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Shoup's parking agenda is more profound than you think

[Update: Looking for more parking policy information?  
Try Reinventing Parking.]

Donald Shoup's 'The High Cost of Free Parking' points towards a profoundly different way of thinking about parking policy. It offers much more than just a nifty way to price on-street parking efficiently. 

Conventional parking policy in action in New Zealand

Yet, in real-world policy debates over Shoup's parking ideas most people seem to focus only on his call to price kerbside parking for 85% occupancy. That's a pity because his agenda is much more interesting than that.

First, a recap on Shoup's parking reform ideas.  He is focused on cities that currently have a conventional suburban-style parking policy, with cheap on-street parking and every building required to have plentiful parking. He is based in Los Angeles and his focus is on American cities. His ideas are also obviously relevant to places like suburban Canada, Australia and New Zealand which have adopted the same parking approach. In fact, I am finding that conventional autocentric parking policy has infected many other countries too. So Shoup's critique, and his solutions, are probably relevant to places as diverse as India, Malaysia, the Gulf States, the Philipppines, and many more.  

For places with conventional autocentric parking policies, he suggests three key reforms:
  1. Price on-street parking to ensure a few vacancies and eliminate cruising for parking
  2. Return the street-parking revenue to local benefit districts.
  3. Eliminate off-street parking requirements, and allow developers to provide as little parking as they like.
Item 1 has been getting a lot of attention with trials in Redwood City in the Bay Area, New York City, San Francisco and Washington DC. Item 2 is usually there in these debates but seems to get lost in some of the trials.

Item 3, eliminating the off-street parking requirements, gets lip service and not much more.Yet, this aspect was a huge proportion of Shoup's book. He was taking aim squarely at suburban parking requirements! Yes, the on-street parking reforms are good in themselves AND a way to help us relax about requiring off-street parking. But Shoup's reform agenda points toward a transformation that is more profound than just getting efficient parking in the streets.

What is this profound change? I would call it a market-oriented parking system. This has been noted before by various people (such as here and here). But somehow, it is consistently downplayed in most planning and transport discussions of Shoup's ideas. Could this be because market-oriented parking seems too right wing? Maybe that is an issue. But market-oriented parking should have appeal beyond the right. These days, a wide cross-section of the political spectrum agrees that many (or most) goods are best provided by competitive markets. It is not necessarily right wing to ask if parking is one of them.

Don Shoup himself is not crystal clear that he is really pointing towards market-oriented parking. However, he is fairly explicit in his chapter entitled, "Let Prices Do the Planning":
'Since [on-street] prices will vary to maintain a few curb vacancies, spillover will no longer be a problem. Individual property owners and merchants can then choose how much on-site parking to provide based on business considerations, not zoning. Some may choose to provide their own off-street spaces, while others may offer to validate parking in nearby garages. Regardless of the strategy, all firms will be able to decide for themselves whether parking is worth its costs. Parking will increasingly become unbundled from other transactions, and professional operators will manage more of the parking supply.' (Shoup, 2005, p. 496).

I think market-oriented parking represents a third major approach to parking policy. It contrasts with both of the more familiar ones. So, in my view, parking policy come in three main varieties:
  • Conventional parking policy in which parking is treated as a type of infrastructure and the primary goal of parking policy is to meet demand.
  • Parking management in which parking is viewed as a tool for serving wider goals in transport policy and urban planning.
  • A market-oriented stream that calls for market-based parking prices that are responsive to supply and demand conditions and allows private decisions to shape supply.

Shoup's agenda points in the direction of market-oriented parking but I don't think it would take us all the way there. We would probably need some additional public policy action to make sure that the new local parking markets work well and stay competitive.

I argue these points (and some others) in a new paper:
Barter, Paul A. (2010) 'Off-Street Parking Policy without Parking Requirements: A Need for Market Fostering and Regulation', Transport Reviews, First published on: 20 April 2010 (iFirst). DOI: 10.1080/01441640903216958. 
The journal's online version is behind a pay wall but there is an earlier pre-print version (pdf) here.


  1. Shoup's contribution has been immense. There is a simple solution, though, that addresses parking, congestion, medical costs, oil-wars, carbon emissions, drainage problems, road-rage, labor market flexibility, old-age shut-in, disabilites, etc, etc. Make urban public transport fare-free. Start the switch away from the auto. Do you have the guts to join us. You KNOW it is true.

  2. I am in Shoup's graduate class on parking at UCLA right now. I asked him about the association between markets and right-wing ideologies. He made a careful distinction between the "free-marking" neoliberal ideology and the simple idea of using market incentives.

    He thinks we should use market incentives. Prices are a market incentive that influences transportation choices; price parking right, and you encourage other modes of transportation while eliminating cruising. The price and value of land is also an opportunity cost. Developers should face market incentives when they decide how much parking to build, rather than being required to dedicate vast amounts of valuable land to parking.

    The "free-market" ideology usually comes with more drastic claims about privatization. You'll find none of those in Shoup's book. He thinks that public entities (like city governments) can successfully use market incentives to manage resources like curb parking.

  3. Thanks very much @herbie for getting some insight from the Prof himself.

    Yes, I agree, Prof Shoup is calling for deregulation off-street but he is NOT calling for privatisation of on-street parking. He just calls for market-like incentives for the public-sector owned on-street parking.

    As a matter of fact, the links I provided in the post as examples of people who embrace the market-orientation of Shoup's suggestions do indeed both suggest different kinds of privatisation or in one case a kind of public-private partnership for the on-street parking. These might be taken as rather neoliberal (certainly Klein uses neoliberal rhetoric and Siebert's article is published in a rather neoliberal outlet in Austrlia).

    My interest at the moment is more on the off-street parking. Shoup talks about private choices being allowed to determine off-street parking supply but doesn't explicitly talk about markets. My paper argues that Shoup's ideas do point towards more market-based off-street parking.

    This also suggests to me that we may need to keep an eye on how such markets develop, to make sure these markets work well. Local monopoly is one possible problem but there are others which I discuss in the paper. For example, if local parking markets don't get going by themselves maybe we should try to kick-start them? So I suggest we may need some 'market-fostering' policies.

    By the way, the CBDs of big cities sometimes already have something akin to local parking markets off-street. And regulators are already keeping an eye on them. There have been anti-trust investigations of city-centre parking in some American and Australian cities to make sure there is enough competition.

  4. I'm curious why Shoup insists on a distinction between private parking and public parking with price signals? Surely both have their uses, and you should argue for whichever achieves the pricing outcome more effectively.

    When arguing for more accurate pricing, I always emphasise that we're talking about making parking more like a free market. In that sense, it's a removal of government intervention. Conservatives are usually attracted to that lien more than leftists are repelled by it, so it works.

    Personally, I'm not interested in who the ultimately supplier is, just as I don't care what company was hired to drive and maintain the public bus I ride.

    Btw, Paul, I'd love to hear more about how this plays out in Singapore and Malaysia.

  5. @Jarrett at asked "I'm curious why Shoup insists on a distinction between private parking and public parking with price signals?"

    I think his main distinction is between on-street and off-street rather than private/public. He is happy for off-street parking to be private sector with market prices (eg profit-maximising prices). But for the on-street he prefers to keep it under public sector control. He sees on-street parking as a common property resource (NOT a 'public good' which has a different technical meaning - non-rival, non-excludable).

    Instead of privatising on-street parking he suggests giving more control to local 'parking benefit districts' and suggests they charge the right price to keep 15% of the spots open (which is probably a lower-price than the revenue maximising price he says).

    [sorry for delay in responding Jarrett.]


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