December 1st, 2010

Coit Tower lit up in orange

Coit Tower lit up in orange

'The High Cost of Free Parking' by Donald Shoup

'The High Cost of Free Parking' by Donald Shoup

Donald Shoup in Paris

Donald Shoup in Paris

Two ”monuments” dedicated to the public space came on my radar screen this week. The first was Coit Tower, seen here from my deck illuminated in orange to honor of the San Francisco Giants playing in the World Series. It makes us smile, and it brings focus to an important architectural icon in the city. The other monument is a massive 737-page tome that arrived on my desk called, The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup. What do they have in common?

Shoup’s book and the Orange Coit Tower help us look at our public spaces from a fresh perspective and to consider their value and potential in our daily lives. How do we assess the real value of public spaces in our cities anyway? What is Golden Gate or Central Park worth to us? What about the value of the common everyday sidewalk or street corner where people congregate? How about a public bench, beach, train station, bike path or dog park? These are heady issues without easy answers. Social economics is tricky like that, and usually gets left to academics. I guess that’s why it takes 737 pages to give the subject of free parking its fair due. An advertising person might simply reduce it down to “Think Differently,” like Apple does.

Shoup’s persuasive premise is that free parking is the great blind spot of American local politics. We agree. We have remarked on this in our own modest way in the past, for example our That Blind Spot post. Rarely do we share quotes, but take a minute to absorb these poignant reviews.

“Free parking is like a fertility drug for cars. Many people don’t realize how much of the high price of housing is due to requirements by local governments that a certain number of parking spaces must be provided. These costs are paid by everyone, including those who don’t own a car.”

“In this revelatory, revolutionary book, UCLA professor Donald Shoup persuasively explains why almost everything we are told about parking either by professional planning experts or by ‘common sense’ is wrong, and argues that current parking policies constitute the greatest planning disaster in human history.”

“Shoup points out that if we decided that gasoline should be free, the result we would expect would be obvious: people would drive too much, shortages of gasoline would develop, fights would break out over scarce gas, and governments would go broke trying to pay for it all. Parking is no different. Providing free parking leads to overuse, shortages, and conflicts over parking. Cash-strapped local governments and neighborhoods lose out too.”

“I was stunned to find out that in some neighborhoods up to 90% of the traffic has been found to be people cruising around looking for a place to park. Charging the right price for parking according to local demand can get rid of this problem.”

How many of us have the patience to read a 737-page book? How can we bridge the gap between academic work and public awareness? Should we paint parking spots orange, pile up a bunch of Shoup’s books in a parking space? Events like Park(ing) Day help raise awareness. An easier route might be to join “The Shoupistas” on Facebook. We need more creative minds think progressively about public space, like the city planner who dreamt of celebratory Orange Towers.

One action we can take today is to Vote Tomorrow for legislation to improve the quality of our public space. If you live in California, a “No” vote on big oil-funded Prop. 23 is a “No” brainer. If you live in San Francisco’s western and northern neighborhoods, vote “Yes” for Bert Hill on the BART Board. We don’t usually endorse individuals, but transit advocate Bert Hill has unimpeachable professional credentials and a demeanor such that he teaches bicycle safety as avocation. His David vs. Goliath battle against the incumbent can be viewed here.

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Fall Blues Festival

All blue PUBLIC Ds at 20% off
We’ve got more Blue diamond-frame bikes (D1, D3, and D8) than we have room for in our warehouse, and we need to make space for new bikes coming in mid-November. For a limited time, we’re offering a special on our blue diamond bikes in single, 3, and 8 speeds, in all sizes. See our Fall Blues page for details.