Parking Is Hell (Ep. 118)

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Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “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 here; 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. But, as Shoup tells Dubner, there ain’t no such thing as a free parking spot:

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.

Shoup’s recommendations have inspired a series of reforms across the country, most notably an ongoing experiment in San Francisco called SFPark. The project essentially establishes a dynamic market for street parking by measuring average occupancy on each block and then setting prices according to demand.

While the experiment is exciting for transportation scholars, it has attracted some criticism. Furthermore, one of Shoup’s former students has uncovered a snag that could undermine the project – or any attempt to manage parking more efficiently. 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” (paper here, and a Shoup op-ed here). How can that be? Very often, those cars display a handicapped placard that allows for free, unlimited parking. So you’ll hear about “placard abuse” and what’s being done to stop it.

There aren’t yet enough data from SFPark to know whether the experiment helps with congestion, pollution, and accident risk, but Shoup is hopeful:

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.

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 prototypical 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.


As a real estate developer of a few projects in downtown areas, I can tell you that parking is, indeed, not free. It's being paid somehow: within a tenant's lease, by city tax assessments, etc. The interesting discussion isn't the actual cost, but rather that psychologically people just don't want to pay for parking. You have to disguise the cost or people get very irritated being asked to pay directly for parking. it's just one of those weird things ...


If there is no free parking downtown, I won't go downtown. Free parking is necessary for a healthy downtown in most cities. Contrary to Prof. Shoup, I would say there isn't enough free parking in most cities. That is a big reason why people have been abandoning them for the suburbs.

Enter your name...

There's no such thing as free parking. What you mean is "parking paid by raising all the prices in the store" rather than "parking paid by the guy who's parking".

If you're in a major urban area, keeping your car out of the downtown is the whole point of making the cost of parking obvious to you. New York City and San Francisco and London don't *want* you to drive downtown. They want you to drive to a park-and-ride lot and get on the subway.

Bill Olmsted

I have an minor objection to the latest podcast, "Parking Is Hell". There was no counterpoint to what i think was the real thesis: parking should be commoditized since it has a demand. Im a landscape architect and its been my experience that the question inevitably boils down to the notion of freedom vs freeness.
Regardless of the price in dollars and cents, to require a person by law to pay for the occupation of their vehicle in public space is to charge a person for there existence in that community/society. Where there is a cost to entry there is a tax on free will.
While parking is often called a revenue source for state; it is really an auction of freedom. So while we have our freeness in choose whether or not to pay to park, we do not have freedom in such a system.

Enter your name...

> to pay for the occupation of their vehicle in public space is to charge a person for there existence in that community

This doesn't make sense. A vehicle is not a human. You, an actual human, aren't being charged for existing in downtown San Francisco. Only your decision to store your vehicle there is going to produce a parking charge (and at often double-digit rates). If you call a cab, take the Muni (light rail), ride BART (subway), catch a bus, or even walk, then you can spend all the time you want in Union Square without being charged a dime for parking.

John Lebbury

Surely people try for free parking because there's no perceived value in parking. It doesn't cost anything to stand in the street, why should my car cost? Nor does it cost anyone anything to provide a space which otherwose would be doing nothing. No one polishes it or provides extra security or insurance, it's always 'at your own risk'. Nobody even makes you feel good about it or gives you an airmile! So why pay $ to park here when 50 yards away it might be free? Here in Cambridge (England) there's an excellent 'park'n'ride' scheme. You leave your car in a big car park outside town and get free use of the buses into and around town.

Enter your name...

I believe people try for free parking because it's in their personal economic self-interest to avoid paying for things whenever possible.

Imagine that parking actually costs $1 a car (buy land, pave lot, stripe lot, clean lot, etc.). Half of a store's customers drive and therefore park cars (you) and the other half don't (me).

To stay in business, the store must recoup these costs somehow. It can either directly charge you $1 for parking, or it can secretly charge you and me both 50¢ by raising the prices.

It is in your best economic interest to pay 50¢ in hidden costs: you get $1 of parking for 50¢ in higher prices. It is in my best economic interests to convince the store to charge only you for the parking service that only you are using, so that I'll get lower prices.


My parking horror is always when I go to places I'm not familiar with. I.e. a guy from the burbs who goes into the city.

A solution I see to this issue could be my GPS that knows where ample parking is. Say I'm going up to the Warner in DC from Richmond. If my GPS knew the deck was full it could direct me to another deck or curbside parking thus reducing the traffic around the Warner (or any other place) because my car and others would be redirected towards another location.


SF's system has at least the beginning of this. If you go to you can get real-time maps of where there are free spaces. Now someone just has to design GPS systems to use that data.

P.F. Bruns

My issues with Shoup's ideas are several:

1) He complains about congestion in urban areas, then suggests redeveloping buildings atop flat parking spaces. This will increase congestion in the short term, as it will take quite some time for this model to convince people traveling from suburbs and exurbs to leave their cars behind. It will also dilute commerce with an increase in the number of shops and other businesses while non-urbanites stop coming in (see Tampa, Florida from the mid-1970s on).
2) Then he complains about sprawl. Well, considering how awful it would be to get parking in the short term under his model, sprawl would get even worse!
3) Has he considered the structural and civil engineering complications his idea would cause? I haven't read the book, but based on this podcast, it sounds unlikely. Simply put, infill development means more buildings. That means more plumbing. That means greater drainage and sewage load on the existing system. In many cases, especially for cities that already have high density in urban areas, that means major rework of water lines. That doesn't eliminate all potential flooding issues; flat and multi-story parking areas are (usually) engineered to encourage runoff and prevent water pooling above ground. If infill buildings take the place of these areas, the streets and walkways would have to be re-engineered as well, but since we'd have to tear up the streets to get to the storm and sewer drains, we might as well put in better ones anyway.

So if you think free parking is expensive, infill probably doesn't sound much like a bargain either.

4) The podcast doesn't mention any plan to replace passenger car transit to balance out the other issues. As much as the disincentives to use personal vehicles should drive people toward other solutions, this assumes that people are rational (and haven't just paid massive amounts of money to buy cars they like; yeah, it's a sunk cost fallacy, but there it is--and bear in mind that outside the urban areas, cars are still pretty useful).

Professor Shoup's assertions here are a key example of why economists should not be the only voice in city planning. A multi-discipline approach is crucial. While the long term must be considered, the short term--the fact that people live RIGHT NOW, not "in the coming years"--doesn't go away.

5) What is the goal? Shoup doesn't mention one at all. He's so focused on making demand and price for parking match that there doesn't seem to be any consideration for actually making urban areas more liveable and friendly. That HAS to be the goal. Improving an urban area's economy means encouraging commerce, including the purchase of dwelling spaces. Decreasing demand for parking is an element of that goal, but he seems to be overemphasizing that element and ignoring the overall goal and its other component elements, including but not limited to:
a) Improving transportation from, to, and within the area;
b) Developing and maintaining a safe and healthy environment, including clean air, water, sanitation, and drainage;
c) Allowing for lifestyle flexibility--one size does not fit all;
d) Social elements such as culture, entertainment, etc.;
e) Crime prevention and deterrence;
f) Other issues to be determined.

Granted, it's fine not to focus on all elements at once (particularly since my list above isn't even exhaustive and it still includes way too many problems to be solved by one person's ideas simultaneously), but lowering demand for parking must be done carefully and responsibly, not at all costs--which seems to be the approach described by this podcast.



1) If business is diluted, it will hardly be profitable to build new shops and businesses, so people presumably won't do it, and will simply leave the parking lots as they are.

2) It's hard for me to imagine how increasing the number of people who can live in urban areas will simultaneously increase the number of people living in exurban areas.

3) Sorry, but how in the world do parking lots prevent flooding in a way that buildings can't? Presumably our engineers are not totally incompetent. Cities without large numbers of parking lots exist all over the world. Heck, lots of American cities currently have densities far below their historic peaks. Their sewers may need maintenance, but they probably do whether or not there are any new buildings built.

5) Well, sure-- all fine goals. A bit out of the scope of parking policy, I think. And lowering demand at all costs? On the contrary, I think his ideas are a reaction against policies which mandate the creation of huge amounts of parking at all costs.