This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Parking is Hell”
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[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound; “Don’t Touch My Popcorn” (from Let’s Cool One)]
Donald SHOUP: I think, you know, 50 years from now, when people look back on New York, and of course other cities, that they’ll say, ‘What did these people think they were doing?’
Stephen J. DUBNER: That’s Donald Shoup. He is a college professor, at UCLA, who is obsessed—well it’s not really fair to call him obsessed—who is…Yeah, actually he is obsessed. He’s obsessed with this one thing that we all do, all over the world, and that we do so badly, in Shoup’s opinion, that someday, we’ll look back at it the way we now look back at…
DUBNER: Seriously, bloodletting?
SHOUP: It seemed scientific because there were elaborate tables and diagrams, and it had to be done by surgeons and stuff. No, it was very harmful. The other comparison, which I think is much more appropriate, is lead therapy. Lead was thought to be a wonderful healing device. And it is because it’s toxic to microorganisms. And therefore if you put it on a wound it would help kill the infection. But people didn’t know that it also damaged the brain.
DUBNER: Okay, so what do you think Professor Shoup is talking about? What is this thing we do so badly that future generations will compare it to bloodletting and lead therapy?
SHOUP: Maybe the most mismanaged of all our resources is parking.
MAN 1: It’s terrible, it’s really terrible.
MAN 2: It’s crazy, it’s horrible, it’s way out of hand.
MAN 3: I’ve driven around for an hour looking for a spot.
WOMAN 1: Most people don’t know what they’re doing, and I really want to like go out there and be like, I will park your car for you.
MAN 4: Yeah, it’s a total nightmare.
DUBNER: Yeah , parking.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. The podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
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DUBNER: If I asked you to name the worst things about modern society, maybe the 10 worst things, I’m guessing that parking would not make your list, might not even make a top 20 list. And yet, especially if you live or work in a city, you’ve probably been scarred, at some point, by parking.
MAN 5: I used to park on the sidewalk and get tickets, but there was sort of no other place to go.
SHOUP: Everybody has stories of parking horror that we don’t have about stories about horror in grocery stores, or with milk, or anything else. And they had stories about, you know, even murders over parking spaces.
DUBNER: That’s Donald Shoup again, from UCLA. He is a transportation scholar who is one of the world’s leading authorities on parking. Now, you might think that any right-thinking transportation scholar would study, you know, transport. But as Shoup helpfully points out, the average car spends about 95 percent of its lifetime parked.
Shoup trained as an economist, and his economist roots often show when he talks about parking. Because in his view, the biggest problem with parking is the price. Not too expensive, too cheap! He is the author of a nearly 800-page book called The High Cost of Free Parking.
SHOUP: Everybody likes free parking, including me, probably you. But just because the driver doesn’t pay for it doesn’t mean that the cost goes away. If you don’t pay for parking your car, somebody else has to pay for it. And that somebody is everybody. We pay for free parking in the prices of the goods we buy at places where the parking is free. And we pay for parking as residents when we get free parking with our housing. We pay for it as taxpayers. Increasingly I think we’re paying for it in terms of the environmental harm that it causes. I did use data to estimate that parking subsidies in the United States are somewhere between 1 and 4 percent of the total GNP, which is about in the range of what we spend for Medicare or national defense. So that’s the cost of parking not paid for by drivers.
DUBNER: There are of course many different parking scenarios. If you live in a house with a driveway or a garage, parking is a snap, at least when you’re at home. In suburban or exurban areas, you’ve got big, usually free, parking lots set back from the street at office parks and malls and restaurants. And then you’ve got cities, some of which offer free parking right there on the street, curbside. But here’s Donald Shoup again to explain why that free parking isn’t as free as you think.
SHOUP: If you don’t have an off-street space and you have a car, and you live in New York, you have to drive around looking for a space hoping to see somebody going out. There was a study done in New York, a very ingenious method, though simple in retrospect is that the researchers interviewed drivers who were stopped at traffic lights in Manhattan and Brooklyn and asked them if they were cruising for parking. And on Prince Street in Manhattan, 28 percent of the drivers said that they were hunting for parking, even though most people were not destined for the area, they were just traveling through the area. So those are people who don’t want to be driving, they want to be parked. We did a study here in Los Angeles lasting a full year cruising for parking ourselves, going to a destination and then hunting for as long as it took to find a parking space. We made 240 observations. When you add it up, the average time it took to space was only three minutes, that’s two and a half times around the block, which doesn’t seem like very much. It’s about half a mile hunting for parking. But when you add up all the people who are parking in Westwood Village, if they had the same average that we had, that adds up to 3,600 vehicle miles of travel a day. That’s the distance across the U.S., and that’s just in the 15-block area of Westwood. If you add it up for a year, that’s equal to 36 trips around the Earth or four trips to the moon hunting for underpriced curb parking in a little 15-block area. And I think it’s happening all over the world. When other people do these studies, they find very similar results.
DUBNER: I’m just curious, when we talk about urban and suburban sprawl that many people hate, I think, you know, the common image is you’re cruising down that street that has a lot of stoplights because there are a lot of turns, there are a lot of turns because there are a lot of shops. There are a lot of shops and they all have big parking lots. And that whole chain reaction causes a lot of congestion, confusion, accidents, pollution, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. When you think of that scenario, how much of that scenario do you think of as caused by the ancient practice of offering free parking everywhere you go?
SHOUP: Well it isn’t ancient.
DUBNER: Ancient I mean 1950s or 1960s. You know…
SHOUP: That’s right. City planners in every city, including large parts of New York, specify the minimum number of parking spaces required for every building depending on its use. A restaurant typically requires at least 10 spaces per thousand square feet, which means that the parking lot is three times bigger than the restaurant. And if nothing can be built unless it meets that parking requirement, and the parking requirement was established on the assumption that everybody’s going to park free, well it does seem to be kind of self-fulfilling that people drive to it.
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DUBNER: Every city has its own parking requirements, but here’s a typical scenario. To build a shopping center, you need four spaces for every 1,000 square feet of store. A public swimming pool requires one parking space for every 2,500 gallons of water. If you want to build a beauty shop, you need three spaces per beautician – but a nunnery needs only one space per 10 nuns.
SHOUP: The required parking spreads buildings apart. It makes walking less pleasant. You know, the obvious way to travel is that, you know, we curse traffic, and stare at taillights, and breathe fumes, and then we expect to park free when we get there. But I think the upside of the mess that we’re in is a terrific opportunity that there’s all this vacant land that can be built on in cities. I mean I think we’re the Saudi Arabia of developable land in cities. If cities reduced, eliminated their minimum parking requirements, a lot of these parking lots could be built on for infill development.
DUBNER: So as Shoup points out, there are two distinct parking problems. In the suburbs, too much land goes to parking because of somewhat arbitrary requirements, and then those areas become harder to navigate, and walk in. And in cities, a lot of street parking is either free or underpriced, which leads to too many drivers cruising for spots. This creates even more congestion, pollution, and accident risk.
SHOUP: I think the world would be a lot better if we had never forced people to provide more parking than they’re willing to and if we had charged the right price for curb parking. What is the right price for curb parking? I would say that this is what’s been adopted in more and more cities is that the right price is the lowest price the city can charge and leave one or two vacant spaces on every block. So that nobody can say that it’s hard to find a space because wherever they go they see a space.
[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound; “The Cuber Bake” (from Let’s Cool One)]
DUBNER: That makes sense, doesn’t it? At least to an economist: if you’re selling something and so many people are trying to buy it that it makes a mess for everyone, you are plainly charging too little. So how do you fix that? Later in the program, we will hear how Donald Shoup and others are trying. But before we go micro, let’s go macro. Let’s get a sense of just how much parking we’re talking about in a country as big as the United States.
Eran BEN-JOSEPH: There are some cities where the ratio of surface parking is very high. Houston for example, sometimes could be 30 to 35 percent of the overall area.
DUBNER: Thirty to 35 percent of Houston is surface parking lot?
BEN-JOSEPH: Of some areas, yes.
DUBNER: Eran Ben-Joseph teaches urban studies and planning at MIT. He too has written a book about parking, called ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking. While Donald Shoup is the godfather of parking studies, Ben-Joseph is one of a growing number of what some people call “Shoupistas.” Ben-Joseph is an Israeli. He’s lived and worked all over the world.
BEN-JOSEPH: In the United States the first thing that you experience I think as somebody who comes from a smaller country that is much denser is the amount of open space, the lower density, and in a way to some extent the ample supply of available land is something striking. In that sense, dependency on the car and the lack of to some extent public transportation in some parts of the U.S. versus other countries, and those that I experienced first hand such as Japan, Israel and Europe, are very different.
DUBNER: I think if you ask most people what they think about parking, most people think or would say there’s not enough parking. For starters do we know, or do you know, how many parking spaces there are in America, let’s say?
BEN-JOSEPH: So, yeah, we tried to calculate that. And my interest was mainly on surface parking lots, which are, I guess, the lowest on the kind of evolution chain if you will of parking. Surface lots are the most mundane, cheapest type of parking that you can construct. We don’t have very good estimates. They run all over the map. But I think the best guess that I could give you is that there are about three parking spaces for every car in the United States.
BEN-JOSEPH: So that’s for the whole country of course. And that’s only for passenger cars, right?
DUBNER: Oh my gosh.
BEN-JOSEPH: So if we have 250 million cars in the United States, passenger cars, and you multiply that by about an average of three. Now, of course people in New York will tell you, or somewhere, well there’s no way there are three parking spaces, but of course you have to look at it, you know, with regard to the whole country. So that brings it to almost 800 million spaces.
DUBNER: Again, is that just surface lots as you said?
BEN-JOSEPH: Those are just surface lots.
DUBNER: And then, in addition to surface lots there are what else?
BEN-JOSEPH: You have garages of course, you have people’s own parking spaces in their homes.
DUBNER: Driveways, yeah.
BEN-JOSEPH: Driveways, garages. I’m talking about public spaces or private spaces that are surface lots and not structured.
DUBNER: I see, and it may be hard to estimate, but what share of total parking spaces would you say that these surface lots constitute?
BEN-JOSEPH: You know, that’s a good one. I think that there’s somewhere between let’s say around seventy percent, sixty to seventy percent.
DUBNER: Okay, so if you’re saying that these surface lots constitute maybe sixty or seventy percent of the overall parking supply in the U.S. And then if we were to add in, let’s say the other, the rest of that 30 or 40 percent, we might get to a figure where there are roughly four or four and a half parking spots in America for every car.
BEN-JOSEPH: Yeah, and some people even claim that there are eight.
DUBNER: So how can we possibly complain that there’s not…Okay.
BEN-JOSEPH: Well, it’s exactly as you said. There’s a wonderful quote from somebody who, I can’t remember where it was, who calculated that in that particular city there were almost eight spaces per car. And then he published it, and I think people complain that I still can never find parking. So where are all these you know eight spaces for my car?
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DUBNER: In case you couldn’t tell, Eran Ben-Joseph doesn’t like all those surface lots, and not just because of the sprawl. Environmentally, paving over huge swaths of land isn’t a very good idea. So how to do better? Ben-Joseph has some thoughts. At the very least, you could break up huge lots with trees and vegetation. Paint the parking lots light colors so they don’t absorb so much heat. Use permeable paving materials to cut down on runoff. Now, to be honest, a lot of academics have neat ideas that they think will fix the world. And most of the time, no one pays attention to them. But a few years ago, something strange and potentially wonderful happened in the realm of parking. Some transportation officials in San Francisco who had read Donald Shoup’s work about the high cost of free parking decided to put one of his theories to the test.
SHOUP: If it works it will make San Francisco an even better place to live and do business and visit. It will just be yet another feather in the cap of San Francisco. And if it doesn’t work, they can blame it all on a professor from Los Angeles.
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DUBNER: When we come back, we’ll hear about that San Francisco parking experiment, and we’ll hear about an incredibly common fraud that threatens to ruin just about any parking reform.
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MAN 6: It sort of feels like you’re trapped, there’s no way out. You know when you get to a spot where you have to be and the parking is not happening, it’s just a miserable experience. I drove around looking for a space that wasn’t metered. It took me 25 minutes…
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: Michael Manville is an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University.
Michael MANVILLE: You know, cars are at their most useful to us when we’re driving them, and that’s when we think about them.
DUBNER: But we’re not talking about driving today. We’re talking about what happens to cars during the 95 percent of the time they’re not being driven. We’re talking about parking.
MANVILLE: I think that a lot of transportation scholarship deals with driving the same way that everyday people do, which is just you know out of sight out of mind. You know, once you’re not in your car, you know, as long as you’re pretty confident no one’s going to break into it, like, who cares?
DUBNER: So we can agree that you’re obsessed with the most boring part of car ownership, yes, parking?
MANVILLE: Yeah, that’s probably a fair characterization.
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DUBNER: Manville got his Ph.D. at UCLA, under parking guru Donald Shoup. And it is Shoup’s research that recently inspired the city of San Francisco to try an experiment called SF Park. Here’s Shoup again.
SHOUP: Well it’s a pilot project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation to look at the effects of trying to get the price of parking right. It’s easy to explain. They have sensors in the ground to measure the occupancy of each of 7,000 spaces, usually about eight spaces on each block. And on blocks where they find a high occupancy, if they’re all full, they nudge up the price. And on blocks where there are a lot of empty spaces, they nudge the prices down. They don’t do it every day, they change the prices every six weeks. They have different prices at different times of the day, before noon, from noon to three, and after 3 p.m., but those prices can be different on different blocks.
DUBNER: Changing prices like that, based on demand and time of day, is called dynamic pricing. In some industries, it’s been happening for years—airline tickets, for instance. But for something like municipal parking – well, this is a pretty big deal. If you’re a guy like Mike Manville, the city planning professor at Cornell who studied under Shoup, this is incredibly exciting.
MANVILLE: So SF Park is probably the best experiment we have so far with the idea of sort of performance-priced curb parking. There’s two components to the sort of dynamic part of the dynamic pricing. And one is that at different times of day the prices are higher and lower. So at 9 a.m. the price might be $3, but at noon when you expect a lot of people to be out and about for lunch it might be $3.50. And then it might fall again by 4 p.m. back down to $3. So there’s a price change that happens over the course of a day. The other part of it is that each month SF Park evaluates overall occupancy and decides if the price on a particular block has to go up or down. So that same block face where the price was $3, then $3.50, then $3 over the course of a day in July, might by September be $4, $4.50, and $3.25 or something like that.
DUBNER: So the idea is to capture the true price of parking for that area.
MANVILLE: Yeah, you essentially establish a market in parking.
DUBNER: Scholars like Manville and Shoup argue that if you get the price of parking right, a lot of other problems get solved. Now, some drivers may have to pay more but they can park where they want to park when they want, which is good for drivers and good for businesses. There’d be less cruising for parking spots, which means less congestion and pollution. But, for dynamic-priced parking to work, you do need people who are supposed to pay for the parking spots to actually pay for them. And as Mike Manville discovered, that doesn’t always happen. He and a co-author ran a study of street parking in Los Angeles, which has the highest auto density of any American city. Manville and his team surveyed thousands of parking meters and found that, and I quote, “at any given time, almost 40 percent of vehicles parked at meters are both not paying and not breaking any laws.” What?!
MANVILLE: There’s three reasons why a vehicle could be sitting at a parking meter not having paid and not be breaking the law. And so the first one is simply that the meter’s failed. The other one is government credentials. So if you’re…
DUBNER: My counterfeit FBI placard that I put in my car.
MANVILLE: Exactly. And so a lot of places have actual rules that say if you’re a cop, or you work for a city council member in a particular car you don’t have to pay at meters.
DUBNER: Or if you’ve ever been married to someone who knew a cop pretty much. I mean, I‘m exaggerating, but we know that there are a lot of people who find a way to have a credential.
MANVILLE: Find a way to get a credential, and even in places where it’s actually not on the books that these people are exempt from meters, informally, nobody tickets a police officer, right? So that’s a share of nonpayment as well, legal nonpayment. And then the last one, and the big one is disability credentials, particularly the disabled placards that are hung from the rearview mirror. At the time we did that study, and I think this has changed a little bit, there was about 25 states where if you had a disabled credential, you could just pull up to any metered space, park for free, and often for very long periods of time.
DUBNER: Okay. What share roughly are each of these? Is the handicapped the largest of them?
MANVILLE: Yeah, far and away. The disabled placard really was the lion’s share. And I think that it’s useful to compare that category of nonpayment with the sort of traditional scofflaw, I’m just going to park and not pay, and it was twice that. You know, I think normally when we hear about cities losing meter revenue we just think about bad enforcement, and people aren’t paying, and nobody is busting them, but twice as many spaces were occupied by vehicles hanging disabled placards as by people who had just sort of chosen not to feed the meter.
DUBNER: Right, so you’re saying in the paper that one of the reforms that would help solve this problem of wildly misused parking spaces is ending the practice of granting free time unlimited parking to vehicles displaying disabled placards. When you present a city or when a city learns of your research do they say oh wow, Mike, thanks for solving this for me, now we know why our parking was such a mess, all we got to do is get rid of all the handicapped placards. Does that happen?
MANVILLE: Oh yeah, I mean, people just jump on board this right away. I mean, there’s no elected official on Earth who doesn’t want to remove an entitlement that’s at least nominally for a disadvantaged group so they can charge everyone else more to park. I mean it’s just a, it’s a killer idea. No, of course not. This is political kryptonite to a certain extent. And that is the issue.
DUBNER: Is it frustrating for you in that do you feel that you identified the problem to solve that would not fix parking by any stretch but would certainly ease a significant strain on it. And yet because you identified a problem that’s politically not very savory that it’s probably not going to have much effect?
MANVILLE: Well, I mean in part, you know, sure there’s a little bit of frustration, but also that’s life, right? If I really wanted to, you know, get into the trenches and everything I wouldn’t be an academic. Right?
DUBNER: It’s nice to hear someone admit that actually.
MANVILLE: Yeah, there’s people who change the world, and there’s people who play with spreadsheets. And you know, I tend to fall in the latter camp.
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DUBNER: Donald Shoup, maybe because he is the éminence grise of parking scholarship, aspires to both camps. He would really like to solve this implacable placard problem.
SHOUP: Placard abuse is just about everywhere. Everybody has a story, or many stories about it. Twenty-two U.C.L.A. football players were found with disabled placards. So a couple of states have done, found a really clever way to get around this. Michigan had a lot of placard abuse, so they have a two-tier system of disabled placards. They revised the laws so that only people who have extreme trouble walking or can’t use a meter because they have hand disabilities, only those people are eligible for a special placard that allows free parking at meters. The other people, they can use their disabled placards at disabled spots at grocery stores and things like that. Well, when this law came into effect, only 2 percent of the people with placards applied for the special placard, which required a doctor’s visit and showing that you had a real disability that prevented walking. So it solved most of the disabled placard abuse problem. I think we should really support the 2 percent, the 2 percent who really need the free parking because they can’t get to the meter. Illinois has copied this law. And I’m recommending it for California because there are blocks in Los Angeles you can walk along where you see every single car at the meter has a disabled placard, so it doesn’t make any difference what the price is. You know, it really undermines any attempt to manage parking.
DUBNER: The attempt to manage parking in San Francisco, SF Park, has been in place for more than a year. Prices move up and down at different times of the day, and on different blocks, according to demand. So, does SF Park work? That is, does it get the price of parking right, and if so, does that fix other problems? The short answer is we don’t know yet. It’ll be a while before there’s enough the data to answer the questions we really want to know, like do cars spend less time cruising for spots? Do buses run faster? Are pedestrians and bicyclists safer? Are businesses hurt, or helped? One thing we do know for sure is how the parking prices changed. Some blocks got more expensive, others, less. But the surprising thing—surprising at least to Donald Shoup—is that, overall, the price of street parking fell.
SHOUP: Everybody expected prices to go through the roof. And they said this is another money grab by the city, it’s a tax on motorists as part of the war on cars. But it turned out not to be that way. A lot of the spaces were overpriced. And I think it’s a good thing that the prices are lowered so that you get more customers for stores on the streets that have now lower prices. I think that’s one of the big surprises. But it’s true of any market. In real estate they say you know it’s location, location, location. The most convenient spaces are the ones that you’d expect to have higher prices, and the less convenient ones are the one you expect to have lower prices. And I think that what SF Park does is get the price right in every location. I think we’ll learn so much from this carefully controlled experiment that it should convince people that this is a good idea or not a good idea.
[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound; “Shadow Of Your Soul” (from Let’s Cool One)]
DUBNER: That’s right. It may be that, for all the care and logic put into an experiment like this, that something as seemingly simple as parking is hard to fix because of, well, because of how people respond to incentives. It may be, for instance, that all those people who get hold of handicapped placards and other parking credentials take up so many of the good spots for free, and for hours and hours and hours that smart parking will remain a dream. I asked Mike Manville what he’s learned from watching the best parking ideas from academia get put into play in the real world.
MANVILLE: So I think it probably teaches all of us who are academics is that the real world is complicated and messy, that we come up with these ideas, and they seem entirely valid to us, and I think its very common for us as academics to sort of roll our eyes at policy makers and say oh why don’t they just listen to us. And I think it’s been kind of, it’s been very educational and occasionally humbling to watch ideas that I strongly believe in, you know, sort of get put into practice and see how difficult it is for the folks on the front lines to actually do them. So I think that it’s been a real learning process in both directions.
DUBNER: And Donald Shoup, as energetic and optimistic as he is, acknowledges that when you try to change how people park, you’re going up against a bigger enemy than a strip of asphalt. You’re going up against biology.
SHOUP: Of course Seinfeld always had episodes about hunting for parking. I think one of the quotes I like best from Seinfeld is when I think George and Elaine were driving to Jerry’s apartment, and George says , “I never pay for parking. Paying for parking is like going to a prostitute…
[SEINFELD] Why should I pay when if I apply myself maybe I can get it for free?”
SHOUP: …And I think, I think so many people are trying to get it for free. You know, we didn’t become a great nation by being a bunch of freeloaders and expecting something for nothing. But when it comes to parking, I think, you know, our brains shift down to a lower level of intellectual performance. I think we use the reptilian cortex of our brains, the earliest, most primitive part of the brain that makes fight or flight decisions, or how to avoid being eaten, or how to get food. And we would say things about parking that we would never say about something we really knew about.
[MUSIC: Two Dark Birds; “Pie Eyed” (from Songs For the New)]
DUBNER: Thanks to Donald Shoup, all of us at least know a little bit more about parking. But the future? That’s harder to know. Parking might get worse, or, for all kinds of reasons, might get better. The world keeps getting more urbanized, which means more people on foot, on bikes, mass transit. Maybe car-sharing will become more popular, which would lessen parking demand. And, most exciting, to me at least, is the future of the driverless car. Now, some smart people think in 10 or 20 years, most cars will be controlled by computers rather than accident-prone, Instagram-addicted, coffee-drinking, eyeliner-applying human beings. Now, if all cars were driverless, would you still need to own one, or would you be willing to just summon one, the way you now call a cab? It would come pick you up, then drop you off and instead of having to park at the curb and wait for you, it could come pick me up, or one of any other million people nearby, and then, when you’re done doing whatever you’re doing, you summon a different car to come get you. How great would that be? And how much less parking would we need? Maybe a lot less. And then comes the really hard part: what do we do with those millions and millions and millions of parking spaces we’ve built all over the world? Hmm. More nunneries maybe?
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Parking is Hell”