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'Free Parking' Comes at a Price, Author Says

Donald Shoup, avoiding the car-parking problem his book describes.
Donald Shoup, avoiding the car-parking problem his book describes.

UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup says we have too many parking spaces in this country, especially the cheap and free kind. He argues that we pay the price for it in many different ways. Shoup's point is made in a new book, The High Cost of Free Parking.

Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Shoup's book:

The Car Explosion

Coming to grips with the parking problem is essential because the rest of the world is poised to repeat America's mistakes. America adopted the car much faster and to a far greater extent than other nations, and many factors help to explain this phenomenon -- abundant land, rapid population growth, low fuel prices, and high incomes, among others. Abundant free parking also contributes to our high demand for cars because it greatly reduces the cost of car ownership. And because we own so many cars, we need lots of land to park them. We can speculate about the amount of land the whole world will need for parking if other nations ever acquire as many cars as Americans owned at the end of the twentieth century.

The first American gasoline car was sold in February 1896. By 2000, Americans owned 771 motor vehicles per 1,000 persons... Apart from dips during the Depression, World War II, and the early 1990s, ownership rose rapidly... In 2000, France had the same vehicle-ownership rate as the U.S. in 1972, Denmark the same as the U.S. in 1961, and China the same as the U.S. in 1912.

China is now the world's fourth-largest market for new cars (after the U.S., Japan and Germany), but the U.S. still added more than twice as many vehicles during the 1990s (29 million) as China owned in 2000 (13 million). Other nations are, however, gaining on the U.S. Since 1950 the vehicle population has grown more than twice as fast outside the U.S. as inside. And yet, taken together, in 2000 the world outside the U.S. owned only 89 vehicles per 1,000 persons -- the U.S. rate in 1920. But just as the U.S. vehicle-ownership rate doubled in the five years after 1920, rapid growth may also occur soon in other countries.

The 6.1 billion people on earth in 2000 owned 735 million vehicles. Imagine what would happen if all the countries on earth ever achieve the same vehicle-ownership rate as the U.S. in 2000: there would be 4.7 billion vehicles even if the U.S. population does not increase. A parking lot big enough to hold 4.7 billion cars would occupy an area about the size of England or Greece. If there are four parking spaces per car (one at home, and three more at other destinations), 4.7 billion cars would require 19 billion parking spaces, which amounts to a parking lot about the size of France or Spain. More cars would also require more land for roads, gas stations, used car dealers, automobile graveyards, and tire dumps.

If the past trends in vehicle ownership continue, the world will have more than 4.7 billion cars well before the end of the twenty-first century. Even if the vehicle population grows by only 2 percent a year, it will increase from 735 million in 2000 to 5 billion in 2100. Can the world supply all the fuel needed to power 5 billion cars? Will humans be able to breathe the fumes coming out of 5 billion exhaust pipes? And where will 5 billion cars park?

These questions are not meant to sound alarmist. A simple projection is often a poor forecast because technology and policy can change. For example, horse-drawn carriages befouled cities a century ago. In New York City in 1900, horses deposited 2.5 million pounds of manure on the streets every day. Projected growth in transportation demand made a publich health disaster seem inevitable, but then the horseless carriage solved that problem. Now, horseless carriages create their own problems, but new solutions will arrive. Improved technology will increase fuel efficiency and reduce pollution emissions, but technology alone is unlikely to solve the parking problem. Regardless of how fuel efficient our cars are or how little pollution they emit, we will always need somewhere to park them, and the average car spends 95 percent of its life parked.

Republished by permission of the author.

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