Donald Shoup, distinguished professor of Urban Planning at UCLA Luskin, has become the nation’s oft-quoted, go-to expert on parking. He was recently named one of the world's Top 100 City Innovators Worldwide by UBM Future Cities. The author of “The High Cost of Free Parking,” Shoup has inspired a growing number of cities to charge fair market prices for on-street parking and remove off-street parking requirements.
He recently sat down with UCLA Luskin writer Matt Hurst to talk briefly about his favorite subject. Here is an edited Q&A.
How did you get interested in parking?
I backed in. Initially, I did research on land economics, and I realized that parking is a land market few academics had studied, perhaps because parking has such low status. In academia, international affairs have the most prestige, national affairs are a step down, state government is even lower, and local government seems parochial. Then, within local government, parking is probably the lowest rung on the status ladder. So I was a bottom feeder, but there was a lot of food down there.
Why is parking an important land market?
The footprint of parking is bigger than the footprint of any other land use in most cities. Parking spaces are also the most uniform and most frequently transacted pieces of land on Earth. People are even conceived in parked cars.
So drivers don’t mind paying to use these pieces of land over and over again?
No one wants to pay for curb parking, including me. To counteract this unwillingness to pay, I’ve tried to devise policies that create the political will to charge for curb parking. I recommend cities should dedicate the meter revenue to pay for added public services on the metered streets, as Pasadena does. Residents and businesses can then see that parking meters provide the funds necessary to improve their neighborhood. In all the reforms I recommend, I’ve tried to devise policies that will be politically popular and won’t require big changes.
How do you do your research in parking?
Cruising for underpriced curb parking creates a lot of traffic, but it’s hard to know how much. From measurements in Westwood Village, I estimated that cruising for curb parking creates about 950,000 vehicle miles of travel per year, equivalent to 36 trips around the Earth. To show any skeptics the extent of cruising for parking when all curb spaces are occupied and traffic is congested, I walk to the driver’s side door of a car parked on the street and take the keys out of my pocket. Often, the first driver who sees me approach the car comes to a halt, implying the driver was hunting for curb parking. If the first driver who sees me usually stops to take the space, many of the other drivers in the traffic flow are also probably cruising for parking.
What do you advise city officials to do about parking?
I recommend three simple policies. First, charge the right price for on-street parking, meaning the lowest price that will leave one or two open spaces on every block. Second, return all the meter revenue to pay for added public services on the metered blocks. And third, remove off-street parking requirements.
Why do you think cities should remove off-street parking requirements from, for example, new developments?
Minimum parking requirements are a fertility drug for cars in cities already choking on traffic congestion. Removing off-street parking requirements doesn’t mean, however, that developers won’t provide off-street parking. It simply means that urban planners won’t tell developers exactly how many parking spaces they must provide. Developers will supply all the parking spaces they think tenants demand. Lenders will also insist on enough parking spaces in the buildings they finance.
Parking requirements act like prohibition: They prohibit anything that does not have all the required parking. Requiring two parking spaces per apartment, for example, prohibits any apartment without two parking spaces. In effect, parking requirements tell people without cars that you’re not rich enough to live here. Like alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, parking requirements do more harm than good and should be repealed.
I think minimum parking requirements will eventually join other discarded planning practices that, like urban renewal programs in the 1960s, wasted a lot of money and did a lot of harm, although they seemed a good idea at the time.
What do you think about the state of planning for parking in our cities?
Planning for parking is at a primitive stage, maybe where medicine was a hundred years ago, when doctors prescribed lead and mercury as medicines, and blood letting as a therapy. Looking back a hundred years from now, I think everyone will understand that mispriced on-street parking and misguided off-street parking requirements did immense damage to cities, the economy, and the environment.
Your book has triggered a rethinking about how parking should be planned. How do you feel about that?
I try to write clearly so readers will think, “He’s right. Let’s do it!” My ideas for parking reform once seemed unimportant or impossible, but cities are now implementing them. I hope they work.
This Q&A was adapted from an article from in the Winter 2014 issue of the Luskin Forum.