I never thought the day would come, but I actually find myself taking issue with Donald Shoup’s recent criticism of the Cato Institute (which Randal O’Toole works for) and its own DC headquarters’ employee parking program. While I agree with Shoup’s more general critique of Cato’s stance on transportation and land use issues, and consider him to be the greatest urbanist since Jane Jacobs, his attack on Cato for giving its employees free parking appears to me to be misdirected.
The gist of his argument is that since Cato offers free parking to its employees and neighboring NPR (both on Massachusetts Ave. in DC) charges its workers for parking, NPR is taking the “free market” approach and Cato is taking the “free parking” approach. But I don’t see how this comports with Shoup’s broader research, which focuses on parking policies of governments and not private (well, sort of) entities like NPR and Cato. Corporations are allowed to take a command-and-control approach to their operations and still be considered “free market institutions” as long as they are competing in a free market, and in fact some of the most successful ones are (Facebook, for example, is still run as Mark Zuckerberg’s own personal fiefdom).
Now of course, Cato is not operating in a free market when it comes to parking. It likely was forced to build some amount of parking by law, and even if it wasn’t, the influence of neighboring areas’ land use policies looms large on a single building like Cato’s. There’s also the issue of employer-provided parking as a fringe benefit not being taxed, which Shoup mentions. He then suggests that Cato offer a parking cash-out program, whereby they pay employees who choose not to park the cash equivalent of the spot, which Cato doesn’t appear to currently offer. Maybe it’s because of the tax effect, but it seems more likely that Cato just doesn’t want to take on an added expense (paying its employees not to park) when it’s already built the parking infrastructure under the old rules.
It just doesn’t seem fair to blame Cato for what is essentially a program of government policy. Cato and all the other businesses that provide free parking are simply acting rationally when presented with status quo incentives. I do think that Cato should be working harder to do away with the incentives for cars and roads in the marketplace, but that doesn’t seem to be the argument Shoup is making in this article.
Furthermore, I’m worried that this sort of finger-waving at private firms for providing free parking will give ammo to Shoup’s critics who claim that he’s anti-free parking rather than anti-mandated and subsidized free parking. I understand that his using the examples of the NPR and Cato HQs is meant to be symbolic and rhetorical, but I personally found it to be a bit muddled. It’s only a minor disagreement, and like I said, I still have the utmost admiration for Shoup’s work, but I felt it needed to be said.