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What is the true cost of free parking?

The Nickel Tour: Free parking has hidden costs that pop up in taxes, rent, and even your grocery bill.  A UCLA urban planning professor wants you to know that free parking is a bad policy.

Free parking is the ultimate Trojan horse. Sure, free sounds great, but it comes with costs that impact everything from the congestion on your street, to the cost of rent, to prices at the grocery store. And everyone is paying whether you own a car or not.

Donald Shoup, professor of Urban Planning at UCLA and author of The High Cost of Free Parking, recently spoke at length with Vox about his years’ long effort to get cities to rethink their relationship with parking, namely by charging for it.

Shoup says the long-held idea of free parking as a public good makes it difficult for the government to charge for it, but he believes governments should.

Governments bear the costs for the land, for paving parking spaces and for cleaning them, as well as an opportunity cost for what that land could be worth if not used for parking. Those costs appear in city budgets funded by–you guessed it–taxes and fees on residents and businesses.

“Parking doesn’t just come out of thin air,” Shoup tells Vox. “So this means people who don’t own cars pay for other peoples’ parking. Every time you walk somewhere, or ride a bike, or take a bus, you’re getting shafted.”

If nothing else, charging for parking will place the brunt of the cost of parking on people who own cars and use parking, rather than spreading it out evenly even on non-car owners.

Shoup also opposes parking minimums. Rather than requiring a developer to build one space for every two residential units or one space per specified square foot of retail, let the market determine how much parking should be provided, he argues.

When developers are compelled to build a parking deck or to dig an underground parking garage, those costs–anywhere from $20,000 per underground space in Boston to $40,000 per space in Washington, D.C.–translate into higher rents or fewer affordable housing units. A grocery store paying for parking for its customers through its high rent passes that cost on to shoppers: there’s a reason bread is so expensive at that downtown store.

We are all paying for “free” parking, even if we are not using it. It’s time to rethink how much parking our communities need and who should pay for it. Read more of Stroup’s ideas for fixing our broken parking policies here.

Image courtesy of Alan Cleaver

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