THAT'S NEWS TO ME. Destination: Freedom notes that there is no such thing as "free parking." No news there. The opportunity cost, however, is news.
The total subsidy for off-street parking in 2002, [UCLA professor Donald] Shoup estimated, was between $127 billion and $374 billion—somewhere between the costs of Medicare ($231 billion) and national defense ($349 billion). And research conducted under the CTS Transportation and Regional Growth Study estimated the total cost of off-street parking in the Twin Cities is 50 percent more than the cost of streets and highways.
That sounds large. Professor Shoup (more here)has a book titled The High Cost of Free Parking that might provide the support for those estimates. There are, however, complications.
Shoup envisions communities that charge market-rate prices for curb parking, use the revenue to improve neighborhoods, and remove off-street parking requirements. The cost of parking becomes unbundled from other transactions, so driving and oil consumption drop and our air is cleaner. “We pay less for the price of everything except parking,” he summarized.
Bundling and unbundling, however, have complexities. I remember inner-city department stores with proprietary parking lots. Consumers could use these at no additional charge, although drivers would have to wait for directions from a traffic controller with a high-level view of the lot. That had to be one of the more trying jobs in the store on those sub-zero days around Christmas. But the controller earned his pay those days, as those lots definitely were not engineered for peak loads, contrary to assertions elsewhere in the article and in this summary from the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies of High Cost. Other inner-city department stores would have parking validation agreements with nearby paid lots that might be operated as a business or as a city utility. These arrangements had to emerge for a reason. What competitive advantage did stores discover in providing parking as an additional service to shoppers (one that would be easier to unbundle than, say, fitting rooms or warranties?) Why did that competitive advantage morph into the shopping centers, enclosed shopping malls, and complexes of free-standing big box stores, surrounded by ample parking we see today, to the dismay of the urban lobby? On the other hand, why have land-use planners adopted the practices of stores with ample unpaid parking as recommended practices, something that Professor Shoup criticizes?
Even though parking costs are hidden, Shoup declared, we all bear the cost of this “great planning disaster.” Parking requirements skew travel choices, distort urban form, degrade urban design, raise housing costs, impede reuse of older buildings, limit homeownership, damage the urban economy, and harm the environment.
On the other hand, couldn't the same thing be said about any other kind of requirement? Simply because free-standing shopping centers appear to be a good idea given the incentives in place after World War II does not mean such complexes will never become obsolete, exactly as many central cities have. Land-use planning that mandates perpetuation of the 1850-1950 urban forms is not per se a distortion?

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