Free parking costs everyone more and more

Our obsession with automobiles is not only creating gridlock and ruining the quality of our air, but it’s eating up our real estate and sending land costs upward. Because, once we drive our cars off the crowded highways, we assume it’s our constitutional right to find “free parking.”

Trust me: Whether at rail stations or stores, parking comes at a price paid in more than just dollars.

For decades, city planners and zoning regulations have shared with Detroit in a conspiracy to deliver on that dream. Consider the following:

According to the industry standard-setting Institute of Transportation Engineers, there are 266 kinds of businesses that should be zoned to require a minimum amount of parking.

Quoting from the institute’s “bible,” religious convents must have one parking space for every 10 nuns in residence. Hello? The residents aren’t going anywhere! Why do they need parking? Couldn’t the convents find better use for their land?

Or consider hotels. Why are parking regulations based on requiring enough parking for the few nights each year when the hotel is sold out, rather that the majority of nights when occupancy is much less? Would we require a movie theater to require parking for an every-seat-filled blockbuster when its more typical offerings fill far fewer seats?

Just drive up the Post Road and see for yourself. Due to zoning regulations, many shopping malls devote 60% of their land to parking and only 40% to buildings. Imagine what that does to the costs of what they sell.

Desperate to attract folks back to their decaying downtowns, some cities are putting more land into parking than to all other land uses combined. A Buffalo, N.Y., City Council member commented a few years ago: “There will be lots of places to park. There just won’t be a whole lot to do there.”

Recently I drove through downtown New Britain observing empty stores and sidewalks next to a gigantic 10-story parking lot. They “built it,” but nobody came.

In fact, the cities that have done the best jobs of economic revitalization aren’t the ones that provided the most parking — they’re the ones that provided the least. The vitality of towns and cities requires people walking the streets, going into shops and interacting — not scurrying from car to shop to car to home.

In his excellent book, The High Cost of Free Parking, UCLA’s Donald Shoup recounts the following tale of two cities:

Both San Francisco and Los Angeles opened new concert halls a few years back. The one in L.A. included a $10-million, six-story parking garage for 2,100 cars. In San Francisco there was no parking built — saving the developers millions. After each concert, the L.A. crowd heads for their cars and drives away. But in San Francisco, patrons leave the hall, walk the streets and spend money in local restaurants, bars and bookstores. Guess which city has benefited most from its new arts center?

Why are Connecticut’s towns slaves to antiquated zoning mentalities that assume all humans come with four tires rather than two legs? Why do we waste precious land on often-empty parking spots instead of badly needed affordable housing?

Even my many rants about the lack of parking at train stations isn’t as much a plea for open fields of Wal-Mart-style parking lots as for transit-oriented development. Sure, build the parking structure — but on the ground floor offer stores and on the top, housing.

Clearly, our transportation planners need to work much more closely with economic developers and sociologists to rethink what it is that we really need in our cities and towns. We have become mindless slaves to car-obsessed planners for whom no vista is better than miles of open asphalt, be it highways or parking spaces.

 

Jim Cameron is chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council and a member of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area, but the opinions expressed here are his own. You can reach him at [email protected] or trainweb.org/ct.

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