Parking Is Hell: A Freakonomics Radio Rebroadcast

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(Photo: @gueamu)

This week’s podcast is a rebroadcast of our episode  “Parking Is Hell.” (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The episode begins with Stephen Dubner talking to parking guru Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of the landmark book The High Cost of Free Parking. In a famous Times op-ed, Shoup argued that as much as one-third of urban congestion is caused by people cruising for curb parking. Michael Manville, a city planning professor at Cornell, and co-author Jonathan Williams found that in Los Angeles, “at any given time almost 40 percent of vehicles parked at meters are both not paying and not breaking any laws.”

You’ll also hear from MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph, whose book ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking offers solutions to improve the parking lot. He gives us a sense of how many surface parking spaces there are in the U.S. (close to 800 million) and points out that in some cities, parking lots cover a full third of the land area downtown.

Dan Palmer

The answer to Dubner's last question: PUT THE BUILDINGS BACK! Cities with big holes in the streetscape are not attractive and are rife with blight.


Cars move, parking space do not. It makes perfect sense that we need more spaces than cars if we are to actually drive those cars anywhere.


Not so. Since at any given time a certain fraction of cars are being driven, they don't need parking spaces. Further, if we limit the discussion to urban parking spaces, as is implied, a significant fraction of cars will be outside the urban area at times.

The real solution, though, requires thinking outside the urban "commute to work, play, shopping, &c" box. Telecommute to work, do much of your shopping on-line, and (dare I suggest this?) don't live in or regularly visit cities, and your personal parking problem goes away.

Tony L

Or, y'know, continue tondo all those everyday things - but just don't use a car?

Dana Eck

SF Parks is deeply flawed. The interface is hard to use, the technical implementation is bad (leading, I would think, to bad data), and it doesn't announce the price to people looking for parking. If the buyer doesn't know the price of the product how do they make logical decisions.

Heavy parking fees (as we have in SF) creates a triple burden on those with less income. The poorer are forced to walk far or forgo driving, which, for some is an option, but when public transportation is badly implemented and run (as it is in SF) many people, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, have no access to reasonably quick, reliable public transportation, whereas the wealthier neighborhoods are often near public transportation.

The third and by far worse burden is rarely discussed. Those who need to use cars as part of their work, contractors, cleaners, construction workers to name a few, have to pay for what is often premium parking. If they're late renewing their meter, or misjudge how long they'll be, and are late by a few minutes, they're likely, especially with the car sensing parking technology, to get an $80 ticket. If they do not have that kind of disposable income on hand, in 2 weeks the ticket increases 50%, then 100% in 3 weeks. So that's actually four burdens.



Perhaps you should listen again. In aggregate, parking costs went down. While technical failures and the inability to determine the price, in order to subsequently make a decision based upon that price, are valid criticisms, the inadequacy of public transit is a catch 22. 40% of urban congestion being parking causes the busses to run late, so we can't do anything to cause the busses to run on time because the busses are running late?


Something's being entirely overlooked here. Cities already act vigorously on the powerful incentives they have to under-supply parking. They exercise ironclad monopoly - they directly control all street parking and public garages, and through zoning and "building permits" they indirectly control all private parking as well. Meanwhile, their corrupt egomaniacal politicians ceaselessly lust for money and bragging rights for all manner of useless, silly projects. So naturally they seek to restrict supply and force everyone to pay through the nose. The system described for SF greatly expands their reach by enabling even more intrusive micromanagement of ordinary citizens. It can only make matters even worse.

This type of thing does please twee "environmentalists" and "planners", who get their jollies by micromanaging everyone else (if you doubt this for even a nanosecond, check out a site like Many of them would like - often partly in the name of "CO2" - to force everyone who's not rich to waste away whatever little time is left to them, waiting endlessly for tardy, slow, unreliable streetcars (or buses), jampacked with coughing, sneezing crowds spreading gawd-knows-what-all every which way. As a nice bonus, mayors may like to speechify at "conferences" about said ludicrously expensive streetcars, boasting about how "green" they force others to be.

On the other hand - no use playing a one-handed economist - ordinary folks trying their best to go about their lives may be a whole lot less please. They can't afford yet another gigantic, unpredictable fee every single time they make a move. Nor can they afford to be sick all the time. Nor do they have all day to creep, lurch, and jerk a few miles on a bus or streetcar.

Hence the never-ending and oftentimes strident controversy, and by no means just in SF. And hence an aspect of why metro areas like Houston or Atlanta are growing so fast - despite hellaciously enervating heat and humidity for much of the year - and despite scorn from ivory-tower "planners" who care only about trendy restaurants of the kind that take all evening and $69.95 plus tip-and-tax to serve a couple of fried prawns and a micro-salad.

Note too that SF is able to sustain restaurants of that sort, plus astronomical rents, twee Victorian houses where there should be skyscrapers, and all manner of of other nonsense, only by successful rent-seeking through the over-powerful California congressional delegation - that is, via ever more absurdly draconian Federal patent and copyright legislation. Since it's not possible (at least until/unless we attain robotic utopia) for a whole country to live as rentiers, what works for SF is highly unlikely to be scalable. Thus one ought not to draw unwarranted lessons from it.



Condensed version of above: I'm so effing self-important that I should be free to crap on anyone else (especially 'twee environmentalists') whenever it suits me :-)

William Scully

I wonder if Dubner was directly referencing Lyft and other Lyft like services or if it was purely coincidence?


Some years ago, I lived in NYC when it was trying to reduce congestion and pollution by limiting free parking spaces. The latter effort was claimed to be successful, even though people were driving more to look for spaces. The confounding factor in these data was that car mileage was also improving. I don't know of any attempt to sort this out, so I wish Freakonomics could answer this and similar questions.

Also, driving with fossil fuels is said to be a main human activity that causes climate change, but no one wants to tackle population size, which is the root cause of pollution. Why not?

John Durgin

It was interesting to hear the comment of one person who said he cruised around for 25 minutes looking for a spot that wasn't metered. In other words, he was willing to spend the time, aggravation and gas to find a spot that would be free. What would the metered spot have cost?

I think this would be an interesting extension to this topic: Include "time" in the cost equation.

A related topic would be the cost of highway tolls. It has occurred to me that I am willing even to pay more to avoid waiting in toll lines. So I use the EZ-Pass system. Yet, in many places that actually costs less!! In other places they have raised the cost of using using EZ-Pass. Did anyone notice? Or care? So what is the REAL cost of going through a toll booth? And what would you be willing to pay extra to just breeze through with an EZ-Pass like device?


EZ pass prices are a function of competing interests. EZ pass is wildly cheaper than manned tollbooths to operate. It significantly reduces congestion at the point of toll collection. It improves safety by reducing pedestrian interaction with traffic. However, if 40% of the cars in the city are already wasting time/space/money looking for a parking space, what's the point? If passing on the cost reduction causes more people to drive, is that something that should be done?


Zara - Broken (feat. Jorge Nava)

The voice of Zara has ever brought us warmth and comfort. From her work with Roger Shah and their beautiful 'Lost' and 'Try To Be Love' to Sultan's 'No Why', each track had its own character and strength.

This time, she hooked up with the beats of Mexican producer Jorge Nava, flirting with Zara's lovely voice on the tender 'Broken'. Another perfect summer tune.

Aaron Spiegel

More interesting to hear the admission of academics that they're disconnected from the real world! Here's an answer I was surprised I didn't hear especially from academics - don't drive! Ride a bike, take the bus, ride-sharing... but then this is America

Phil Persinger

Mr. Spiegel--

From the broadcast transcript:

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.

I think Manville would say that it's the politicians' often being disconnected from the real world.

Well, maybe you and Manville are both right….


David B

This type of parking has been in practice in Japan as long as I've lived here (19 years). There are high rise parking structures everywhere and almost no large open space parking lots. If you rent an apartment, you also must rent a space if you have a car or motorcycle. There is even metered bicycle parking! However, there is almost always bicycle parking available. The best highways are tolled. So at every step vehicles are charged.

There is one more thing: lots of public transportation. I don't own a car, and don't need one. You buy fewer groceries, more often. There is delivery for any large items. When I visit the states I rent a car because I found that it is necessary. I know to an America it's unfathomable. It would have been to me too.


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