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There Is No Free Parking

Here’s a news flash: There is really no free parking. Not totally free, not really. Someone somehow winds up footing the bill. What about the parking at the mall or the grocery store — that’s free, right? Not if you purchase something. The cost of the land, taxes, lighting and upkeep are all passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices. Meterless curbside parking on a city street? Nope. Taxpayers pick up the tab. No-cost parking is a myth.

The Vox video “The High Cost of Free Parking,” produced by Will Chilton and Paul Mackie of Mobility Lab, makes the argument that cities bungled the issue of parking almost from the get-go. The result is an estimated eight parking spaces per car in this country, which hog roughly 30 percent of urban space and, if consolidated into one spot, would cover a land mass the size of West Virginia.

Tale of the Tape

The average parking spot requires about 330 sq ft. That’s what planners believe a car needs in the way of not just storage space but also room for a car to pull into the storage area and still have enough space on each side for the doors to open. That means that a parking lot for 10 cars requires a 3,300-sq-ft. footprint.

In the Beginning

The concepts of paid parking and off-street parking didn’t arrive until the mid-1930s. Until then, free curbside parking was the only parking available in cities. By that time, however, a densely packed city like New York had few options beyond street parking.

In 1935, the first parking meter was installed in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Devised as a tool to encourage curbside-parking turnover, it did boost downtown business, bringing some welcome revenue into city-government coffers as well. It was about this same time that city governments came up with the idea of off-street-parking requirements, also known as mandatory parking minimums.

Cities have primarily used parking meters and mandatory parking minimums to manage parking ever since.

More Voodoo Than Science

Mandatory parking minimums set a fixed number of parking spots for each specific land use. There probably isn’t an off-street parking solution anywhere that isn’t a result of these minimums. As with many things the government does, there isn’t much in the way of factual basis for the ratio of parking space to whatever the land use is. How does anyone know how much parking most businesses will need? There’s no way to logically set the ratios. But cities plowed ahead, because making developers provide parking made such parking free to the cities, relieving them from having to solve the issue themselves.

Mandatory minimums puts it all in the hands of local bureaucrats. They have a list of building categories (supermarket, restaurant, hair salon, movie theater, golf course and so on) that they then assign a minimum number of spaces per 1,000 sq ft. of new building. Sometimes the ratio is based on something else. At a movie theater, for example, the ratio might be one parking space per four seats. For hospitals it might be based on the bed count.

The point is that some places have acres of unused parking, while others don’t have enough.

What it means to you: The next time you see a sign for free parking, remember, it just isn’t so.

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