All posts by jameshatler

Free Parking: Is it really free?

The average Walmart Superstore has between 4 acres of store under its roof and 16 – 20 acres of parking out in front of it. This means that 75 – 80 % of the land footprint is dedicated to parking.

Parking also dominates the landscape, making up the largest land use in urban areas; in Columbia it also dominates the skyline. The 5th and Walnut parking garage is the tallest building in downtown.

Between 2008 and 2013, citywide there will be 4 total garages built and opened, the cumulative cost of these, in non-inflation adjusted dollars will be about 60 million dollars.

On top of the construction costs, there are financing costs, annual operating costs and land and money opportunity costs. What if Shakespeare’s downtown had another building that it could get rent from instead of a parking lot that requires an attendant to watch and the time and hassle of towing violators? What if the $15.2 million spent on the 5th and Walnut garage had instead been put toward our bus system? 3 buses costs about 1.1 million; so the city could have gotten 21 buses for 7.7 million and then had $7.5 million left over to operate them.

For a land use that has been with us since the late 1910’s, parking has very little academic discussion about it. Even in books on city planning, if parking gets more than one page of discussion, this is uncommon. Parking as a land use is basically storage for cars. Perhaps because it is this simple and boring, this is why there’s little discussion around it.

However, it really isn’t that simple. Parking makes up the largest single land use in urban zones. Parking requirements and handicapped bathrooms are the only definitive requirements for every land use.

The most unfortunate thing about parking requirements is that they are set with the goal of providing the right amount of free parking for peak demand at a free price.  Why does the Mall look like an island of retail inside a vast sea of concrete with white lines? This is because the mall was made with enough parking to satisfy the demand for free parking on that biggest holiday of retail sales, black Friday.

This means that most of the time, most of the parking is unused.

Is the land use of parking the best use for land? Sure, it creates jobs for valets, parking lot attendants, meter maids, and the workers who deal with parking fines and issues, and it is a service that is necessary in towns that do not have alternatives to driving. However, I believe that parking, like any other service, applies to the rules of supply and demand, and currently most places are undercharging for parking, leading to its overuse and oversupply.