Imagine living in a city where every restaurant is required by law to provide free chicken sandwiches. In addition to the free sandwiches, each restaurant offers a complete menu of items available for purchase. You can order roast beef or a reuben or an Albuquerque Turkey—but you have to pay for them.The line of argument echoes one Reason raised years ago, asking people to consider an alternative universe in which businesses competed for labor during World War II by providing all workers with lunches, rather than what really happened, which was that businesses competed for labor by providing health insurance. (See how well that turned out?) The general principle is the same: where there are no incentives to conserve, resources don't get conserved, and the only free parking space where you get to pick money up is the one on the Monopoly board.
The chicken sandwiches, however, are always free. And each day, restaurants must provide more than twice as many chicken sandwiches as their customers will eat. A majority of the sandwiches go to waste.
This would be absurd, right? What kind of communist plot would require a business to offer sandwiches for free?
Well, nearly every town in America does it. But they don’t require free sandwiches, they require something much more valuable: free parking.
Even if they’re located next to a bus stop, or a bike route, or a residential neighborhood where their customers live, businesses across America must purchase extra land to build parking lots. Often, they must demolish existing buildings to do so. And while zoning ordinances don’t specifically require the parking to be free, we’ve built so much of the darn stuff, we’ve devalued it. People have come to expect free parking wherever they go. As a result, it’s a rare business that dares to charge for parking.Yes, and much of the time, that space is vacant (we're heading into the Christmas rush, that's the exception, although Strong Towns will run their Black Friday vacant parking lot challenge again this year).
Our zoning code essentially dictates that developments prioritize cars over people. So what do we get? A city full of cars.No, and the resources devoted to providing parking spaces are diverted from providing other useful services or goods.
As Donald Shoup famously wrote, “Minimum parking requirements act like a fertility drug for cars.”
And because we put the needs of cars before those of people, we require buildings to be set back far from the sidewalk. We require enormous parking lots located between the building and the street. We expect pedestrians and transit users to traverse asphalt wastelands and share space with speeding SUVs.
We make driving convenient and seemingly “free.” We make every other alternative inconvenient and unpleasant, and then we charge for transit. We are handing out the chicken sandwiches and wondering why so few people choose soup or salad.
But is all this parking actually “free?”