The C is for Crank

The "Plague" of a Limited Parking Supply

By Erica C. Barnett April 26, 2010



The C is for Consistently Cranky today; this is my second "C Is For Crank" post of the afternoon.

KING-5 reports that parking problems are "plaguing Seattle residents." The evidence: The city has removed "several parking spaces" in front of a Capitol Hill resident's building. Now, the woman reports, she has to drive around or "park kind of far away." Pardon me while I dab my eyes.
Last year, KING 5 News reported when the city removed nearly 40 downtown parking spots near the courthouse and city hall. Now, some of the residential neighborhoods are feeling the crunch from that action.

Except, well, not. As KING 5's own story goes on to note in passing, parking in Seattle has actually increased in the past several years. The problem, at least from a frequent driver's perspective, is that not all of that new parking is free. Nor should it be! Parking, like pretty much every activity related to driving, is already heavily subsidized—billions of dollars' worth of public land given away to drivers rent-free.

According to Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, the total subsidy for off-street parking alone was between $127 and $374 billion in 2002. We all pay for that parking, whether we drive or not, in the form of higher rents, more expensive dining and entertainment, and higher home-ownership costs. Moreover, more parking leads to more driving (supply, meet demand), which leads to more sprawl, more congestion, more accidents, and more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Those costs are borne by everyone, not just people those who drive. Your "free" parking is your neighbor's kid's asthma.

Conversely, even charging a nominal fee for parking reduces demand, bringing our parking system more in line with the free market. Seems only fair to ask drivers to pay for a tiny portion of what they're using.

It's worth noting that—as KING 5's report mentions briefly—the city generally eliminates parking for three main reasons: Safety, construction, or to put in a bike lane. It's hard to argue with the first (no one, presumably, supports unsafe streets) or the second (construction requires staging, which usually requires the city to hand over parking spaces temporarily). As for the third, as a cyclist and a nondriver, I'm all for it. Cyclists deserve some small portion of the streets we help pay for; I'm gratified that the city (if not KING 5) gets that "free" parking isn't free.
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