Is “free” parking possible?

April 3rd, 2013

People love free things. In my oddly skewed social circle, one of the things I hear that they love the most is ‘free parking”. Businesses want it for their customers, residents want it in front of their apartments, and many people will spend half an hour or more at a time circling the block looking for it.

But just what exactly are they looking for? What is it they want so bad?

The Free and Open Source Software(F/OSS) community seems to have noticed something about the English word ‘free‘ that transportation people haven’t yet quite grasped: that it has some very distinct and sometimes misleading meanings. F/OSS advocates have gone to extraordinary lengths to deal with the inadequacy of the word ‘free’ to communicate what it is that they’re trying to do. ‘Free software‘ is software that grants freedoms to it’s users and developers, such as the ability to see the source code, modify it, and to redistribute the program. The general public though often hears ‘free software’ and thinks of those awful AOL CDs that were everywhere ten years ago or of cheap software that can be downloaded at no cost. F/OSS advocates are neither cheapskates nor champions of the poor; they’re more akin to software libertarians. They’re concerned with freedom rather than free-ness, ‘libre‘(or liberty) rather than ‘gratis‘(lacking a price).

There’s a third meaning of ‘free’ that isn’t relevant to software at all, but that’s critically important to parking. Let’s put it this way: “Is the restroom free yet?” Clearly, our interlocutor doesn’t seek the restroom’s liberation nor probably do they expect they might be charged for it’s use. Free here can mean ‘available‘ when we’re talking about things with potentially limited access.

I know, I know. It’s gratis parking most people say they’re looking for. Free as in “free sample”. Just as with the word ‘free’ itself though, with ‘free parking’ three or more specific meanings twine inextricably around a central concept and each has an effect on the others. Is accessibility of much value if liberty is lacking? Is liberty meaningful if it costs a fortune? And, most relevantly, is gratis parking worth anything if none of it’s available?

For the last few months, the City of Cincinnati has been talking about eliminating all minimum parking regulations from the zoning code for Over-The-Rhine and Pendelton1. Basically, with the current regulations people are required to build a certain amount of parking on the same site as a building if they’re going to legally use the building. Some small, old buildings that have been in continuous use since before the law are exempted. The city has simply proposed to remove this requirement in OTR and Pendelton.

Concurrently, several community groups, myself among them, have been advocating various sorts of permit parking plans for their neighborhoods or the city as a whole.

Some people in both communities have been opposed to the deregulation proposal because of the negative effect it could have on the availability of gratis parking. Others have generally supported the plan because of the positive effects it would have on parking liberty and potentially, availability.2 Many people have supported the concept of a permit parking plan aimed at increasing availability to some or all people, but the details of any such plan have been contentious. Normal people have been at home watching TV and not giving a damn.

The whole discussion has made clear that people who care about parking issues in Cincinnati’s central neighborhoods are operating with two very different paradigms, and two very different understandings of which aspect of freedom is most important and for whom.

Those who see value in the City’s current minimum regulations value available, gratis parking as the highest good and are looking to match the almost limitless demand for unpriced spaces with actual spaces. There’s is a supply side solution to a problem that by their definition of it can’t really respond well to market forces. They view cars and parking as almost necessarily associated with people, and assume that people don’t want to pay anything at all for parking. Therefore if there are to be people, there must be ‘enough’ free or cheap parking. For them, for a developer to not provide parking is for that person to impose an externality on others who will have to pick up his slack. It’s generally an older crowd that feels this way.

Those who are looking to deregulate parking in OTR, Pendelton and perhaps eventually elsewhere value liberty highest, including a liberty from driving and from parking itself. A city that doesn’t mandate a certain type of transportation in all places is one that allows more liberty for it’s residents to decide which method they prefer. Not full liberty of course, but more of it. Perhaps on the balance the collectively chosen method or collection of methods will include more walking, bicycles and transit. This is generally a younger crowd.

Crossing both paradigms is the insistence that where there is parking, it should be available to people. That is to say, if a street has 30 spaces then all things being equal it’s better at any given time that only 28 of them are occupied than that 30 are. Post-Adam-Smith common sense tells those belonging to the later paradigm that one very logical way for us to achieve this goal is to put a price on those spaces that accurately reflects their value, letting people decide themselves who gets to use them just like we do for cabbage, cars, political speech, and most other saleable commodities. The other group, because of their insistence on the importance of unpriced parking doesn’t see this as an acceptable solution, so seeks to mandate a surplus that gluts the market thereby freeing spaces.

I say that at the end of the day there is no free lunch. Avoiding parking fees at the point of sale(that is, when you’re actually parking) just shifts the costs(and disincentives) to other people and places, including non-parkers like myself and the ~25% of Cincinnatians who don’t own cars. Most people would like the rest of society to subsidise the things they do…Truly, people really DO like free things. But they also like just as much getting to choose what they do and don’t pay for, the later category mostly including things for other people. Since all parking must be paid for at some point, I say let us live more frugally by having somewhat less of it as a result of us also having more liberty: more opportunity to choose another way of getting around. Gratis parking is in the big picture an impossibility, and so we should pursue the other aspects of ‘free’: availability and liberty.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. …and for a while Downtown, though that seems to have been dropped now for some reason
  2. I include in the second group the City’s planning staff and seemingly most of council since they made the initial request.

7 responses to “Is “free” parking possible?”

  1. julie Murray says:

    Thank you for this reasoned, intelligent, challenging exploration of the assumptions and meanings that underlie this issue of “parking” in the city. I truly appreciate your level of discourse which invites me to consider other points of view!
    I am curious about what your thoughts are on the proposal of Mallory and Dahoney to sell/long-term lease the parking resource of the city to a private company for 100 years in order to balance the city budget for two years more and avoid the city employee lay offs they say must happen.

    • Nate Wessel says:

      I started writing a post on that one…I’m still working on it! The problem with having nuanced opinions of things like this is that it makes complex issues like the parking lease incredibly difficult to write about succinctly. In a nutshell, I’m generally in favour of the plan(as it’s been revealed more recently), but probably not for the same reasons as anyone else. I think it holds the possibility for raising on-street parking rates much closer to what the market will bear(and not a bit higher), which as you know is a huge part of what I was/am advocating in a permit plan for CUF. It will increase parking availability, because everyone involved will have the right incentives to set the right prices, leaving politics, and frankly, the democratic process out pretty completely.

      Again, in a nutshell ;-)

  2. ssepp says:

    I don’t think you’re quite right when you say that “transportation people” haven’t clued into these distinctions yet. One of the most famous (relatively-speaking) planning books is Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking which – as the title suggests – thoroughly explores the multitude of social costs which come about when you offer copious gratis parking.

    • Nate Wessel says:

      Very true! And a good read too, though I never made it through all 600+ pages.

      …Actually, I sent professor Shoup an email once and he responded and I got way too excited like a total fanboy…*blush*

  3. In response to:

    “Those who are looking to deregulate parking in OTR, Pendelton and perhaps eventually elsewhere value liberty highest”

    It may, MAY be true that liberty is the highest principle here for people like myself who want to deregulate parking, but economics (essentially the gratis aspect of your argument) is a huge part as well. Particularly in dense areas where parking mandates usually mean underground parking, the cost imposed on renters/owners for that parking is huge, and generally shared by all residents whether they own cars or not. (I wrote about this on my own blog earlier in the week.)

    Personally, I’m moving to LA in a few months and trying to decide where to live–I’m really looking hard for buildings that provide no parking whatsoever, because that’s the only way I can be confident that I’m not paying hundreds of extra dollars every month for a resource I’m neither using nor want to use. Unfortunately, LA being what it is… we’ll see how that goes.

    • Nate Wessel says:

      There was a big development in Clifton Heights recently, where the developer built enough parking to meet the code’s requirements, but didn’t bundle the spaces with the units opting instead to rent them separately to residents. People on the street occasionally villainize him for failing to operate in their gratis parking paradigm, though of course they never put it that way. Anyway, some good and parking-free apartments are out there…good luck!

      • The real question is whether he actually charges enough to recoup the costs of the parking. If he’s charging enough to recoup his investment in the housing part of his building in, say, 15 years, is he setting the price of his parking (which if underground was probably much more expensive per square foot than the apartments) at a price to break even in the same period of time? My guess is that he’s not, in which case non-drivers are still picking up some of the difference. But it’s a step in the right direction, at least.