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.

Philo Pharynx

This is another problem that can be solved with autonomous vehicles. They drop you of at your destination and then go park in a centralized location. By consolidating the parking over a larger area, there will be less wasted spaces. In addition, a parking lot that only allows autonomous vehicles will be more efficient. Cars can be parked closer together and the total space requires is the space of the cars plus one empty row and one empty column.


Usually LOVE the podcasts....but this one seemed like a bit of a stretch..... PhD in Parking? Seriously? Looks like a solution in search of a problem.... Aside from a handful of the largest cities in the US, this is really a non-issue. And then when the "grand solution" of flex-rates fails - the reason is too many handicapped placards ---


Actually, it's an issue in every place that builds roads. Look at how much extra road we need to build because as much as half the road surface is used for parking. If we had better parking solutions, we could spend less money on roads, or spend the same amount and have a couple extra lanes to improve traffic flow on most roads. It's more like "except for the smallest towns in the US, this really is an issue."

manan choksi

This article is worth reading...

P.F. Bruns

Agreed. Considering how crowded New Delhi and Pune are (two places where the startup discussed in the article have clients), it's a good example of new thinking.

I wasn't famliar with the South Asian numbering system, so I wound up looking up the following:

lakh - 100,000
crore - 10,000,000

These might be of help to unfamiliar with Indian English numbering who read the article.


I was a little surprised that, when discussing the economics of parking you talked about the excess capacity (some of it "needed" because of mostly-residential and mostly-commercial districts), and talked about the excess construction costs and land wasted when building lots, but didn't talk about the excess road construction costs.

What if we built roads for driving on? If people want somewhere to park, build it, instead of shifting that burden to taxpayers. If the places I have lived and visited are any indication, we could reduce our total road construction by at least a third by eliminating extra pavement dedicated solely to parking. This would also shift more of the true cost of car ownership to the owner.

Of course, I see an immediate downside: lots of US cities not only don't have effective mass transit, but they aren't designed to make effective mass transit practical. So eliminating free street parking in residential neighborhoods would hit the poorest car owners the hardest--those who can't really afford a car, or can only afford it because they're not paying the true cost. There would need to be some sort of compensation for this.



I really liked this podcast. I would like to tell you a horror story (at least to me). Brookline, MA decided to try muni meters. They spent about a million dollars to get rid of meters. This has many positive benefits, including creating more parking spaces due to not needing to park in the lines, the ability to pay with credit cards, and the possibility of flex price parking. (Let's just say trying to park during a redsox game is not fun.) Gosh, did people complain. The system was too complicated. It was difficult to find the muni meters. Old people couldn't be bothered with going to a muni meter and then going back to their car to put the ticket on the dashboard. Unfortunately, Brookline caved and has uninstalled the muni meters and put back (albeit new) individual meters. Sad.

John Knowlton

Do you list the songs that you play bits of during the podcasts? Great soul, R&B, and Funk selections! I'd like to buy some of the songs.

tung bo

Beyond the handicapped parking plaque, we also see 2 other frequent abusers: police placard and City Agency vehicles. The police placards are often NOT used for official business - unless you consider a cop (and other city officials) driving his private vehicle to work and parking it on the street official business. City agency vehicales are also often parked in nominally illegal spaces, but traffic enforement rarely tickets them. Without weeding out these abusers, the pay for parking scheme will not succeed as the public will chaff at the unfairness.

Joe M

would like to have heard some things about the number of new web / mobile apps targeting parking (parking panda, spothero, parkwhiz, streetline, parkmobile)... they are doing interesting things on linking up supply and demand more efficiently so people park more quickly (less congestion, time wasted, CO2 emissions, etc.)


It didn't surprise me at all that the godfather of parking research is at UCLA. When I was an undergrad, I borrowed my parents' extra car for a little under a year, before I couldn't deal any more with the parking nightmare. One night I was doing my usual ritual of starting where I wanted to be and driving in a widening, then narrowing, circle up to a 20 minute walk from my home. I had been trying for an hour when I finally just stopped in the middle of the street and went home. My boyfriend asked where I found parking, and I said I didn't, I just left the car, and he gently made me go back and move it.

Jamez Smith


Here's an expensive parking spot.

A parking spot in San Francisco has been listed for a whopping $80,000. The gated, enclosed and secured parking is located right across the street from the AT&T Park.

The listing is being brokered by Vanguard Properties Inc. The parking space is just a block away from a major shopping area and a number of educational institutions. The asking price is the highest for any parking space.

In 2009, the 88 Townsend, P138 parking was listed for $65,000. But has parking in San Francisco always been high? According to Alex Clark, founder of, the high prices are just reasonable.

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"Generally speaking, parking spaces throughout the city selling for $55,000 to $75,000 is absolutely common. Parking has become even more of a premium with the development of new properties. When I saw the $80,000 parking space, I didn't even flinch," Clark told the Huffington Post.

If you thought that was a crazy parking space listing, you should know there are much expensive parking spots than the one mentioned above. In 2012, The New York Post reported the city's first "million-dollar-parking". A private garage at 66 East 11th Street was listed for a full $1 million. Apparently, buying the garage was equivalent to paying 4115 everyday for legal parking in Manhattan.

"The reality of New York City is that people are willing to pay more for a parking spot than the average person in the country pays for a home," Robert Knakal, chairman of popular sales firm, Massey Knakal, said to the NY Post.

In a feature at, the author says, a bad parking lot is disrespectful to your vehicle. The feature compares a bad parking space to "taking your dog for a walk and tying it to a tree while you get busy".

However, there are some mind-blowing parking spaces that are an honor to your ride. Check out some of the most amazing parking spaces, here.



Dear Mr Levitt & Mr Dubner,
I found you podcast on parking spaces to be very interesting. However, I was shocked that you did not mention the relevance of elastic versus inelastic demand in parking spaces. The podcast suggested that the price of parking should be determined by market forces as any ordinary commodity would (ie Coca-Cola). This doesn't seem to me to be a good solution for someone that has to drive to highly congested areas with low levels of public transportation (like LA). They would pay for parking regardless of the price, making akin to a commodity like fuel. I would be interested if you address this in a future podcast. Your number 7th fan Penny, just trying to play it I'm really your number 1.


In the extremely short term, demand might be inelastic, since people need time to change their plans and routines. In the medium and long term, however, it's far from inelastic. Even in LA (which has better public transit than you give it credit for).

There are all sorts of ways which people can avoid paying for parking in a congested area. They can take transit all the way, they can drive to a park-and-ride and take transit the rest of the way, they can carpool and split the cost, they can even bike, or they can simply change their habits and avoid that trip altogether. All these options have costs and benefits, and some may only be possible for some people, but that's the point: to allow people to make their own decisions about how they want to get around instead of pushing everyone in one direction.

Jim in SLC

In Salt Lake City, Utah there are wintertime parking and congestion problems at four ski resorts in two canyons just outside the city. The parking is, of course, public and free, except for a small hotel lot at one resort. The local government is looking at insanely expensive solutions such as light rail and even a gondola. It seems that the simple economist solution is to just charge enough for parking so that the lots are full but not overflowing. This will encourage use of mass-transit and car-pooling.

An article from the local paper: