Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

The (parking) spaces in between

Posted by Daniel Hall on September 25, 2007

I ran across a few interesting articles today about the illogic of parking space policy.

First, Tim Haab at Env-Econ points us to Donald Shoup’s book The High Cost of Free Parking, which argues that where parking is scarce, we should be charging people for it. I think this is straightforward point: if a resource is subject to congestion, appropriately charging for access will efficiently allocate the resource to its highest value use.

Then, the CS Monitor has an article on the opposite problem: the externalities from having too many parking spaces.

…Bryan Pijanowski, a land-use scientist at Purdue University… is busy counting the nation’s parking spaces. … If Pijanowski can finish his count, then researchers will finally determine whether the United States is suffering a parking surplus. …

“We’ve had a big interest in this area for a while now, but it’s not been well studied,” says an official with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who requested anonymity because he did not have permission to speak to the press. “It’s the amount of water, the speed and temperature of it pouring off these oceans of asphalt we have in this country, that concern us. And that’s not even talking about the contamination washing off all that asphalt.”

Early indications point to a lot of asphalt out there. … [A] key finding in Pijanowski’s research is the ratio of parking spaces to vehicles. In Tippecanoe County, at least, there are three times as many spaces as registered passenger vehicles. And there are 11 times as many spaces as families, his yet-to-be-published study found.

This case is a bit more complicated. More discussion below the fold:

It sounds like parking lot owners are not bearing the full costs of the externalities they impose, in terms of runoff, water quality, pollution, etc. If so, we should impose some kind of fee on parking lot owners so that they pay for this impact, right? The problem is that most city planners are encouraging, not discouraging, the paving of cities. As the article says:

…most local governments think the space for cars is necessary, since they often set minimum parking requirements for stores and businesses.

A few cities, however, are attempting to rationalize their requirements for parking spaces:

…some cities, including Pasadena, Calif.; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; and Boston, are making progress by revamping parking regulations, charging more for on-street parking, and adjusting the amount of parking required in new developments. In Portland, for instance, maximum [sic] parking limits vary with the distance from light-rail stations. There’s less parking required to be built near the stations, more several blocks away…

I think this last point about city planners and development patterns relates closely to the current back-and-forth dialogue between Megan McArdle and Free Exchange on the interaction of settlement and transportation patterns. In the latest missive, Free Exchange argues that support for highway development — instead of rail transport — has driven American development patterns:

Highway construction made living farther away from centre cities and other households very cheap, and since the highway boom of the 1950s, American households have responded to this incentive. If the density differences seem massive, that’s probably because the funding disparity between roads and rails is likewise massive: some 40 to 1 in favor of highways for six decades now.

I agree with Free Exchange’s point that government funding priorities make a difference to the pattern of development, but I am also sympathetic to Ms. McArdle’s view: it is the relative cheapness of land in America that has enabled our development path. As she says:

Most American cities, on the other hand, had huge, practically unlimited, tracts of farmland to expand into outside of the East Coast, and forthwith did. … It seems obvious to me that Americans used land profligately in the 1950′s and beyond because they could…

In general, it seems to me that land in the U.S. has been cheap, and that this has encouraged the entire range of policies being discussed here: preference for highways, the low value of land and the oversupply of parking spaces, and the relatively low priority given to mass transit development.

The problem, as I see it, is that the U.S. has undervalued the positive externalities associated with public transit and denser development, and overvalued the benefits of unrestricted driving. The solution is to encourage polices which make builders pay the full cost of their developments (including the pollution externalities), and to enact policies which encourage denser development.

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2 Responses to “The (parking) spaces in between”

  1. You ignore land-use controls as a factor. The Bay Area, Southern California, Boston, D.C. (even Manhattan) are all much less dense than housing costs suggest they ought to be. The culprit for that is likely overly strict land-regulations. See the work by Glaeser & Gyourko, Fischel, Ellickson, Somerville & Mayer, and a host of others. Given their ubiquity, strict land use controls are a more obvious “culprit” for low-density development than highways.

    I’m not even sure I understand what the “highway-as-enabler” theory is anyway. Do you mean the federally funded interstate system? Suburbs are constantly springing up without a nearby interstate. Or do you (or Free Exchange) just mean “free roads”? Suburbs spring up along toll roads as well as free roads. (See northeastern New Jersey.) In some cases, toll roads actually raise nearby property values. Maybe you just mean “roads.” That point is trivially true: Nobody will live in a suburb they can’t get to, but that doesn’t mean roads would not be built when the users were willing to pay the price. Many suburbs can and do charge developers exactions to cover the cost of the new roads constructed just to serve new subdivisions; these jurisdictions have no incentive to underestimate the cost.

    This leads to the theoretical problem with the “blame the highways” approach. Free Exchange says “Highway construction made living farther away from centre cities and other households very cheap, . . .” Highway construction may make commuting from farther away very cheap. But that would make the land on the city’s fringe more valuable as a location for housing, driving up the cost of the land. The benefits of new highways, in other words, are likely capitalized into the price of the homes that commuters buy. In that case, “free” roads might have a negligible impact on suburban development. (I don’t dispute that they create other inefficiencies.) That’s really an empirical question, but it shouldn’t be glossed over.

    Finally, it seems to me that in crediting Europe’s investment in rail, Free Exchange is confusing inter-city rail with commuter rail. Is Europe’s commuter rail any good except in a handful of cities? Most cites in Italy are compact, but that’s because their forms predate the automobile, not because they all have a decent commuter rail. On the contrary, the most sprawling Italian city, Rome, has the best commuter/subway system in Italy.

    Europe’s inter-city rail is very good and ours is very bad. Europe has invested more in rail; we have spent our inter-city transport dollars on roads and airports. But why? How about this possible explanation: Until recently, relatively few Europeans owned cars. The only economical way for them to get from city to city was by rail. So Europeans spent money on rail. A high percentage of Americans owned cars by the time the interstate highway boom began; we were therefore willing to invest in roads. It’s not like we can’t pay for rail when we want to. A huge amount of freight is transported by rail in this country with little subsidy.

    I didn’t address parking, your main point, but I’ve rambled on long enough. Sorry for lurking. I do enjoy the blog.

  2. I. There must be a knowable ratio between the number of cars and trucks and the number of parking places generated? I’m thinking it’s about three or more. One for the car at home, (over the road trucks not so much,) one at work, and maybe .3 at 10 stores = 3? One has to count the number of empty parking places required to attract business.
    II. Projecting the demand for cars in formerly third world countries, how long before the world becomes mostly a parking lot.
    III. Hail Joni Mitchell!

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