Urban mobility
Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Space Man

Donald Shoup is the world’s best-known parking theorist. Here, ahead of the publication of his new book, he talks exclusively to Intertraffic World about how his ideas, once thought radical, are beginning to be accepted around the world, and are making parking provision fairer, more predictable… and more profitable 

As urban population densities continue to rise globally, the issues around parking provision are also increasing. However, it is fair to say that those involved in solving such challenges remain unknown to the vast majority of people, barring traffic managers and city planners.

Breaking into the mainstream

Regularly featured in national newspaper features and even depicted in cartoon form for a popular US television series, Donald Shoup is, arguably, an exception to that norm. While it would be hyperbolic to say the Distinguished Research Professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is a ‘household name’, he – or at least his proposal – has certainly seemed to strike a chord with a wider section of society than is typically associated with an urban planner.  

The theories on parking laid out in Shoup’s seminal 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking, have gone on to shape many of the world’s major cities – including Intertraffic World hosts Mexico City and Amsterdam. 

To briefly summarize the 800-page tome, there are three main tenets to better urban parking provision. First of all, drivers should be charged the right price for on-street parking – the lowest price that will always leave several free spaces on every block. This means dynamic pricing, so as spaces fill up the price of parking gets higher until it becomes so expensive the last space is unlikely to get filled unless in an extreme emergency. The second is spending the generated revenue on improving the area affected in a way that appeals to local residents and businesses. The final, and possibly most controversial, proposal is removing all off-street parking requirements for property developers. This last point was the drum that Shoup banged the loudest, unequivocal in his belief that such requirements were detrimental to all of a city’s stakeholders.

Positioned in the line of fire

“When the book came out, half the planet thought I was crazy and the other half thought
I was daydreaming,” says Shoup. “But as people looked more closely at the issues, they realized these ideas were sensible and are now adopting them – it was slow at first, but it’s
now starting to happen.”

Much of the book’s content he had already outlined in various articles over the course of his 40-year career but, as Shoup self-deprecatingly jokes, “Nobody reads academic papers!” 

If you’re going to San Francisco…

Compiling his thoughts and presenting them in a readable, even humorous style was key, and a few years after the publication of the book, San Francisco began implementing its SFpark venture, which became a real-world showcase for some of Shoup’s theories. 

Starting as a small-scale pilot project in 2011, SFpark adjusted meter prices in the city depending on the popularity of the corresponding parking lots, with the aim of ensuring that at least one free space per block was always available in all locations. It was such a success that it has now been implemented across much of San Francisco permanently, and a similar scheme has since been introduced in Calgary, Canada. Shoup was singled out by SFpark’s founders for special recognition in influencing the project. 

It is now 12 years since the book’s launch, and while watching his theories being put into practice, the urban planner’s thinking on parking has evolved.

“The three policies have not changed, but what cities spend the revenue on – for example, free wi-fi or transit passes for residents – has surprised me. Cities are very flamboyant about what they spend the money on as they advertise it very clearly, and if people start identifying parking meters with free wi-fi, then that will change the world.

“I think I can also say I’ve become more… self righteous,” he says hesitantly, before laughing at the absurdity of the notion.

The intervening years have certainly given Shoup greater clarity on the subject of urban parking, and spring 2018 will see the launch of his follow-up book, Parking in the City. 

His latest bugbear is that of on-street parking, particularly in the residential districts of large cities. While the American has much praise for the parking policies in London, UK, specifically the removal of all off-street parking requirements, he is critical of the UK capital in regard to its on-street parking – residents of busy and upmarket neighborhoods like Mayfair pay a similar, relatively low rate for a yearly parking permit as those living on its fringes.

He says, “London has about three million on-street parking spaces, with close to 95% of them not being metered. 

“These spaces would cover an area of about 13 square miles. In London, how much would that land be worth? It means you have some very rich people getting some of the most valuable land for next to nothing. And we wonder why there’s a traffic problem and why housing is so expensive…”

A radical solution

Shoup’s radical idea is to auction the permits under a so-called uniform price option. An example of this would see anybody who wanted one of 20 parking spaces on a block to put in a bid; the bids are then ranked from high to low and the top 20 bidders all pay the lowest accepted price. 

This auction would then be combined with power equalization – a concept more common in the USA – which sees the revenue distributed equally across the city. 

“So you propose an average cost across London for an on-street parking permit  – and remember how valuable land is – and say it’s about US$2,000 a year, with it being US$10,000 in Mayfair and US$100 on the outskirts.

“The people who are able and willing to buy a permit would do so, which could finance public services for everybody on the block, so people who couldn’t afford to have a car would suddenly live in a better neighborhood. It would shift money from Mayfair and the like, to the outer boroughs, as each borough would get the same amount of money to spend, but Mayfair residents would pay a lot more,” explains Shoup. 

The inevitable retort is that it is unfair making Mayfair (for example) permits more expensive than those in other areas, but Shoup is ready for it.

“Would you disagree that central London residents should pay more for some of the most valuable land on Earth? Do you disagree with the idea that it shifts money from rich to poor? 

“Another criticism I’ve heard is that this is privatization – a dirty word to some – but if the government owns the land, uses the market to set prices for private cars on public land, and spends that money on public services, that’s not privatization, it is market socialism. 

“We use the market to make socialism work,” he laughs, adding, “It would be one of the few places socialism really would work because the government owns the means of production – and look how badly it manages it – but with parking, done right, it would be a spectacular example of market socialism.” 

He has had to fend off verbal attacks from the left and right of the political spectrum, but maintains that paying for public services at prices set by market rates, and freeing property developers from parking quotas, will reduce air pollution and traffic congestion – and have broad appeal.

Such a proposal, Shoup believes, would be appropriate for cities across the globe, but he notices that, barring a few exceptions, his homeland is no longer at the forefront of parking innovations.

A global marketplace

“The USA has, for many years, fallen way behind in developing technologies,” he says. “The parking meter was invented here, but a lot of the subsequent technology was developed in Canada, Britain and Europe. One exception is the pay-by-license-plate concept. The meter says the full price, but local residents pay a lower price, so tourists think they’re paying the same as everyone else.”

Miami Beach has introduced this technology and Shoup is convinced that it will be rolled out widely that eventually there won’t even be physical parking meters, with license plate data providing the necessary information to automatically charge the relevant driver the appropriate price. 

Considering the many years he has spent passionately advocating for a fairer, if not radically different approach to city parking, it is perhaps surprising that Shoup continues to be so enthusiastic about it. It’s the changes he witnesses in the industry that are holding his interest. 

“Change is happening very rapidly. It’s partly because technology has now enabled these ideas to be put into practice. The technology available enables cities to manage parking much more efficiently and comprehensively. 

“When my first book was published, I just assumed that the technology, like occupancy sensing, was there, when it was really in its infancy. Now cities want to manage parking much more than they did before, so they’re buying a lot of technology and this has stimulated its development. I hear it’s a nightmare to sell anything to a city, but if they want to manage parking, they need the technology. So I think there has been this virtuous circle because good parking policy requires better technology, and the technology requires better parking policy.”

Source: James Allen, for Intertraffic World Magazine 2018

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