The Professor Says YES


The Professor Says YES

Don Norte raises two important questions: (1) what is the right price for curb parking, and (2) how many off-street parking spaces should cities require for every land use.
The right price for curb parking will not “eliminate the demand for parking,” as Norte suggests. Rather, the right price for curb parking will balance demand with supply and will eliminate the shortage of curb parking. The price that eliminates a shortage of curb parking will depend on the time of day, day of the week, demographics, and many other factors.
We can call this balance between the varying demand for parking and the fixed supply of curb spaces the Goldilocks Principle of Parking Prices: The price is too high if too many spaces are vacant, and too low if no spaces are vacant. When only a few spaces are vacant, the price is just right, and everyone will see that curb parking is both well-used and readily available. Can anyone recommend a better price? Can anyone recommend a better way to set prices for curb parking?
Norte’s second point is that cities need to set off-street parking requirements for every land use. Some planners and politicians seem to think that reducing minimum parking requirements is social engineering intended to get people out of their cars. In reality, minimum parking requirements are social engineering that gets people into their cars. If there is free parking at both the origin and the destination of every trip, why not drive everywhere?
Reducing off-street parking requirements is not a risky intervention in the markets for land and transportation. Off-street parking requirements are a risky intervention in the markets for land and transportation.
Every developer knows that cities’ minimum parking requirements are often the real limit to urban density. Minimum parking requirements often force developers to provide more parking than they would voluntarily provide, or smaller buildings than the zoning allows. Off-street parking requirements do not promote a walkable and sustainable city. Instead, off-street parking requirements promote a drivable and unsustainable city.
If West Hollywood or any other city waits until there is excellent public transit before it reduces its off-street parking requirements, most people will continue to drive everywhere, even if Santa Claus miraculously builds the transit system.
If planners insist that cities must have good public transit before they can reduce their off-street parking requirements for every land use, cities will never get good public transit. The smartest step cities can take is to convert all their minimum parking requirements into maximum parking limits, without changing any of the numbers.
After all, if a city has decided that the minimum parking requirement is “enough” for every land use, the city should prevent developers from providing more than enough. Minimum parking requirements, with no maximum, imply that cities care only about having enough parking spaces, and that there can never be too many.
Consider the diametrically opposed approaches in the Los Angeles and San Francisco CBDs: L.A. requires parking, while San Francisco restricts it. For a concert hall, Los Angeles requires, as a minimum, 50 times more parking spaces than San Francisco allows as the maximum. This difference in planning helps to explain why downtown San Francisco is much more exciting and livable than downtown Los Angeles. If physicians in one city prescribed bloodletting and physicians in another city prescribed blood transfusion to treat the same disease, everybody would demand to know what was going on. But when city planners in different cities do essentially the same thing with planning for parking, nobody questions the contradiction.
City planners have no professional expertise or training to set parking requirements. They don’t know how much parking spaces cost at any site, and they don’t know how the parking requirements affect development or the transportation system. City planners also know little about the effects of parking requirements, but they are expected to know exactly how many parking spaces are required for every land use.
For example, West Hollywood requires 10 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area for a health club. Since parking lots and structures average at least 300 square feet of floor area per parking space, the required parking spaces occupy at least three times as much space as the health club. How much does this parking requirement add to the cost of the health club, and how much does it increase the incentive to drive to the health club? Nobody knows.
In trying to foretell the demand for parking, urban planners resemble the Wizard of Oz, deceived by his own tricks. No one should blame planners for dispensing the elixir of ample free parking, however, because everyone wants to park free. Nevertheless, planners can be faulted for their pretension to special skills in dealing with parking. Planners cannot predict parking demand any better than the Wizard of Oz could give the Scarecrow brains or send Dorothy back to Kansas.
A generation ago, many planners and politicians opposed market solutions to public problems almost as a matter of principle, but even skeptics who still doubt the merits of market prices for other public services can in good conscience recommend charging them for parking.
If cities underprice curb parking, they must require off-street parking everywhere – imposing enormous costs on the economy and the environment. Planners can and should regulate the quality of parking, but they should deregulate or limit its quantity. Instead of planning without prices, we can let prices do the planning.

Donald Shoup is professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of “The High Cost of Free Parking.” He can be reached at

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