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Review of The High Cost of Free Parking


Public Transit Review of The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup

Periodically at publictransport.about.com I read and review books that I believe would be of interest to transit professionals and enthusiasts. First up was Mark Aesch, , the former CEO of the Rochester-Genessee Regional Transportation Authority in New York. Now we have Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking (Updated Edition) (American Planning Association, Washington, D.C.: 2011). The High Cost of Free Parking is not only the seminal book in the planning profession about parking, it is the only book in the planning profession about parking.

In a nutshell, Shoup argues that the vast majority of parking in the United States is undervalued, which costs the nation dearly in the forms of large amounts of time being wasted driving around looking for curb parking and increased costs of food, housing, and other goods due to the cost of the "free" parking being bundled in with the other costs of the goods.

Eco-Pass or UPASS Programs

Since there have been many reviews of this book over the years, in this review I will focus on how Shoup treats transit in the book. One important mention of transit in the book is when Shoup describes how offering transit passes to employees of a company can reduce the overall drive-alone share - from 76 percent before the passes were introduced to 60 percent afterward in one survey he references on page 251.

Offering free transit passes to employees of a particular company, students of a particular university, or members of another organization are variously known as eco-pass or UPASS programs . In eco-pass or UPASS programs, the employer or university pays the transit system to allow its employees or students, faculty, and staff to ride the transit system for free upon presentation of a valid ID.

These programs are often a win-win-win for the employer, the employees, and the transit agency. Of course, one way in which the employer and the employees win is that the employer can offer a new low-cost benefit. However, the bigger way the employer could win in this situation is if the eco-pass program could result in a decrease in the number of parking spaces they could provide. Since parking spaces are so expensive to construct and maintain, providing fewer parking spaces would result in significant savings. Because few properties provide more parking than required by municipal zoning regulations, whether this result will happen is dependent on whether cities reduce the number of required parking spaces for organizations who participate in eco-pass programs. At this time, few cities do. While Seattle does reduce the parking requirement for developments by up to 10% if eco-passes are provided and if transit service is within 800 feet of the development, a survey of transit-oriented developments in California found that in only four of the eleven sites studied did cities reduce the parking requirement (258).

One reason why cities may be loathe to reduce the parking requirements for organizations that offer these programs is a worry that the program may turn out to be temporary. Indeed, although the transit system can win under these programs by filling up otherwise empty buses, an eco-pass program can become a nightmare if the program is so successful that overcrowded conditions require a significant amount of service to be added. A significant increase in the number of UPASS programs offered in Vancouver, British Columbia has severely strained Translink, the local bus system, and Long Beach Transit in California has had to deal with the influx of what amounted to be an 10% increase in daily ridership on school days.

What Would Happen To American Transit Agencies If These Policies Were Enacted?

Under a Shoupist parking regime, off-street parking requirements would be eliminated (although businesses would still provide enough off-street parking to be profitable) and on-street parking would be charged at a cost sufficient to ensure that 15% of the spaces would be empty at any one time. The effect would be a significant increase in the price of parking, especially in large cities.

This increase in the price of parking would, by making the cost of owning a car more expensive, likely result in the reduction of people owning cars. This reduction would lead, in turn, to more people taking public transit. Could public transit handle this influx of passengers?

The answer is unclear, as Shoup never examines what effect the full implementation of his policies would have on a given area. Certainly, I would imagine that the removal of off-street parking requirements would have little effect in the large section of suburbia that has no on-street parking whatsoever and no viable transit alternative. The removal of off-street parking requirements would more likely happen in downtown areas, especially in eastern cities that grew up before the advent of the car (in fact, several cities, both eastern and western, already limit off-street parking in their downtown areas; these include Boston, New York, Seattle, and Portland). Unfortunately, transit systems in these cities are already oversubscribed, and barring additional funds - which at this point do not seem to be forthcoming - cannot handle the likely influx of riders that would result from the implementation of Shoupist parking policies. Although Shoup never states this, perhaps the removal of off-street parking requirements should not let the developer off the hook for transportation access to the property; instead, in-lieu fees, that many developers already pay instead of constructing parking, should continue - only instead of paying for municipal parking garages these in-lieu fees should pay for increased transit service.

In this brave new world of changed parking regulations, transit, while being much busier than before, will have another major advantage: the wholesale reduction of drivers cruising for on-street parking (remember that since 15% of curb spaces will be free at any one time there will be no more cruising) will significantly increase travel speed in the right lane of traffic, which will increase the operating speed of buses.

The High Cost of Free Parking is available at Amazon.com .

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