The Godfather of Parking


The Godfather of Parking

Donald Shoup – yeah, right – the Godfather of Parking – oh please. – Thus spoke a dear friend, and parking consultant. Let’s see if I can paraphrase:

He’s an academic, he doesn’t really have to make things work, he just opines and people line up and listen. I can give you 10 places where all or part of his theories simply are non starters. Turn the profits back to the neighborhoods – Indeed. In many cities these funds are mandated to things like education. You aren’t going to change that. Period.

Market based pricing – right – merchants fight that tooth and nail. You are lucky to get a 10 cent increase. People demand free parking. These folks are fighting for their business lives. They need help, not theories.

As for doing away with parking requirements – Oh Brother. Can you imagine what would happen if some developer was allowed to make the decision as to how many parking spaces to build. There wouldn’t be any. Cities would be screwed. Beside this is a politically charged subject. City Councils and Mayors lose their offices over parking. You have to tread lightly.

Let’s face it, it’s easy to talk theories, but where the rubber meets the road, it’s a hard sell. How are we supposed to survive if we don’t help our customers get what they want?

Whew – it’s difficult to argue with my friend (whose quotes were blended from conversations with a number of people in the industry.) Why does Don Shoup get all the press, and the working consultants who actually have to make things happen don’t?

Who can imagine a more unlikely candidate for a parking guru? He is a professor who looks like he stepped out of central casting. He rides a bike to work. He talks like that History Prof you had in college – the one who takes a page to explain what you felt could be done in a sentence. He’s not shy, however when it comes to talking about parking.

Don Shoup is a professor of Urban Planning. He realized that the typical parking policy in most cities was a large part of the problem in the way that cities evolve. The assumptions made by policy makers that ubiquitous free parking was necessary for urban survival actually caused more problems than they solved.

He believes that the cost of parking a vehicle was simply one more cost like gas, oil, insurance, maintenance, and the original cost of the car. And that fee should be paid by each driver, not by everyone.

He was concerned about urban congestion, and after a few studies, found that much of it was caused by people looking for parking. He is a student of human nature and realized that the best way to affect someone’s actions was through their pocketbook.

He also was concerned that many buildings in urban areas were empty, often because the parking requirements meant that a store that used to be a hardware store couldn’t now be used as a restaurant. So it stayed empty.

His studies showed that in reality, there is plenty of parking in cities, but it goes unused because many people find it inconvenient, expensive, or unprofitable to the owner.

He also found that the best, most convenient parking was the cheapest, while the inconvenient parking down the street was more expensive. Let’s face it, parking policy was the reverse of what it needed to be to make cities more livable and attractive.

From that came “The High Cost of Free Parking,” a textbook on parking policy. And his three basic policies that could change the parking world:

  1. Remove all parking requirements
  2. Charge rates for onstreet parking that would keep at least one space per block space (15%) of the spaces empty
  3. Return the money garnered from parking to the neighborhoods from whence it came.

The first solves the problem with the hardware store and the restaurant. The second solves congestion and gets folks to make decisions quickly as to whether to park on street or move to lower cost off street lots and the third makes the whole procedure more politically acceptable.

My consultant friend jumps on each, one at a time

Number 1. Hell, there won’t be enough parking and stores won’t survive.

Don thinks that individuals can make decisions about parking requirements at least as well as planners (look at the mess we have now). If parking is charged at market rates, the market would also provide additional parking if needed. Today there is no need for the market to work, because it is manipulated by the very low parking costs for onstreet. Why build a garage if you have built in low cost competition run by the city right in front of your door?

Number two – Are you Kidding – people won’t pay high rates and will go to the shopping centers where parking is free.

People come downtown to shop, see their attorney, visit bars and restaurants, go to the theater, watch the street scene. They don’t come downtown to park. However if congestion is reduced (cruising) and parking is convenient, people will make the choice to park on street and pay a bit more, or park off street and walk a block to their destination. This also solved the problem of employees taking all the good, close in parking spaces.

Number three – The law often prevents this from happening.

There are ways to keep the money flowing to city hall and also put some back into the neighborhoods. If local residents and merchants see new sidewalks, better lighting, a street scene program, new storefronts, and urban renewal paid by parking, they will support the program. And in fairness, why should property taxes pay for a few people who want to park for free.

This type of program also begins to change people’s behavior. They begin to walk more, they carpool, they take public transportation – they rethink commuting and move back downtown. “Do we really need that second car.” Land which was “banked” for parking, is now available for other uses as parks, apartments, and the like.

See, when you look at the entire scope of the Shoupista theory, it makes sense. (I’ve only hit the highlights here.) Media types who want quotes look to people who have “different” and “positive” ideas.

He is a prophet in the parking arena. He speaks to city councils, business groups, downtown associations. He spreads his word. He has disciples who carry his message. It’s a long battle. Change comes slowly. But it comes.

Don Shoup is witty and the media looks for witty quotes – to wit(couldn’t resist):

“In the beginning, the earth was without parking. The planner said, Let there be parking, and there was parking. And the planner saw that it was good. And the planner then said, Let there be off-street parking for each land use, according to its kind. And developers provided off-street parking for each land use according to its kind. And again the planner saw that it was good. And the planner said to cars, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth. And the planner saw everything he had made, and, behold, it was not good.”

–Donald C. Shoup, “The High Cost of Free Parking.” Chicago, IL: Planners Press, © 2005, p. 21


Picture of John Van Horn

John Van Horn

2 Responses

  1. “Number 1. Hell, there won’t be enough parking and stores won’t survive.”
    Developers and businesses are all about profit, they have a very clear understanding of the coorelation between parking and customer traffic. The idea is to let them make their own determination of how much parking they need, not make the decision based on some number that was arrived at through the use of a flawed methodology 40 years ago.
    “Number two – Are you Kidding – people won’t pay high rates and will go to the shopping centers where parking is free.”
    I hear this all the time, but businesses are closing in shopping centers and malls with free parking at a rate equal to what you are seeing in downtowns with paid parking. If you look at customer survey results from urban and suburban shopping or business districts the results are almost exactly the same, the top 2 complaints (order will vary depending on the day of the week) are cleanliness/safety (panhandling, homeless, trash, etc) and parking (not enough, too far away, spaces too small, etc).
    “Number three – The law often prevents this from happening.”
    Yeah, right. Laws are modified and changed on a daily basis, money gets redirected all the time. That argument doesn’t even warrant serious discussion.
    The biggest issue with parking policy is that most city’s don’t look at it as part of their overall transportation plan, they look at it on a case by case basis. When it becomes a problem they do a study, get a bunch of recommendations and then only implement the easy ones (the low hanging fruit approach). It’s the same as controlling your weight by punching another hole in your belt, pretty soon you need to punch another hole (do another study).
    Parking management is an ever evolving process, there is no “one size fits all” answer to “solving” it. The “Shoupista” approach allows for flexibility and modification as conditions change, it is the job of the consultant to figure out the actual application process.

  2. Here, here, Mark!
    #1) We haven’t had parking requirements downtown for several decades, if ever. In fact, the City put a moratorium on parking space development around the city’s event facility built 10 years ago – and it’s been ranked one of the top 10 venues in its class EVERY YEAR SINCE IT WAS BUILT.
    And guess what? We have enough inventory to handle demand.
    #2) Here, downtown is actually thriving while the Mall has tons of empty space – if people want to go to the mall, that’s where they go. If they want to do business, eat, drink, hang out, etc, they come downtown. They’re looking for something other than the mall and we don’t compete with the mall.
    #3) Plowing operating surplus back into the neighborhood just makes sense, and laws CAN be changed. All of our surplus goes back to the general fund, but the City Council over the last 5 years has told us to pay for various downtown improvements anyway, knowing that the cost will “short” the contribution to the general fund. These items include additional snowplowing, sidewalk repairs, local grant match for a downtown circulator shuttle and police detail for special events. So even though they haven’t changed the law, they’re heading in Shoup’s direction without even knowing it. I just keep my mouth shut, smile and pay the bills.
    Perhaps your consultant friend should do a little more research to see Shoup’s theories in practice. One of the beauties of Shoup’s pholisophy is, as Mark said, its flexibility. You can put parts of in in practice without the whole thing falling apart. It’s a long process to get policy-makers, business owners, consumers and elected officials on the same page so you have to do it in stages.

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