Nothing has made us more dependent on automobiles than the right to park them free at the end of (almost) all of our trips. Parking isn’t really free of course. It is just paid for by everybody but the driver. Society pays much more than what it would cost to give every driver free gasoline.
Parking subsidy is the “elephant in the bedroom”. It is hard to ignore, but hardly anyone seems to see it, and hardly anyone has wanted to do anything about it. Denial of the existence of parking subsidies is made easy because most people think subsidies are limited to government payments that come from taxes.
But it is more fundamental than that; a subsidy is any cost of providing for a transportation mode that isn’t paid by the user in direct relation to use. Most parking subsidies are provided by building owners and managers, by providing parking and not charging drivers for it. To a great extent they do that because local government requires them to do it. This arrangement allows vast subsidies without the scrutiny given to tax expenditures. And it pretty well took care of the main weakness of automobile transportation — its very high consumption of space. The main consequence of that solution to the parking problem was the decline of cities and the degradation of the countryside by urban sprawl.
In fact, it is primarily this parking subsidy that leads to tax subsidies for transit. Transit systems can’t provide sufficient service to be attractive where parking is free, because the market can’t develop, and so the tax subsidies are needed to shore up the system.
Can anything be done?
Has our built environment evolved so far with the automobile that we can’t back away from it? Is free parking so important that nothing can change?
Without ignoring the difficulties, we believe there are many solutions. Fortunately, most of them are incremental. They can be instituted first where people are most conscious of the harm that has been done. After the damage repair shows a few successes, others will follow. This is beginning to happen already.
The most notable research on parking has been done over the years by Professor Donald Shoup and his students at UCLA.
Shoup was the inventor of Parking Cashout, which is now included in the laws of both California and the U.S. It is probably fair to say that Shoup is chiefly responsible for disseminating most of the innovative ideas for parking in recent decades.
Although he has inspired practioners for years and has been widely cited, his influence accelerated rapidly with the publication of his classic book, The High Cost of Free Parking (2005, 2011). You can read Chapter 1 here.