The Real Cost of Free and Abundant Parking in Los Angeles

Here’s an article from Los Angeles magazine that I’m hoping has caught the eye of Decatur’s Zoning Task Force, who has been tasked (heh heh) with the intensive goal of making wide-ranging zoning recommendations to the City Commission, which includes a reconsideration of the city’s parking ordinance.  The article “Between the Lines” is an extensive look at how the various parking requirements have contributed to starkly different development patterns around the L.A. metro area.

It follows the work of 73 year-old Yale-trained economist David Shoup, author of “The High Cost of Free Parking“.  According to the L.A. magazine article, the premise of Shoup’s book can be boiled down to a single sentence…

What if the free and abundant parking drivers crave is about the worst thing for the life of cities?

After years of being near-universally ignored, some cities are beginning to take the embedded assertions in Shoup’s question to heart.  Los Angeles is just the latest U.S. city drowning in parking to institute a new free-market style parking meter plan…

This spring the [L.A. Department of Transportation] plans to introduce an $18.5 million smart wireless meter system based on Shoup’s theories. Called ExpressPark, the 6,000-meter array will be installed on [LA’s] downtown streets and lots, along with sensors buried in the pavement of every parking spot to detect the presence of cars and price accordingly, from as little as 50 cents an hour to $6. Street parking, like pork bellies, will be open to market forces. As blocks fill, prices will rise; when occupancy drops, so will rates. In an area like downtown ideal for Shoup’s progressive pricing, people will park based on how much they’re willing to pay versus how far they are willing to walk to a destination.

Would such a system help Decatur usher more of its visitors to parking decks and increase city coffers at the same time?  How do the city’s privately owned – and randomly priced – parking decks fit into the equation?  Some of this was addressed in a 2009 parking study – done by a GSU grad student – but with so many conflicting opinions on parking around Decatur among various rightly concerned parties, any potential “solutions” to our ongoing parking issues are still unknown and untested amongst the general population.

37 thoughts on “The Real Cost of Free and Abundant Parking in Los Angeles”


  1. In addition to free market pricing, Shoup believes that the parking revenues from meters should stay in the parking district to improve streetscapes, plant street trees, and maintain open spaces. The higher parking fees would essentially be used to improve the pedestrian enviornment.

    I would take this a step further and a place a tax should on nearly all parking spaces within designated parking districts. This tax, paid by the property owner, should also be used to improve the pedestrian/biking enviormnment in the parking district, but would also fund local shuttles to further enable walking. The shuttle provides drivers with a means to avoid the cost of parking. The tax should be applied to nearly all spaces in the district: non-profits, governments, commercial and office. There are some consititutional issues to work around, but many jurisdictions have a stormwater fee that is applied to non-profits and governments would simply need to agrre to pay the parking fee. Money generated by the parking district should stay in the parking district.

    Parking for apartments and condos would not be taxed in the parking district because they encourage walking to work and shop. However, the cost of parking should be decoupled from the price of the housing. If you need parking spaces, you pay extra when you buy the condo, or pay rent.

    The owners of office buildings would pass the tax onto tenants, who then become more price sensitve to parking costs. They would want only the spaces they needed. tenants would alos redefine how they provide parking. Tenants/employers could decide to provide a space for each employee, share the cost with an employee, provide a transit voucher, or give an incentive to employees who didn’t need a space or transit. In this way all employees could be treated equally with regard to the cost of parking.

    With structured parking spaces costing $12,-15,000 per space, the cost of housing and development could be lowered significantly through decoupling parking from the cost of a unit. Free market pricing, decoupling the price of parking from the unit costs and a parking tax would encourage the use of transit and encourage development near transit. By using market forces, the amount of built parking spaces could be reduced – saving everyone money.

    1. This concept has merit. Two comments:
      1. As mentioned in the Parking Lot Fantasies thread, the parking lots/decks to which the shuttle would connect have to be made safe and invitiing.
      2. If only Decatur and nowhere else intown handles parking this way, would it affect its business and retail competitiveness? Real estate competitiveness?

      1. The shuttle I’m thinking about is more like an expanded Cliff. It would make short runs to connect downtown Decatur with nearby neighborhoods by running along Church, Clairmont, Ponce, Columbia, Candler, East Lake. The Cliff has this nifty gps tracking system to eliminate the guessing game about when to meet the bus. It makes shuttles much more predictable and convenient.

        If downtown Atlanta and Midtown could establish similar parking policies (Park Atlanta has a multiple year contract that currently pre-empts new parking policies), they have enough parking to fund street cars.

        1. I’ve seen no data indicating that our parking decks are or aren’t safe. Are those data available somewhere? The biggest problem is the perception that people have of the county deck. After years of being advised by the police and safety experts not to go to poorly lit, deserted areas alone, many people aren’t likely to start frequenting the county deck at night unless they are walking with someone. IHMO, the libary deck is much less deserted feeling and better lit on top because of the ambient city light. The deck behind Parkers is somewhere in between.

          I think the perception problem could be cheaply solved. Even documenting and promoting the lack of crimes in the county deck (if true) would help. Paint, brighter lights, better signage, and info about safety monitoring (if done) would be easy to address. Maybe financial incentives would be enough and I don’t have a problem with them. Question would be whether our small businesses and retailers would be hurt by them. Even bigger issue is whether it matters what we think– if the County owns the county deck and doesn’t care to improve it, the perception will probably remain. We can try to educate people via this blog but that’s probably not enough.

          1. Don’t those who lurk in the shadows need to shadows to lurk in? Why would someone who intended to commit a crime stand in plain sight in the middle of a lit parking lot when there are columns and stairwells and better places to hide in the deck? The decision about whether you would rather park isn’t just an analysis of prior data. People need to trust their instincts. If you don’t feel safe, don’t park there.

            Better lighting would certainly help, but I think the biggest deterrent to crime would be more people in the decks. But, this is kind of a chicken and egg problem. You need more people in decks to make them safer, but more people need to feel decks are safe before they use them.

      2. Every time somebody advocates using parking decks, somebody else beats the “safety” drum. Do we have any data supporting the notion that parking in a deck is less safe than parking on the street? If so, is it specific to Decatur? I use three parking decks in Decatur on a regular basis, during the day and at night–the one behind Parker’s, the one behind the library and the one at the courthouse. The creepiest experience I’ve ever had–the only creepy experience, actually–was the young mom instructing her pre-schooler to pee in a corner of the deck at the library at 2:00 in the afternoon.

        As for making parking decks and/or lots “inviting,” if they are significantly less expensive then they will magically be more inviting. Sure, they need to be reasonably well-lit and reasonably clean, but parking areas are never going to be garden spots. The more heavily used they are, the more safe, clean and un-creepy they will be.

        1. I have never heard of one violent crime committed in any of Decatur’s parking decks (knock on wood). The perception they they are less safe vs. a surface parking lot is a silly fallacy in my option. If you refuse to park in a deck because of the perception of crime and yet let your guard down in a surface lot, you are probably making yourself less safe.

          1. Just because you’re unaware of violent crimes in our parking decks, doesn’t mean they haven’t taken place. On the other hand, you’re right in (basically) stating that you should always be aware of your surroundings regardless of where you are.

        2. I think we need to make sure people know where the decks are first, before we even begin to think about whether folks are avoiding them due to fear of crime.

          It’s a valid point, but there are other variables at play here and we should solve the easier ones first before we diagnose and act upon the more complex ones.

          1. I just get tired of hearing “Ooohh, parking decks are scarey,” every time the subject comes up. It contributes to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, we need better signage and PR for the available deck parking in Decatur. But another good way to help folks find the decks, and feel comfortable using them, is to see other people using them.

    2. The parking spots are already taxed. The owner pays property taxes. There are income taxes from the sale of the property or the rental of the spaces. The last thing we need is more taxes. Basically, once I read the first sentence of your second paragraph advocating additional taxes for the truly essential government function of “improving the pedestrial/biking environment”, I knew to discount everything you said. Not trying to pick a fight, but we can’t as a society continue to impose new taxes to fix something that isn’t really broken or, in this case, just because you want something different. Could it be better? Yes. But, that doesn’t mean we should create a new tax because you want more sharrows.

      BTW, market forces are already at work. You just don’t agree with the result. So, what you are really advocating is government interference in the markeplacet to attempt to manipulate the market for your desired result. Very important distinction.

      1. Actually market forces are not working at all. The government currently interferes by requiring how much parking must be provided when anything is built – condo, office building, shopping facility, church and even a single-family home. Remove the regulations; let the market determine how much parking is needed. If you want to see the inefficiency of the parking regulations, drive to any shopping center. Even during the busy Christmas shopping period there are vast expanses of unused asphalt.

        The cost of parking is hidden in the price of rent, goods and services. The business must pay for parking required by government and it passes that cost along to buyers and tenants, regardless of their demand for parking. Right now if you walk to Publix or Kroger, you pay for the cost of parking. Over the past 15 years the number of people who shop over the internet has increased dramatically. We don’t need all of the spaces that we have required.

        “Free” parking imposes costs on society. The runoff from these parking lots strains and harms the urban water systems and those downstream. Free parking subsidizes driving, which in turns causes congestion, sprawl, pollution, and crashes. It discourages exercise and contributes to our obese society. Improving the pedestrian environment has a broad set of health benefits. Government plays an important role in promoting public health whether in water and sewer systems, trash collection, safe roads or clean air regulations.

        1. I agree with everything you just said – my only issue was your advocacy for an additional tax. And yes, the current governmental regulations impact the market working freely and increase the costs of the goods and services we consume. But, market forces are working within the confines of existing regulations. If you truly want a free market, you remove (or more likely decrease) the burdens placed by the government. You don’t add an additional tax and then call the market free.

          Let me add though that many the current regulations are based, in part, on market demands (although they may be outdated and not tailored enough to each particular area). People aren’t driving instead of walking because there is parking. Rather, there is parking because people are driving. Noone will disagree that, for example, shopping malls have way too much parking (maybe the sole exception of a few hours on Black Friday (and we should based the requirements on the other 364 days of the year)). But, we need to get people to their destinations and not circling the block looking for a single parking spot. If left solely to the market, everyone will be parking in front of our houses, blocking our driveways and increasing traffic to an unsafe level in our residential neighborhoods. We need to make sure that the parking is concentrated in the appropriate areas. As much as it pains me to say it, some level of government oversight is required.

          1. Re: your comment on regulations – Shoup says the exact opposite in the article. After a life-time of research, he’s determined that no one knows the origin of the current regulations.

            ““Parking requirements are a primary shaper of these landscapes,” says Willson. “The golden rule for office buildings has been four spaces for every 1,000 square feet. But where did that number come from?” Nobody knew, so Willson plotted a case study to gauge whether parking requirements connected to reality. He chose ten office parks and discovered that their peak occupancy rate was around 56 percent. Twice as many parking lots had been mandated by cities than was actually needed. “I interviewed the planners and the developers,” says Willson. “The planners would say, ‘It’s not our fault—the developers want that much.’ The developers would say, ‘We thought the planners knew what they were doing.’ ”

            That proves the exact opposite to your assertion that there is the amount of parking there is because people are driving. Also, the article demonstrates how free parking leads to the circling that you reference. Free parking encourages you to keep looking for it. It’s too good a deal to pass up. If the system was more “free-market”, you’d know there’s no free lunch, and you’d either park further out for less or pay the premium to park farther in.

            No gov’t function has demonstrated that they understand how to deem “appropriate areas” for parking, so your suggestion of gov’t oversight is quite surprising.

            1. Parking at Atlantic Station is kinda like this. You pay a LOT more if you park at street level, but there are all sorts of places to park underground. And you get the first two hours free, I think. This is a fascinating discussion. As fuel prices continue to rise, this will make pedestrian- and bike-friendly cities more attractive.

            2. First, the quoted material doesn’t “prove” anything – it is (a) his opinion and (b) reflects the limited personal knolwedge of those interviewed. Second, either I wasn’t clear or you misread my post. I wasn’t asserting that the amount of parking required is ACCURATELY based on market demands. I was making the point that the basis for parking requirements in general was the recognition that people are and will continue to drive to their destinations. In fact, I think the current regualations are too burdensome. But, by requiring parking in heavily traveled commercial areas with the infrastructure to support it keeps it out of the neighborhoods. If there were no such requirements, I am not sure the free market would adequately address the situation (primarily due to the problem of freeloading). As much as I believe in a free market, I realize that it has limitations, does not work equally well in all situations and that in certain circumstances very limited government involvement may be necessary.

              Not totally disagreeing that people will circle the block looking for a free spot. But, I think that primarliy applies to visitors. The locals who value free parking over paying for a premium will know where the free parking is and drive straight there. Further, that point doesn’t refute my contention that people will circle the block if there is no or inadequate parking.

              Not sure how this got twisted. I never disagreed with applying free market theory to this (or any) situation. I initially voiced my opposition to new taxes and subsequently said we should reduce regulations to allow the market to work more freely (although some govt involvement may be necessary).

              1. First, his opinion is based on his life’s work, so while it doesn’t “prove” anything, it carries more weight (to me at least) than my and your opinion, so I thought I’d bring it up.

                Second, what do you think would happen in the neighborhoods if parking was totally free-market? And would it be hands-down worse than what the parking mandates have subsequently done to our city centers? Basically, my assertion is that we may have inadvertently made a mountain out of a mole hill by protecting parking in the neighborhoods in exchange for the giant parking decks that scarred and fiscally harmed our urban environments.

                1. I disagree about the fiscal harm of the parking decks. In fact, I think they opposite is true as they are a reflection of the free market system. If those parking decks weren’t there, and due to the general lack of adequate public transportation in metro Atlanta, the thriving businesses in downtown Decatur wouldn’t exist. Only so many people live within walking distance of downtown. And, (let me qualify this so you don’t “prove” me wrong) in my opinion, only a small portion of those people would be willing to walk to those businesses.

                  Again, I have never argued against the premise of the article you posted. I have always been in favor of limiting government involvement in this equation as it leads to additional and unnecessary expense and waste. I objected to the creation of an additional tax. I also took issue with the assertion that you can let the market work freely by imposing an additional tax.

                  1. How are the decks a reflection of a free-market system if they were built under the demands of parking requirements, which aren’t based on anything except ADA recommendations that are based on nothing?

              2. “People aren’t driving instead of walking because there is parking. Rather, there is parking because people are driving. …”

                If my employer in downtown Decatur did not provide me with free parking, I’d probably ride the Cliff most days. Or, I might try a scooter for the two-mile commute. Others, not me of course 😉 might try free loading, in which case my cost of parking would be shifted to someone else.

                The issue at hand is the burden created by so called “free” parking. It isn’t free and it creates substantial costs to the broader community. It has distorted our cities in such a way to make them less successful and livable. The tax I propose is a means to finance local transit and to make substantial improvements for pedestrian/biking safety and comfort. We have a very difficult time finding funds for transportation and transit, and it requires taxation.

                  1. The demand argument doesn’t work here because roads are so much more subsidized than public transportation that it is an artificial playing field from the start.

                    1. The demand argument absolutely works here. There is much greater demand for roads, and thus, a much larger portion of the transportaion funds are allocated to building and maintaining them. Nothing artificial about it. If mass transit was at or over capacity and roads were underutlitized, where do you think transportation dollars would be allocated?

  2. Sorry to be picky, but the student who authored the parking study went to Georgia Tech, not GSU. Go Jackets!

  3. Super long. Sorry.

    It amazes me when people adopt a “hands-off” policy in regards to our remaining surface parking lots. A cursory look at Decatur’s history is clear. When we devalued our true character and attempted to compete with the lure of the ‘burbs by prioritizing parking, it put downtown on life support that lasted a good two decades. It’s not theory or conjecture, it’s simple facts that we should have learned from. Instead of celebrating who we are, we attempted to be something we’re not. But no matter how much we tried to compete with the convenience of auto-focused suburbia, we could never match it. We were a wanna-be, and we withered.

    Thankfully, we wised up and good folks began plans to once again become what we are: a true southern town where the square is the heart of the community, basic needs, schools and gathering places are nearby, walking is a viable form of transportation, and different demographics with different desired lifestyles can all find a home — from the dense urban living of downtown to the leafy, large lot homes closer to the edge of town.

    At that time, all the downtown surface lots were tagged as desirable sites for redevelopment. It’s taken 20 years to fill most of them in, but we’re getting there. Maybe we can finish up after the Great Recession.

    The mistake is thinking that, if a parking lot is developed, then conveniently-sited parking goes away. But that’s not the case because the demand doesn’t go away, which means that, in removing existing spaces, there’ll be new incentive for others to meet it, either through upgrades of existing facilities (making them safer and/or more attractive along the lines of the county deck upgrades discussed here on DM) or provide new ones in conjunction with other projects.

    Either way, building out our remaining surface parking contributes to our vision for downtown while enshrining it does not. That’s not saying it won’t affect some people’s convenient habits. Only that equally attractive options will emerge in response. A little adaptation and you’ll be good to go. People don’t come to Decatur for its front-door parking. They come for a place-based experience and that experience is made more attractive through more choices in places to live and things to do.

    Finally, don’t forget that downtown development is a neighborhood preservation tool. In effect, by meeting development demand downtown (where it belongs, btw), we reduce its pressure on our historic neighborhoods. The city can increase tax revenue dramatically on a per-acre basis while attracting residents who are predominantly revenue-positive.

    I agree with the basic premise: Focus on the place and let the market meet (and pay the true cost of) our parking needs.

    1. “A cursory look at Decatur’s history is clear. When we devalued our true character and attempted to compete with the lure of the ‘burbs by prioritizing parking, it put downtown on life support that lasted a good two decades.” Please elaborate.

      1. I’m sure Scott will elaborate, but all you have to look at is this country’s and Decatur’s planning and zoning practices from the 1950’s though the 1970’s. Some of these are still on the books. Minimum parking requirements led to less dense development which led to bigger parking lots which led to buildings being torn down to make for more parking.

      2. I generalize on dates but, roughly speaking, from the mid 60s or so through the early 80s, Decatur development policy was conventionally auto-centric in a failed effort to compete with the growing and popular suburbs, to which people and retail amenities were moving. Its evidence is everywhere, from the collection of traditionally gridded streets re-engineered into Commerce Drive; to revised zoning and parking requirements that mandated things like BOA’s UFO branch on Clairemont, Philips Tower on Trinity, the Wachovia Building at 315 Ponce, and Commerce Plaza on Commerce; to the vast expanses of demolished buildings cum parking lots now replaced by the Artisan, Renaissance, Towne Square, 335 Ponce, SunTrust/Sherlocks/Thumbs Up, etc.; to the thwarted plan to turn the square into a mall/office park. It was all part of one big effort to get on board with our growing car culture.

        1982’s Town Center Plan began to reverse these efforts, together with the many initiatives and revised policies that have followed (and continue to follow, as evidenced by our zoning task force).

        So, I guess I should have said “by prioritizing cars” rather than just parking. Still, parking’s the most visible and important component as, together with street design, it can have the most destructive impact on urban form.

  4. Feeling a little crazy today, how about no parkng in downtown Decatur from Commerce to Commerce. Convert Ponce de Leon and Clairemont to walking]biking avenues with landscaping and expand the square into the current parking areas for outdoor eating, festivals, etc.. Park at East Lake or Avondale Marta Stations if coming from out of Decatur. I am sure we would loose some customers but would gain some also, particularly on weekends and holidays.

  5. The parking decks are an under-utilized asset and, while privately owned, they could be tied together (as they are in other cities) by a little leadership from the city government.

    How about putting together a private meeting — online if necessary — between the city and those owners in order to scope out their concerns, then put together a plan reflecting those concerns, the city’s need for affordable parking, and the use of revenue.

    Once that’s done, you can practically eliminate surface parking within the city center, as many here suggest. You would also increase the value of lots to their owners by having them used at off-hours.

    1. Sounds like a good idea to me. Who owns and/or manages the County parking deck? I’m wondering if a private owner/manager would care more about improvements that might ultimately raise revenues. The County might have a different agenda–e.g. its priority might be having sufficient parking for court visitors and workers rather than parking revenues.

  6. Having grown up in LA the mall parking, Walmart parking (like the proposed underground in Suburban Plaza) ALL contribute to a city that is not walkable, traffic clogged, and lacks the enormous economic potential that our little city of Decatur continues to exhibit. May I assume that we do not want to be the next Virginia Highland???

  7. I love the idea of parking meters that charge based on demand. If I happen to be coming through Decatur in my car and I want to stop at Java Monkey, I pretty much am never able to get a spot on Ponce that will allow me to quickly pop in and out. If by demand pricing put parking there (or perhaps for select spots) at .25 per 5 minutes, I’m going to guess that it would make it much easier to find a spot. If I am going out for the evening, then I’ll either walk or park further away.

    I also like the idea that one way to deal with neighborhood objections to less parking is to allow for metered parking for non-residents with the city working out some kind of revenue sharing via things like property tax rebates.

    1. “allow for metered parking for non-residents with the city working out some kind of revenue sharing via things like property tax rebates.” — Do what? Please explain, or point me to it, if I overlooked this…

      1. (Since thread is getting old, might not see this but i’ll post in response anyway)

        I believe that somewhere Shoup has written about this and this approach has been tried in … (looking for references…) SF in the US and I recall when I was living in Berlin, a few of the neighborhoods worked this out.

        So the idea is that one of the immediate effects of reducing parking options is to push more parking into adjacent neighborhoods. I recall that this was a big topic of concern for the neighborhood near the E Ponce development (is that the old Wachovia?). And it is true that reduced parking will push more parking to adjacent streets which can be a pain for residents. The solution is to install meters and resident parking stickers, allowing residents to park for free and others to pay for parking. The meter returns for the neighborhood go into a pot that is used as a credit against property taxes for that neighborhood (less administrative costs).

        There is actually interesting economics involved once you have a system for meter pricing based on demand. Residents could be allowed to park in metered locations for free but they then forego the return from the meter, more so when parking rates are higher. Higher meter rates ensure that more spaces will be available as needed and residents see an actual benefit to a situation (reducing parking lot space) where previously there was only cost.

        1. Thanks for taking the time. It does seem to offer interesting possibilities. I would like to see careful and close examination of the level and kind of “pain” created for residents before deciding they should get financial compensation for it. (What often feels like excruciating pain often fades into mild inconvenience once we get used to it.) But I do like an approach that recognizes the whole issue is many-faceted and dynamic, that doesn’t try to force-fit a one-size-fits-all across every locale and time of day.

Comments are closed.