The Price of Parking: Let the Free Market Decide?


The Wall Street Journal ran a piece this weekend by Conor Dougherty on the municipal move toward charging more for parking. It’s available online to paid subscribers only, but here’s a taste:

As anyone who has ever circled the block for a marginally better spot knows, parking is an American obsession. It occasionally boils over into rage, or worse. Since the parking meter was first introduced 70 years ago, in Oklahoma City, the field has been dominated by two simple maxims: Cities can never have too much parking, and it can never be cheap enough.

Now a small but vocal band of economists, city planners and entrepreneurs is shaking that up, promoting ideas like free-market pricing at meters and letting developers, rather than the cities, dictate the supply of off-street parking. Seattle is doing away with free street parking in a neighborhood just north of downtown. London has meters that go as high as $10 an hour, while San Francisco has been trying out a system that monitors usage in real time, allowing the city to price spots to match demand. (A recent tally there showed that one meter near AT&T Park brings in around $4,500 a year, while another meter about a mile away takes in less than $10.) Gainesville, Fla., has capped the number of parking spots that can be added to new buildings; Cambridge, Mass., works with companies to reduce off-street parking.

Economists have long made the case that the solution to the parking crunch many cities face lies not in more free or cheap parking but in higher prices. The idea is that higher prices result in a greater churn — and get more people on buses and subways — which leads to more open spaces. But this notion has often run up against city planners and retailers arguing that cheap and plentiful parking results in more commerce and, thus, higher sales taxes and a vibrant economy.

The article goes on to note the influence of UCLA professor Donald Shoup‘s 2005 book, "The High Cost of Free Parking." Shoup, who will be in New York City meeting with civic leaders in early March at the invitation of Transportation Alternatives, argues that "ubiquitous free parking helps explain why our cities sprawl on a scale fit more for cars than for people, and why American motor vehicles now consume one-eighth of the world’s total oil production."

In Los Angeles, where free or cheap parking has been as much a part of the landscape as palm trees, market forces are already pushing parking prices higher, even without the intervention of planners. And some people aren’t happy about it.

Nor are they all happy in Seattle, where the WSJ found one woman who sounded unlikely to be forced out of her car at any price:

"It’s just frustrating that they keep taking free parking away," says Terry Peterson, a grants and contracts administrator at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Ms. Peterson has a 15-minute commute to her office, where she parks in one of the area’s free spots.

In spring, the city plans to put in new meters that will cost around $7 a day on average, the result of a recent study that found that most on-street parking in the neighborhood has an occupancy rate of at least 90%. She says she’ll probably end up parking at a private lot, which runs about $1,800 a year.

Whatever the market will bear.

Photo: Yukon White Light on Flickr

63 thoughts on The Price of Parking: Let the Free Market Decide?

  1. Spud’s analogy of charging for park access (comments #25, 44) doesn’t work for me, because allowing people access to parks (and sidewalks and roadways and other public spaces) is not the same as allowing cars access to public spaces. People have have rights, cars don’t.

    Spud is correct that giving people free access to parks creates costs that society as a whole must bear. We accept that because in order for our civilization to function there has to be free access to an adequate number of public spaces–for public discourse, recreation, and to handle the overflow of people without adequate housing. However the notion that *motor vehicles* must have free access to the roads is a completely different story. Spud’s argument ignores the difference between people and cars–one that is fundamental.

  2. You are indeed correct that when I say “everyone” I mean all motorists. That is true. That’s seems like a reasonable use of language because what we’re talking about here are programs that would limit motorists. So I’m willing to amend my argument to say “Let’s come up with a program that affects all motorists equally, and not just those with less money.” Fair enough.

    I was wondering when someone would bring water into the conversation. Water was never free, but it was unlimited when the city used to charge a flat rate for all the water you could use based on a frontage formula that took into account numerous factors, including the size of your property, the number of housing units, the number of sinks and toilets, etc. Then water metering came around in the late 1980s. However, the city has numerous programs that allow low income housing projects to pay less for water. To this day, many residences still don’t have water meters. (And in the end, if you don’t pay your water bill, the city rarely turns off your water anyway.) Would there be provisions for low income motorists?

  3. I think that’s the heart of our disagreement, Spud. You want to be fair to all motorists, and we want to be fair to all people.

  4. Except lower income motorists. You want to single them out for the detrimental effect they have while leaving the other motorists untouched.

    (OK, once again I’ve said enough. Thank you everyone for your time. It’s been fun but I’m just repeating myself again. There are a lot of smart people here and it’s OK if they disagree. Have a good one.)

  5. I just started from comment 1 and read trough 55. Interesting debate. It’s always nice to have a different point of view put forward by someone polite and articulate. In that sense, thanks are in order for mr. Spudly.

    Nevertheless, I think Spud will have to concede that his final comment basically finishes the argument. You are arguing for rights for all motorists, which is something far different than equal rights for all people. I wholeheartedly agree that all PEOPLE should have the right to reasonably priced, efficient transportation to Manhattan. Perhaps, charging congestion pricing is the best way to do that. Perhaps, as you state, there are other ways to accomplish that goal. But no solution must, can or even should include a guarantee to treat motorists as equal to people. The constitution guarantees equal rights to all human beings, not the two tons of steel they occasionally choose to lug around with them.

  6. Of course cars don’t have rights, but cars that are owned and used by people may be used by those people in the exercise of their rights.

    In the early 1900s cars were considered so different that the natural right to use the streets — whether barefoot, shod, on horseback, in a carriage, etc. — didn’t apply. Sometimes in some places this natural right doesn’t apply to people using bicycles either.

    Under congestion pricing, or tolls, or any other scheme that attaches a price to cars, it is people who would be handing over the money.

    People who are driving are the same species as people moving under human power or people in buses, and the populations aren’t even distinct.

    At what level of equipment do people lose their right to access the park without charge?

    Some parks, by the way, do charge admission to people who come under their own power, including the Bronx Zoo and the Botanical Gardens six days a week.

  7. “You are arguing for rights for all motorists, which is something far different than equal rights for all people.”


    I just think if you’re going to enact measures to restrict motorists you should do it in a way that affects all motorists, and doesn’t exempt certain people just because they have more money.


    (sorry, but I have to say something when my position is mischaracterized. I’ll be quiet now. Carry on…)

  8. David, when the equipment people use to get around poses the possibility of negative environmental/economic/ social consequences, government has a more free hand to regulate, as long as as they are regulating the equipment and not the people. It might seem hard to draw the distinction, but its one that courts draw all the time.

  9. It’s all about suuply and demand. And also the fact that authorities don’t really care if new buildings have carparks or not.

  10. Spuds, does the fact that the subway costs $2 regardless of the income of the rider really, really bug you? What are we gonna do about that?

  11. Won’t anyone point out to Spuds (aka Mr. Red Herring) that when income and car ownership maps are overlaid, you rarely ever find these “low-income” drivers. In NYC, it’s DAMN expensive to own a car. There are pockets in transit poor areas of lower income car owners, but these are tiny pockets. If you look at the eastern 2-3 miles of queens, southern brooklyn, and Staten Island, you will see that not only are incomes markedly higher than NYC average, car ownership rates are much higher as well. These are homes with 2 or more cars and median income north of 70,000-80,000. That’s not low-income.

    It’s the same knee-jerk reaction that the Queens anti-congestion crowd and their lobbyists are spittin’ but it just isn’t accurate.

    Even further, if you’re talking about equity issues, even in David Weprin’s district, one of the most transit poor areas in the city, over 65% of Manhattan CBD commuters go by transit. That means that Weprin’s fight against congestion charging is only representing about 35% of his overall constituency, and almost none of his poor constituency. If he were serious about the impacts on the poor, he would use his position as Finance Chair to be sure that the congestion pricing revenue went into the MTA contribution the City has reduced steadily since Mayor B. came to town, not into the general fund for use wherever (putting revenue in the general fund is tradition, not law. The Mayor could change that trend if he pleased).

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