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The high cost of bad parking arguments

Photo by mattlehrer.
Why parking is not like ice cream: Why don't downtown business districts give people free gas to shop downtown? Sound like a crazy idea? Then why do so many businesses argue for free parking? Ian Sacs gives a good overview of Shoupism. (Planetizen)

The high cost of Rockville garages: Rockville can't decide what to do about their $36 million Town Center garages, which aren't paying for themselves despite rosy predictions during initial planning. The city is spending almost a million dollars a year of taxpayer money paying for the garages, but businesses are resistant to extending the $1/hour charge from 7 pm to 10 pm. The article doesn't specify how full the garages are during these times. (The Sentinel via FLOG)

The high cost of free evening parking: Meanwhile, the City of Sacramento is considering extending its downtown metered parking hours past 6 pm, in an effort to reduce cruising and pollution, and to attempt to drive some people into off-street lots that currently charge $2-10 per night. According to the city, the on-street spaces are 98% full on Friday evenings with nearby off-street parking empty. Businesses are unsurprisingly cold to the idea. (Sacramento Bee, Michael P)

Vote Wonder Woman: It's just for fun, but the New Organizing Institute's mock DC election is more and more hinging on whether enforcing street cleaning rules makes sense. Take a moment from your slow Friday afternoon and Vote Wonder Woman for Mayor of DC in the mock election. She also supports streetcars.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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I'm on board with all the performance parking ideas advocated for on this blog. But I find the premise of the "free gas" Planetizen anecdote rather weak. Suburbs have free parking which is why the downtown CBD merchants feel they need to the same to compete. The suburbs don't have free gas. Ian may feel his anecdote is clever but it's really not apples-to-apples.

by Paul S on Jul 10, 2009 2:52 pm • linkreport

It's easy to have these knee jerk responses to free parking, but a free garage has helped Clarendon develop its nightlife, and allows neighborhoods like that to appeal to all age groups, not just 21-25 year olds.

Reality is that many families will not venture out to dinner unless there's free parking. If you take it away from a developing pedestrian neighborhood, you're only going to send a lot of the 30-50 year olds back to the strip malls.

by David on Jul 10, 2009 2:56 pm • linkreport

All these liberal latter sipping urban types want to sound impressive so they quote market incentives. Somebody should tell them that in the last year a lot of these market incentives types have come off as remarkably stupid and unprescient.

The real issue, as always, is WHO is charging for parking. If it is the government, then they tend to listen to their constituents first and keep parking cheap. Performance parking is mostly about letting private companies collect government fees, and dollars to donuts there is a corrupt bargain in there (somewhere).

by charlie on Jul 10, 2009 4:23 pm • linkreport

David's point is good and the same could be said for Reston Town Center's success, even to a greater extent of course since they don't have rail there (yet). I wish there weren't this race to the bottom and activity centers didn't compete with each other to obscenely subsidize parking, but I am not sure how to stop the vicious cycle.

by Douglas Stewart on Jul 10, 2009 4:31 pm • linkreport

charlie: . . . Performance parking is mostly about letting private companies collect government fees.

Back that statement up with some evidence please. Other than Chicago, which was a huge blunder, I don't know what you would be talking about.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 10, 2009 5:09 pm • linkreport

David, my biggest reason for pushing the Performance Parking thing is to reduce the number of people that are cruising around for a parking space. It's insane to keep the meter prices low or free when the spaces are all full. If there's a lot of off-street space available for cheap or free and the on-street spaces are still overcrowded (like in Clarendon), starting to charge for the on-street spaces will push some people into the off-street garages and lots and benefit everyone.

Clarendon has garages, but they also have overcrowded streets because Arlington doesn't charge for meter parking after 6pm.

I'd like to see some evidence that "families won't pay for parking". People (including families and old people, too) go to downtowns because they're great places to be, that offer unique experiences and restaurants you can't find in a strip mall with free parking. People don't go downtown because there's free (but hard to find) parking.

If anything, I avoid going downtown sometimes because it's a pain in the ass to find a space, not because I might be expected to put a dollar in a meter. Maybe it's just me. When I do end up driving downtown, I'm in with the rest of them hunting for a space. I'd rather not waste my time and aggravation, I'd rather give the County/District a buck or two. But that's not an option, most places. It's free/overcrowded parking or a $10 garage.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 10, 2009 5:23 pm • linkreport

David, Charlie, I think the cases where free parking is really necessary to keep the downtown alive are pretty rare. Only if it's hanging on by a thread. On the other hand, if a town is struggling to have enough open parking spaces to meet all the demand, this is definitely not true. Especially in the evenings, downtowns are offering an entirely different experience than the strip malls. I don't think it's fair to see them as direct competitors.

Also, what if the revenue generate from parking were poured back in to the downtown experience somehow, or getting people to there by means other than cars? Your argument assumes the charge will be a net deficit for downtown business, but a little investment in public space can go a long way in attracting visitors.

by Daniel on Jul 10, 2009 9:36 pm • linkreport

Can anybody actually give an example of "free" parking? I've been in commercial real estate for over 2 decades and I have yet to come across a project where there was no cost associated with providing parking.

The issue isn't about "paid parking" vs "free parking", it's about "who" is paying for the parking. If the "free" parking is at a mall then the tenants are paying for it thru rent and CAM charges, if the "free" parking is downtown then the citizens are paying for it thru their tax dollars whether they ever venture downtown or use the spaces or not.

Paid parking in a downtown setting is nothing more than a real world example of a consumption tax, the same as gas taxes and other similar taxes or levys.

by mark on Jul 11, 2009 8:53 am • linkreport

While it's true that parking is never "free", the term is usually applied to parking where the driver of a vehicle incurs no additional cost for using the parking.

Examples are a wal-mart parking lot, an apartment where you get a certain number of spaces included with the rent, an office building which provides its employees with parking at no charge, and a downtown which uses time limits only to manage turnover, or only runs the meters until 6pm even though the streets are still crowded.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 11, 2009 9:39 am • linkreport

Even allowing people to park "free" on an unimproved lot has an opportunity cost, because you can't use the land for something else.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 11, 2009 9:45 am • linkreport

"Why parking is not like ice cream: Why don't downtown business districts give people free gas to shop downtown? Sound like a crazy idea? Then why do so many businesses argue for free parking?"

Or give them free food, or charge them rent for the space they occupy when they come into their stores.

This all sounds like subverting the ability of inner city merchants who already pay high taxes so they are encouraged to do business instead outside the cities. That's SOME new urbanism!

by Douglas Willinger on Jul 11, 2009 1:25 pm • linkreport

How many families do you see out to dinner in Adams Morgan?

In some pedestrian developments, restaurants targeting families will "pay" for their customers' parking by having their servers or hostesses validate tickets from the garage. It's good business to subsidize parking in developing pedestrian neighborhoods, even if it upsets academics and bloggers who understand rants better than economics. Good luck finding a bank that will finance a restaurant targeting 30-54 year olds that requires that they pay to park.

by David on Jul 11, 2009 2:57 pm • linkreport

Restaurants and clubs all over the country require customers to pay for parking. Some cities require businesses to pay in-lieu of fees for parking in order to get a permit, with costs ranging anywhere from $1000 up to $15000+ per code required space.

At the end of the day SOMEBODY has to pay for every parking space, it's either from a bundled cost (taxes, rent, CAM charges, etc) or un-bundled (customer pays, validations, etc). Cities don't "give away" or "provide" free parking, they just bury the expense somewhere else.

by mark on Jul 11, 2009 3:24 pm • linkreport

David, I think you're changing the argument when it comes to Adams Morgan. Adams Morgan offers free on-street parking in the evenings when the demand is highest (, contrary to the recommendations of Performance Parking and consistent with your recommendation that parking be provided free in order to entice families.

I'm not sure the mix of businesses in Adams Morgan is really meant to entice families anyway.

The policy that you propose with restaurants validating tickets from the garage is completely consistent with Performance Parking for the street. Normally Performance Parking only refers to a policy of pricing on-street spaces to manage demand relative to supply. If restaurants want to provide their customers with money for parking, I don't see a problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is attempting to provide free on-street parking in areas where the streets are in high demand.

We have a shop in Clarendon (Public Shoe) that provides its customers with quarters for the meters. That works too. As long as the prices are being set based on occupancy, if businesses want to entice customers that way, the prices on-street will adjust to reflect that.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 11, 2009 3:34 pm • linkreport

@David: In Europe, there is no such thing as "free" parking anymore. Are downtown Paris, Rome, London, Berlin and Amsterdam ghost-towns, because of folks taking their business elsewhere? No.

Americans are not fundamentally different than the Frogs, Romans, Brits, Brats and Stoners. Trust me, they too balked and threatened to stay away. And they didn't. For hundreds of years they didn't.

QED. Case closed.

by Jasper on Jul 12, 2009 5:59 pm • linkreport

I agree. Why should there be free bike parking? It should be at least 25c for every 15 minutes.

by mattmc on Jul 15, 2009 9:10 am • linkreport

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