Free parking isn't really 'free'

free parkingIn the United States, where having a car is a God-given right akin to the right to assemble, getting free parking is almost as holy.

Whether you drive a Hummer or a Prius, finding free or relatively cheap parking for the 95% of the time when you're not driving is relatively easy.

Free parking -- at shopping malls, the grocery store and in your neighborhood -- can be heavily subsidized and isn't as free as it looks on the surface, according to a story by Seth Zeren at

Even paying a few cents at a parking meter doesn't cover the true costs, Zeren writes, which extend beyond the economy to land use patterns, the design of cities and individual lifestyles.

Building requirements for parking spaces drive up the cost of development. Parking spaces can cost between $10,000 and $50,000, and high parking requirements can raise the price of homes and apartments by $50,000 to $100,000.

He gives the example of a recent parking garage project in New Haven, Conn., that cost $30 million for almost 1,200 spaces -- more than $25,000 per space.

Financing it with a mortgage would increase the cost to more than $40,000 per space. That equates to about $135 per month, or $1,600 a year per parking space.

Parking garages and meters rarely charge the real value of a parking space, resulting in a massive subsidy paid for by everyone -- including people who don't drive.

In his book "The High Cost of Free Parking," author Donald Shoup calculates that in 2002 the total subsidy for off-street parking was between $127 billion and $374 billion in the United States.
While some housing developments are trying to allow fewer cars, Zeren has these suggestions for ways to eliminate parking problems in local neighborhoods:

  • Eliminate zoning requirements for off-street parking. Developers will design for market demand, instead of providing parking for every unit, and must have walkability and transit options.
  • Change market rates for curbside parking at meters. The land will pay its value, reducing trips and cruising for parking and providing revenue for neighborhoods and maintenance.
  • Create parking benefit districts that return meter revenues to neighborhoods. Businesses and residents will be much more supportive of market rate curb parking if they receive direct benefits by being subsidized by cars.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at
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