that everybody prefers the car-only model, and that’s how most of the U.S. was developed. The high cost of housing in transit-oriented areas makes it quite clear that the demand for transit-oriented settings is far higher than we’ve accommodated.

    Ignoring this basic fact and digging in your heels helps no one.

  • Andrew

    $688/month for a normal-sized car for parking, which only runs $75-$150/month in our heartland, which is the same place that your income is only 30% on-average of what your income averages in NYC too?

    You seem to keep missing the point that the vast majority of people who travel to the areas with $688 monthly parking do not do so by car and therefore don’t pay the $688.

    Looks like we heartlanders aren’t subsidizing nearly as much cost per-parking space as you NYC residents.

    I don’t think you understand what the word subsidizing means.

  • Andrew

    Andrew, you are flat our wrong. Just admit it.

    …and then you launch into 14 paragraphs that have nothing whatsoever to do with the topic at hand.

  • kevd

    Hey, Good work!

  • So how would you prefer me to disagree with your position and prove it beyond any doubt?

    Do remember that 80% of Americans who live in urban areas do not live in NYC or any of the other older East Coast cities with extremely-high pre-Euclidian mixed-use density.

    Every urban area built after 1927 generally has low walk scores because of single-use zoning, and a much greater use of cars is required because most post-Euclidian urban areas have created their growth through sprawl and don’t have lots of money to spend on public transit to serve low-density suburbs that sometimes go on for 50 miles in every direction.

    Your urban situation and ours are completely different. What works in NYC doesn’t work in 80% of US urban areas in-excess of one million population. It is like trying to compare cherries and pumpkins, as they both grow in the ground but otherwise aren’t very alike.

    That is what I dislike about this blog is that everyone from NYC thinks that their way is right and don’t realize that their way doesn’t apply and is wrong for the vast majority of urban America.

    You NYC residents already pay 2.5 times as much for urban freight movement as any smaller urban area that has focused on road transport efficiency and your transit system sucks to put it mildly, in large part because your highways and buses move at a crawl, creating far more ridership than parts of the system are designed for. No wonder your costs are so high.

    I have already proved that the NYC region does not have a sustainable food supply. In-fact all it will take is a major disaster that drops the Mississippi and Ohio River bridges such as another New Madrid earthquake and there won’t be any way to get food to you except by plane. It would require every available landing slot at every NYC regional airport just to supply 25% of your food demand. Every retail store and every restaurant will be out of food within 3-4 days after such an event.

    What is so great about living in a completely unsustainable urban area that exists on the ragged edge of mass starvation every minute of the day? I gave up riding bicycles in 1975 and roadway speed and efficient profitable movement of freight and food supply is important to me. My firm belief is that bicycles don’t belong on major heavy truck routes as the danger is far too great to justify.

    Who has the right of way in this situation: You are riding in a marked bike lane and the 18-wheel truck ahead of you is turning right with its signal on. The cab of the truck is turned 15 degrees or more to the right of the trailer.

    Do you have the right of way to ignore the truck’s turn signal and try to pass it on its right in this situation, something bicycle riders do every day?

    The answer is no, the truck driver has the right of way, because with the tractor turned at 15 degrees or more to the right of the trailer, all the driver can see in the truck’s right side mirrors is the side of the trailer.

    The driver can not possibly see you on your bicycle trying to illegally steal the right of way on the right side of the truck, and bike riders get run right over by the trailer axles or even the drive axles in this situation every single day when they ignore common traffic laws too.

    Here is a darn good example from the NY Daily News last November that occurred in Brooklyn with some bicyclist ignored a critical traffic law:


    The NY Daily News claimed that the truck involved in the accident above was a “massive” truck, a claim which is simply untrue, as this is who we haul dirt and gravel around Detroit, and it can carry more than twice as much weight as that little truck in the accident photo above, which is one way to keep your freight costs down.


    What does the 85th percentile have to do with whether you live or die trying to ignore who has the legal right of way when a tractor trailer is turning right ahead of you on your bicycle, as the involved speed is generally under 10 mph?

    Imagine this fuel tanker trying to make a city street-corner in Brooklyn? Just to show how tiny trucks in NYC really are.


  • [Quoted from the US Census ACS 2012) Introduction:

    The automobile has played a fundamental role in shaping where we live
    and how we get around. It has influenced the form and density of our
    communities and expanded the geographic range of daily travel.
    Nationally, the private automobile is the predominant form of
    transportation for work and other travel purposes. In 2013, about 86
    percent of all workers commuted to work by private vehicle, either
    driving alone or carpooling. [End quote]


    In Denver the figure for private auto commuting is about 76%. Here the Census shows that a very low percentage of those earning in-excess of $250K will ride public transport to and from work, under 9% in-fact.

  • The Colorado Supreme Court outlawed rent control Statewide in 2000.

    High Court: No Rent Control, June, 2000, Denver Post:

    Demonstrators call for the repeal of Colorado’s rent control ban, September, 2016, Colorado Independent:


    “…..there are likely serious flaws with the laws in your area, which I
    suspect are severely constraining the supply of transit-accessible
    housing units…”

    Here almost all housing near rail mass transit stops is very expensive, with the exception of in high-crime neighborhoods. However, 76% of Denver workers drive private cars to commute, according to a 2013 US Census ACS report shared above, and less than 9% of wealthy Metro-Denver residents (defined by annual income in-excess of $250K) will use public transit to commute.

    So in-effect here in Metro-Denver, a rapidly-growing urban area of 3.5 million people, growing at approximately 3.5% annually, housing (mostly upscale) needs parking near rail mass transit stops as over 91% of rich Denver residents won’t use public transit to commute, and it is illegal to impose rent control anywhere that the market won’t bear it.

    Which leaves about the only affordable housing available in the city in run-down old inner-city industrial parks often contaminated by 150 years worth of wanton industrial pollution, nowhere near rail mass transit or even grocery stores and other retail either, which means that such residents generally need cars too.