The High Cost of Free Parking Preface and Afterword

This is the last post in the series on Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking. Previous can be found here:

Chapters 1 – 4

Chapters 5 – 9

Chapters 10 – 14

Chapters 16 – 18

Chapters 19 – 22


In these two chapters, which Donald Shoup added for the paperback edition of the book, he discusses some of the changes in parking policy since the original edition in 2004. He also reiterates his three prescriptions for saner parking policy:

1) Set the right price for curb parking;

2) Return parking revenue to pay for local public services;

3) Remove parking minimum requirements.

He points out that cities that have tried “performance parking” have had successful results. San Francisco’s SFpark is perhaps the country’s most advanced system for performance parking. Curb sspaces include sensors that can tell whether or not the space is occupied. Then parking amnagers can adjust prices remotely to approach the 85% occupancy goal as closely as possible.

Shoup argues that performance parking should not be a politicized change. Setting an 85% occupancy target is not designed to raise revenue or to benefit any group at the expense of another. Rather, prices can eliminate parking shortages, so that people pay for parking with money rather than with time spent cruising. These prices also incentivise greater turnover. Nonetheless, he points out that performance parking has opponents:

Thinking about parking seems to take place in the reptilian cortex, the most primitive part of the brain responsible for making snap decisions about urgent fight-or-flight choices such as how to avoid being eaten.

The same could be said about many land use decisions which do not seem to be made on the basis of rationality. He points out that performance pricing is very unlikely to reduce customers in any district, as the prices are set to maintain high occupancy rates. Those customers unwilling to pay for parking are unlikely to be businesses best customers at any rate. Despite this opposition, cities that have tried parking performance prices seem to be keeping them in place. Shoup speculates that people tend to oppose performance pricing more strongly before they see its benefits upon implementation.

As far parking revenues going back to the neighborhoods where they are raised, Shoup cites the continued economic growth of Old Pasadena as a success for this policy. Redwood City, outside of San Francisco, has adopted a similar model, where parking revenues stay within the Downtown Core Meter Zone.

Toward his final recommendation, Shoup has found at least 129 cities that have removed some of their downtown parking minimums. Additionally, cities including Los Angeles have introduced some flexibility into their remaining parking requirements allowing, for example, apartment buildings to meet some of their parking requirements off site. This has made some historic office buildings viable renovation projects that otherwise would have been vacant or demolished. While Shoup posits that a slow revolution is underway in planning for parking, but he laments that these changes have not yet reached the suburbs, where parking requirements largely remain intact.


Shoup details some of the cities that have raised parking prices to reduce shortages. Washington, DC, New York City, Ventura, and Seattle have all implemented higher parking prices, though not all of them have set specific occupancy targets. He also explains Chicago’s failure in privatizing its parking meters while capping meter rates. The city missed an opportunity to let bidders set higher meter prices to both reduce cruising for parking and to make more money in selling off meter rights.

He discusses the importance of enforcement in making these policies work. Shoup suggests that cities should set graduated parking tickets, perhaps giving warnings on drivers’ first offenses. Tickets obviously irritate drivers and may foster ill-will against higher meter rates. However, drivers cannot be allowed to serially skip paying, or the prices will not be effective.

Shoup also discusses the problem of disability placard abuse. Many cities have set up incentives for this abuse by allowing cars with placards to park free. While this may sound like a good idea, Shoup points out that the current situation may lead to so much abuse that people with disabilities will have difficulty finding spaces close to their destinations. With higher meter prices, the incentive to abuse placards will be even greater. He advocates Arlington County’s policy  of requiring all drivers to pay for parking but reserving some conveniently located spots for those with disabilities, reducing the incentive for abuse.

In this chapter, Shoup cites some recent studies of parking requirements, which find that parking requirements do in fact lead developers to build significantly more parking than they would in a free market. He also explains that some cities, including New York and San Francisco have taken parking pricing to the next step, permitting restaurants to use parking spaces for seasonal outdoor cafes.

Final Thoughts

To reiterate, I highly recommend the entire book. I am in complete agreement with Shoup on his first and third recommendations for parking policy, and he clearly and persuasively makes the case for these two arguments. However, the more I think about it, the more I think that his recommendation of parking revenue benefit districts might not be the best solution, even though it would be much better than the status quo. Yes, this policy has successfully built support for performance pricing in some neighborhoods. However, I think that tax abatement districts would build even more support.

People might like to see more business improvement districts, but I think that they would prefer cash. There would be various ways to provide the tax rebates, and cities could decide whether to provide them to the neighborhoods where revenues are raised or to provide them equally to everyone in the city. For existing business or residential improvement districts, or for neighborhoods that want to start them, residents could agree to dedicate their rebates to the district for if they want to. This would keep improvement districts voluntary and maintain existing incentives for privately funded districts to spend their revenues well.

Property taxes are particularly unpopular, and I think abatement would be sufficient to build support for parking prices that eliminate cruising. As Shoup says, charging higher meter rates is not about increasing cities’ revenue, but rather about eliminating curb parking shortages. By giving the increases in revenue back to the residents who are paying these higher rates, additional cities can build the political support necessary to charge appropriate prices for parking.