Sunday, February 24

Can't forget the parking ...

Not only does the general public subsidize automobile use through our taxes but we also do through our consumption.

Consider the typical trip to the supermarket. You pull in to the parking lot, drive around for a few seconds, and find a nice spot near the entrance. After collecting all of the groceries you need for the week, you bring the cart back to your car and take off. One thing that we never consider during this routine is that the 162 square feet of real estate we used for parking was entirely free.

But nothing is free. Somebody had to pay for it.

Like most cities, Missoula has pretty specific regulations about how much off-street parking is required of businesses and residential units. Restaurants and theaters require a spot for every four seats. Retail needs a spot for every 300 square feet of floor space, meaning that over 1/3 of all land is used for parking. These regulations make sense, because they ensure that the burden for finding a place for our vehicles is shared evenly. Yet they do reveal how much of a burden it is. The price these establishments are required to pay for parking is inevitably passed on to the consumer. So if you walk to the supermarket for a gallon of milk, part of the price of that gallon went toward someone else's parking space.

UCLA economist Donald Shoup published the High Cost of Free Parking in 2005. The effects of parking regulations he analyzes jibe well with common sense:

"Off-street parking requirements collectivize the cost of parking because they allow everyone to park free at everyone else’s expense. When the cost of parking is hidden in the prices of other goods and services, no one can pay less for parking by using less of it. Bundling the cost of parking into higher prices for everything else skews travel choices toward cars and away from public transit, cycling, and walking. Off-street parking requirements thus change the way we build our cities, the way we travel, and how much energy we consume ... Free parking helps to explain this extreme automobile dependence, rapid urban sprawl, and extravagant energy use."

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