Free parking is terrible public policy

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I don’t normally make a point to reply to letters to the editor in the Plain Dealer. To do so would be to write myself a one-way ticket down a slippery slope into the Valley of Derp. That said, this letter from Nancy Kosmin was so wrong-headed that it called for a response.

shoppers at cleveland flea

Shoppers explore two of the dozens of vendors at the September Cleveland Flea (courtesy of

In the letter, Ms. Kosmin lamented about how difficult it was for her and others to find parking on the streets around Sterle’s Country House. Sterle’s is home to the Cleveland Flea, a new monthly flea market that features food, drinks, clothing, and wares from a variety of Northeast Ohio vendors. Ms. Kosmin could not believe that there was limited parking on the narrow side streets around Sterle’s or that Cleveland Police had the audacity to ticket people parking on East 55th Street – despite the fact that it is illegal to park on East 55th.

I’ve written in the past about Cleveland’s car culture, but I’ve only touched briefly on the issue of parking here. If you thought people were obsessed with driving here, you’ve never spoken to them about parking. From epic battles over charging for parking at the famed West Side Market to entire articles published on which suburban mall parking lot is safest for your car, Clevelanders seem to think that free parking is a God-given right.

Of course, this love of free parking ignores the various externalities associated with the practice. Donald Shoup, an expert on the economics of parking and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, has documented these impacts at length over the decades. Although 99% of all car trips include free parking and 95% of all automobile commuters park for free in the US, there is no such thing as “free” parking. As Shoup has written (PDF):

When we shop in a store, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly because its cost is included in the prices of merchandise, meals, and theater tickets. We unknowingly support our cars with almost every commercial transaction we make because a small share of the money changing hands pays for parking…Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for “free” parking.

All this “free” parking carries serious costs. First, parking represents a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Free parking is a common-pool resource, and everyone has an incentive to exploit it. However, as with all commons, when every user consumes too much of it, it quickly becomes depleted. Because the free parking commons are typically exhausted, drivers often cruise around cities, searching for open spots.

Sixteen different studies from 1927-2001 have shown that drivers cruise for 8.1 minutes (PDF), on average, when looking for a parking spot; as a result, up to 30% of all traffic in downtown areas can be attributed to drivers searching for parking. In just a 15-block area in Los Angeles, this search for free curb parking led to 950,000 additional vehicles miles traveled, equivalent to four trips to the moon, 47,000 wasted gallons of gas, and 730 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (more than the cumulative GHG emissions of 49 countries in 2010).

Secondly, free parking constitutes a massive subsidy for drivers, promoting both excessive driving and sprawl-based development. In 2002, off-street parking received roughly $135-386 billion in subsidies; that same year, the US Government spent $231 billion on Medicare.

In 1997, Shoup estimated (PDF) that if a parking space that cost $124 per month was provided for free, the parking subsidy provided per mile driven was $0.27 per mile. In contrast, AAA estimated that the total cost of operating a car per mile was just $0.092 per mile. Accordingly, the subsidy provided by free parking is roughly 2.9 times greater than the cost of driving to work. This driving subsidy is greatest for shorter trips, helping to skew transportation choices away from walking, biking, and public transportation. Accordingly, “parking requirements are a fertility drug for cars.”

warehouse district surface parking

The massive surface parking lot once known as Cleveland’s Warehouse District, as seen from the Terminal Tower Observation Deck.

Thirdly, free parking and parking requirements drive up the cost of living and stymie redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods. As Professor Michael Manville has noted (PDF), forcing developers to include the cost of parking when building new housing units drives up the cost of development and becomes a barrier to investment. This crowding out effect should be greatest in areas where the cost of parking is high, where there is a large stock of older buildings, and where there is a large number of vacant buildings – in other words, the inner city.

Research from Brian Bertha in 1964 (PDF) showed that, when Oakland instituted parking requirements in 1961, construction costs increased by 18%, housing unit density fell 30%, and land values dropped by one-third. As a result, developers built larger, more expensive housing units, which negatively affected low-income residents. Manville’s work in LA supports these findings. He noted that condos without parking spaces cost $31,000 less than those with parking spaces.

Sterle’s is located in the 44103 zip code, an impoverished area. From 2007-2011, 44103 had a poverty rate of 34.5%, nearly one-quarter higher than for Cleveland as a whole. Moreover, while 26.7% all households in Cleveland lacked access to a vehicle, this number was 36.9% for households in 44103. Increasing the availability of free parking in this neighborhood may help a few visitors to the Cleveland Flea, but it would come at a high cost for residents of this neighborhood, who would face higher housing prices and even less development.

Furthermore, parking requirements have a sordid and racialized history in Northeast Ohio. In United States v. City of Parma (1980), the US District Court found that the City of Parma’s parking requirements had “the purpose and effect of severely restricting low-income housing opportunities in the City,” which “have been taken with the purpose and the effect of perpetuating a segregated community.” Bending over backwards for people driving into the city once a month would further play into these dynamics.

Call me crazy, but I had a completely different takeaway from this letter than Ms. Kosmin. Rather than seeing this episode as evidence of the plight of the poor suburban driver simply trying to exercise his/her God-given right to free parking, I see the Cleveland Flea as emblematic of the complete opposite. The event shows how parking lots can be more than just a cheap motel for your car. If utilized properly, they can actually serve as worthwhile public space that provides social, cultural, and economic value.

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  • 1spresidente

    I’m not surprised I’m the first to notice your comments.
    All I want to say is you should be impressed that three-quarters of households have access to cars, and the rest stay friends with them just in case they need a lift.
    3/4 is a big number, even in Cleveland.

    • Tim

      Your comment makes exceedingly little sense. First, thanks for reading my site, as I am so very desperate for readers. Secondly, your argument about Clevelanders who lack access to an automobile is off base. Just 9.1% of American households lack access to a car, according to the US Census Bureau, making the percentage in Cleveland significantly higher than the national average. Cleveland also has higher rates of car-free households than several comparable cities in the Midwest, including Pittsburgh, Detroit, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton. Moreover, the overall rate of car-free households in Cuyahoga County stands at just 13.5%, roughly half of Cleveland’s total. Cleveland accounts for 57.4% of carless households in Cuyahoga County, despite making up just 31.2% of a households in the county.

      These statistics are somewhat meaningless without context, however. The fact remains that Northeast Ohio has extremely high rates of sprawl, and much of the region is difficult to access without a car. Despite this reality, Ohio spent just $1.27 per capita on public transit in 2009. That ranked the state 47th, just ahead of Alabama, Mississippi, and Alaska. The high cost of car ownership and poor public transportation system take a severe toll on low-income households in Cleveland. The percentage of households without access to a car is substantially higher in the poorest neighborhoods, with roughly 40-60% of households falling into this category on the city’s Southeast side.

      Lastly, your argument that people who don’t have access to a car will simply “stay with their friends” belies logic. If they were staying with their friends, they would be counted as a part of that household. If they are part of a household with a car, they would not be counted as a household without a car.

      • 1spresidente

        You misread my comment. Those who don’t have a car within their immediate household will stay friends with an owner, not in residence with an owner.
        Here in NYC we have sprawl within the borders. Eastern Queens and State Island are essentially suburban in layout and lack subways. Everywhere else there is a gradation of household car-ownership directly related to distance from the commercial business district in mid-town Manhattan(“The City”). Adequate income, to support ownership, and family size, to fill those seats, still are the deciding factors. We are on average have about 40% households with wheels, with lower VMT, and we are the biggest users of the very affordable public transit.
        We are discovering that job-growth is taking place at sites not well served by transit; therefore, even poorly-paid workers are maintaining cars for that essential commute that now takes them away from Manhattan. Still, the MTA at great cost is investing in rail in Manhattan as opposed to the city’s edges where the need is.
        We are caught in a situation where the city-planners are openly, or not so openly, pushing for what Jane Jacobs referred to as ‘car attrition'(some would call it ‘car wars’). A tactic employed is first to marginalize car-owners as a minority among us all. But so are home-owners for that matter. So you might want to treat those with great investments in their household or family’s welfare with proper gravity. Minority or not these are BIG numbers. Or, you might just meditate on Margaret Thatcher’s comment: “Anyone over thirty who doesn’t own a car is a loser.”

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  • Paul Steinberg

    Completely agree Tim. Every parking space is a lost opportunity for commercial, residential or open space. I have been pushing for federal policy changes to remove parking benefits (post here as these types of perks are long past their usefulness. Keep up the fight… if there is no free parking, then people will start to make conscious choices about their commute.