Credit: Carson Masterson on Unsplash
Residents of the state of Florida are granted certain inalienable rights that they hold dear: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and free parking. That last one is a key part of our state’s social contract—when we get in our cars, we expect an open spot waiting for us to park at our destination, free of charge. Well, as any economist will tell you, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and free parking ain’t free.
The strongest case against free parking remains Donald Shoup’s 2005 classic, ‘The High Cost of Free Parking,’ and his zeal and wit on the subject are as sharp as ever in this recent Bloomberg profile. Bloomberg summarizes his thesis:
America’s 250 million cars have an estimated 2 billion parking spots and spend 95% of their time parked. To make cities more equitable, affordable, and environmentally conscious, Shoup makes the case for three simple reforms:
This solution works best in dense urban centers like Brooklyn or Manhattan, walkable neighborhoods where free street parking has astronomical untapped value and converting those spots to something other than parking creates immediate neighborhood value. Say, for example, allowing a restaurant to create outdoor seating due to an ongoing pandemic. Visit Brooklyn on a Saturday this time of year and tell me that’s not better than a couple parked cars.
But what about somewhere less dense? take our beloved Jacksonville, largest in the US by area but 12th by population, about as dense as a big suburb, with travel distances beyond the reach of any cyclists not conditioned for Tour de France. Don’t we need parking to get around? Maybe, but shouldn’t people get to decide whether they want to pay for it? Costs to build off-street parking for a multi-family development in a moderately dense area average around “$24,000 per space aboveground and $34,000 per space underneath.” Thanks to minimum parking requirements, developers must build these spots and buyers and renters must pay for them in the form of more expensive housing, regardless of whether they plan to park anything there.
Thus reframed, every Floridian’s God-given right to free parking appears much more sinister—it’s a state mandate to pay for parking even if you don’t want it, a tax levied on everyone regardless of car ownership, and an onerous regulation that stifles business and development. We don’t subsidize free gas for all drivers, do we? Thankfully, there is a great market-based solution to this problem that we use for every other good or service: pay for it.
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