The high cost of cheap parking

An informative history of the birth of the parking meter and how its slowness in evolving with the times has helped to prolong the hegemony of the car and driving in America.

In his definitive book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” Donald Shoup explains that minimum parking requirements “led planners and developers to think that parking is a problem only when there isn’t enough of it. But too much parking is also a problem—it wastes money, degrades urban design, increases impervious surface area, and encourages overuse of cars.” Besides the fact that legally required lots are often more than half-empty, they result in a variety of negative impacts, from environmental runoff issues to inhospitable pedestrian zones. Instead of using the tools available to limit automobile use and encourage free-flowing street traffic, Shoup explains that planners traditionally did the opposite, requiring “enough off-street spaces to satisfy the peak demand for free parking.”

Additionally, such ordinances falsely reduced the explicit cost of city driving, transferring the true expense of so-called “free” parking to every citizen in the vicinity, diffused into taxes, real estate, product, and service fees. In effect, this legislation created an environment where “nobody can opt out of paying for parking,” says Jeff Speck, renowned urban planner and author of the book, “Walkable Cities.”

According to Speck, “people who walk, bike, or take transit are bankrolling those who drive. In so doing, they are making driving cheaper and thus more prevalent, which in turn undermines the quality of walking, biking, and taking transit.” Furthermore, our plethora of free parking resulted in a range of negative consequences still unaccounted for: “The social costs of not charging for curb parking—traffic congestion, air pollution, accidents, wasted time, and wasted fuel—are enormous,” writes Shoup.

At the end of the article, San Francisco is cited as the leading city in swapping out old parking meters for new ones whose rates can be adjusted on the fly and that can be paid in a variety of ways, including by phone (through the PayByPhone mobile app). I've consistently use the mobile app on my iPhone to pay those meters now, and it beats carrying around a pound of quarters.

However, I still find it impossible to find parking in San Francisco most places I go. Perhaps the rates aren't high enough to sit at the intersection of supply and demand curves. The ideal pricing would have most spots filled but a few spots empty at all times so drivers wouldn't spend their time circling the block looking for a spot.