Underlining Like Mad #168: Most of it for Free

Of the 500,000 on-street parking spots in Seattle, less than 1,000 are paid.

This is not a new revelation.  An ancient PubliCola post from 2015 reported on it.

Okay. Getting up of the floor now. What? West Seattle—including around the Junction—doesn’t charge for parking?Well, neither do the business districts in Southeast Seattle like Columbia City, nor in North Seattle around Northgate or Lake City. Unfortunately, that argument doesn’t justify free parking in West Seattle, it simply reveals how skewed Seattle public policy is toward accommodating cars.

Thanks to Sightline (of course), we wrote about this car culture subsidy two years earlier, in 2013, as well.

But this recent editorial in the Economist  reminded me how persistent and global the problem is.

And then, unfortunately, there’s the car park. For 14,000 workers, Apple is building almost 11,000 parking spaces. Many cars will be tucked under the main building, but most will cram into two enormous garages to the south. Tot up all the parking spaces and the lanes and ramps that will allow cars to reach them, and it is clear that Apple is allocating a vast area to stationary vehicles. In all, the new headquarters will contain 318,000 square metres of offices and laboratories. The car parks will occupy 325,000 square metres.

Apple is building 11,000 parking spaces not because it wants to but because Cupertino, the suburban city where the new headquarters is located, demands it. Cupertino has a requirement for every building. A developer who wants to put up a block of flats, for example, must provide two parking spaces per apartment, one of which must be covered. For a fast-food restaurant, the city demands one space for every three seats; for a bowling alley, seven spaces per lane plus one for every worker. Cupertino’s neighbours have similar rules. With such a surfeit of parking, most of it free, it is little wonder that most people get around Silicon Valley by car, or that the area has such appalling traffic jams.

Water companies are not obliged to supply all the water that people would use if it were free, nor are power companies expected to provide all the free electricity that customers might want.

The harm caused begins with the obvious fact that parking takes up a lot of room. A typical space is 12-15 square metres; add the necessary access lanes and the space per car roughly doubles. … In cities, such as Kansas City (see map), where land is cheap, and surface parking the norm, central areas resemble asphalt oceans dotted with buildings.

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….

The more spread out and car-oriented a city, as a result of enormous car parks, the less appealing walking and cycling become. Besides, if you know you can park free wherever you go, why not drive? The ever-growing supply of free parking in America is one reason why investments in public transport have coaxed so few people out of cars, says David King of Arizona State University. In 1990, 73% of Americans got to work by driving alone, according to the census. In 2014, after a ballyhooed urban revival and many expensive tram and rapid-bus projects, 76% drove.

The rule of thumb in America is that multi-storey car parks cost about $25,000 per space and underground parking costs $35,000. Donald Shoup, an authority on parking economics, estimates that creating the minimum number of spaces adds 67% to the cost of a new shopping centre in Los Angeles if the car park is above ground and 93% if it is underground. Parking requirements can also make redevelopment impossible. Converting an old office building into flats generally means providing the parking spaces required for a new block of flats, which is likely to be difficult. The biggest cost of parking minimums may be the economic activity they prevent.

Free parking is not, of course, really free. The costs of building the car parks, as well as cleaning, lighting, repairing and securing them, are passed on to the people who use the buildings to which they are attached. Restaurant meals and cinema tickets are more pricey; flats are more expensive; office workers are presumably paid less. Everybody pays, whether or not they drive. And that has an unfortunate distributional effect, because young people drive a little less than the middle-aged and the poor drive less than the rich. In America, 17% of blacks and 12% of Hispanics who lived in big cities usually took public transport to work in 2013, whereas 7% of whites did. Free parking represents a subsidy for older people that is paid disproportionately by the young and a subsidy for the wealthy that is paid by the poor.

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