by Donald Shoup
(American Planning Association; 2004; 734pps)

Scholars align the beginning of the environmental movement with the release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Since then, recognition of how automobiles contribute to environmental degradation (pollution, congestion, energy consumption, even international warfare) has grown. In his book The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup explains that rather than a love affair with the automobile, Americans have instead grown accustomed to a distinct set of land use policies and city requirements. Along with federal subsidies for oil companies, auto manufacturing, and road building, parking policies have greatly facilitated auto-dependency. Taken a step further, minimum parking requirements for development based on maximum demand have hurt our communities in profound ways. Shoup’s book has the potential to be that seminal work in reforming the way cities cater to automobile travel through parking policies.

Critics have rightfully taken exception to the length of the 700-page book, where the author has chosen comprehensiveness over succinctness. However, taken a chapter at a time, or used as a reference document for specific applications, the book is a fabulous resource for planners, architects, engineers, and elected officials while at the same time targeting the general public who, understandably, like parking for free!

Shoup, an economist by training, astutely points out that even if you don’t pay when pulling in or out, there is no such thing as “free” parking. With the average cost of a parking space ($30,000 – $50,000) being higher than the average cost of a car, those costs need be recuperated in the sale of goods and services. Thus “free” parking makes everything more expensive: clothing, movies, burgers, televisions or housing. Shoup uses a great deal of data and research, estimating that the total subsidy for parking is similar to what the nation spends on national defense or Medicare! But free parking has other costs: it distorts transportation choices, sprawls rather than compacts urban form, and degrades the environment.

It seems reasonable that citys require developers to provide onsite parking. Most folks in our society have automobiles (there is more than one vehicle for every man, woman and child in the United States). It stands to reason that when they go somewhere, they are likely to drive. But why is this the case? Should this be the case? The book does an exemplary job of answering the first question, providing a deep history, and insightful examples. If you are concerned with the health of the environment and the vitality of our communities, the answer to the second question is no. The automobile will continue to be a primary mode of transportation in the U.S., but its role will diminish once cities move away from minimum parking requirements and rethink how they want people in their communities to function and interact.

Shoup, like many others (except our political leaders) makes the case that once the true cost (in dollars, opportunities, alternatives, and environmental degradation) are incorporated into automobile travel and storage, the beloved car ceases to be so desirable.

— Peter Brown, SLO City Planner