Another side of Autogeddon: ‘Parking Is Hell’ from Freakonomics Radio

Another side of Autogeddon: ‘Parking Is Hell’ from Freakonomics Radio

I’m a regular listener to the Freakonomics podcast, much to the disgust of my good friend and sometimes team-mate, Dr. Matt Vidal, a lecturer in sociology who generally despises economics.  I listen critically, and sometimes come across stuff like this, which is an interesting discussion of parking provision in the United States, with contributions from a Professor ‘obsessed’ by parking by the name of Donald Shoup.  I was especially engaged by this sentence: the right price for kerb parking is the lowest price that a city can charge and still leave one or two spots free on each block so that nobody can say ‘it’s too hard to find a space’ because whereever they go they can see a space.

The man is obviously a kerb nerd, but of an entirely different species to those that I have previously encountered.

  1. In the narrow, economists’ sense, the guy’s right. If we’re going to have on street parking in towns and cities, we want them to be used fully (they bring in revenue to pay for schools, bin collection, meals on wheels etc) but we don’t want to see cars circling endlessly trying to find a space as this adds to congestion and pollution.

    Where he’s wrong, and very wrong, is is on the bigger question of whether using the road for parking spaces is an efficient use of a public resource (road space), and are their other uses for the road, such as excellent bike tracks, that contribute more to the public good than car storage does. At least he’s saying that on street parking should be something that people must pay for, rather than something they get for free, which in most places it still is.


    • Yeah, it’s worth listening to the whole show. Later on in the show they talk about cities with 8 free parking spaces PER CAR!!!


  2. Donald Shoup made the shrewd observation, when setting out on a career in urban planning that his colleagues obsession with the provision of roads for moving traffic, were actually dealing with just 5% of the requirement of space for the car parc, whereas dealing with car storage, when not in use, was required for 95% of the time. For the UK an RAC study puts the figure at 96%.

    The travesty can be seen when actually reviewing the use of parking spaces. Commuter station car parks are generally empty for at least 12 hours per day, but equally show very poor returns, as the space is generally used by season ticket holders paying a discounted rate and ‘blocking’ the space for 9-10 hours/day, when it could earn more by being available for more than one user catching off-peak trains. A similar position exists for workplaces, and for car-based retail parks, where the area provided for car parking usually exceeds the area used for revenue generation (sales floor), and for a typical worker in an open plan office, their car parking space (12.5 sq m plus access roadways) exceeds their work-station area (6-8 sq m).

    In urban areas the driver for car-free development is often not a green council policy forced on developers, but developer pressure on councils to let them build car free housing. Typically you can build 3 flats instead of 2 flats with car parking space and access to it, on that valuable land – and you get a lot more money for that extra flat, than the 2 car parking spaces.

    A nearby Lidl site (with an Iceland and other store sharing the site) is in Central Glasgow where car ownership is < 35% and falling, as it is in Central London. A vast area of tarmac lies unused – so much so that for a short while an enterprising local had parked cars with prices displayed on the windscreens in the far corner, as a pop-up second-hand car sales operation!

    The big problem is that with such massive concentrations of parked cars, which invariably are all driven to or from the site at the same time, we have the illusion that the road capacity is inadequate, and needs to be expanded, when the truth can be assessed by taking the number of parked cars, and calculating how long it would take to get them out of the car park at the optimistic level of one car getting through the 'gate' and on to a clear road to drive away and disperse every 10 seconds (about the time it might take you to look and cross a single carriageway road). The same applies obviously to filling up that car parking, yet the dumber cities continue to develop and permit city centre car parks, which deliver massive gridlock at the start and finish of the working day or major event.

    Our street used to have this with drivers (always 1 per car) taking upwards of 20 minutes to travel 200 metres to get out from the residential streets on to the road feeding the motorway slip road. When we got a 3 hour limit on non residents parking as a Controlled Parking Zone, the area was transformed, streets which had been clogged with over 60% of the surface used up by parked cars during the day, are now clear with space crying out to be turned in to green median strips, as it is no longer used for parking, and the queues have disappeared, as has the early arrival of drivers desperate to get a space, and eating breakfast in their car (and depositing all the litter in the street). Ironically many could have left home well over an hour later and come in by train, and got home earlier at night as well.

    Remember too that 1) no obligation on roads authority to provide any parking – just roads for moving traffic 2) as the land under the road usually belongs to frontager, law prohibits roads authority from making any profit from parking charges – profit should be paid to landowner.


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