Posted by: Deb Henry | 03/04/2010

There is No Free Parking

Who pays for this land?

Have you ever thought about the prime real estate you park your car on when you pick up groceries or go to work?  The 176 square feet your car occupies is FREE for 99% of the automobile trips made in the United States (Shoup, 1999).  Normally, four of these parking spaces laced together would fetch a decent rental income if there were a roof and a kitchen sink, but you are asked to pay nothing.

… How can that be?

Over the last century, towns were forced to come up with a minimum parking requirements to prevent freeloading. To figure out how many spaces each business needs to support their own customers depends on a number of things… including time of day, the health of the economy, the day of the week, the cost of gasoline, the economic stability of the nation … as well as the consumer’s mood.  Instead of determining these values with localized considerations,  it became the standard to assign values for types of businesses.  Unfortunately, the origins of these values are usually in suburbs where a specific land use can be isolated from the contribution of the businesses around it, and therefore where alternatives to the car are rare. Parking is often free in these regions …which exaggerates demand and does not penalize  multiple trips.  If this research is too much work, planners may rely on the wisdom of similar towns, which has made these assumptions self-perpetuating.

Minimum parking requirements increase the cost of development.  Parking is free for most automobile trips only because its cost has been shifted to higher prices for everything else.  Regardless of your mode of transportation,  you  share the cost of oversupplied “free” parking with other consumers each time you make a purchase.

In Los Angeles, the average construction cost of an office building without parking is $150 per square foot.  Above-ground parking garages cost $10,000 per space.  Underground parking costs $25,000 per space.  With local requirements of four spaces per 1000 sf, this increases that square footage price by 27% for a regular parking garage and 67% for below-ground parking  (Shoup, 1999).

Don’t get me wrong, there is always going to be a need for parking.  I just don’t want to pay for someone’s parking spot when I could be saving money on groceries and they could be walking to the store.  What I would like to see is a shift toward charging the individual for their decisions instead of shifting the cost to me when I have no control over their actions.

Imagine how our transportation preferences  would shift if  we were to have to pay to park at work and all received bonuses with the money saved.  I have a feeling we may notice the demand for parking and mega-highways would look a little different.

More Info:

NPR – ‘Free Parking’ Comes at a Price, Author Says

The trouble with minimum parking requirements, Donald C. Shoup, 1999.



  1. I’m really surprised that residential street parking in DC is so cheap. Residential street parking is something like $10 or $20 for a yearlong permit. I think that buying a spot in an underground parking garage is on par with or even more expensive than you’ve listed here for LA, though….I’ve heard $40,000 (e.g., if you were buying a spot in your condo building’s garage).

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