Free Parking Isn’t Free

12 08 2009
From: RenoTahoe:Flickr, 2009

From: RenoTahoe:Flickr, 2009

We’ve all driven out to the mall, or the movie theatre, or the suburban restaurant from time to time. We spend a few minutes circling the parking lot trying to find the closest space to the door and then leave our cars out on the pavement framed in a 9 by 18 foot rectangle of painted lines. What you may not know, is that free little rectangle, costs between 10 and 50 thousand dollars (USD) depending on the area. So who pays this much for the ‘free’ space? Think about how many thousands of parking spaces are at malls, which are required to have enough parking spaces to meet capacity on the busiest day of the year – meaning that they are under capacity 99.7 percent of the time. Does the mall developer pay for that? Nope. Do the stores? Nope. You, the customer, pay for it. This free parking constitutes higher rents and therefore more expensive shopping and dining. This means, that those who don’t drive cars, are subsidizing those who do. And the worst part? Free parking is a mandated requirement for new developments, meaning if you want to build something, you’d better build in the parking spaces, and a lot of them.

From: gTarded: Flickr, 2009

From: gTarded: Flickr, 2009

Sucks for those of us without cars. Are there solutions to this you may ask? You have to wonder if the cost of goods would actually go down at a store or restaurant if they started charging for parking. And even if all of a sudden we were to do away with the legalities and make parking optional, or even try to do away with it altogether, developers would probably still include it because the market has come to expect their ‘right’ to free parking.

So, the solution is to go at it slowly. To begin constructing an urban form that caters to walking, cycling, and transit and not solely the automobile. We run into problems here once again, because anyone who has ever worked in a planning office, knows that planning is it’s own worst enemy, with zoning bylaws enforcing all the things that planners are trying to change.

I’ve only been arguing the financial side of this too. There are also the hidden social and environmental costs of free parking like a lessened sense of community, increased rates of chronic disease, storm water run-off, and the heat island effect.

Even after knowing all of the burdens that free parking places on society, it’s still difficult to view it as a bad thing. I don’t go to the mall often, but when I do, I don’t really want to be paying for parking. I’m sure there are plenty of people who agree with that. The one small positive really doesn’t outweigh all those negatives when you think about it. It’s time to move to a community oriented urban form again, rather than a space designed for vehicles.

There is a great scene in the movie Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy where Ford Prefect (an alien) is shown coming to earth for the first time. Knowing that a formal greeting on earth is the classic handshake, he is shown standing in the middle of the road exenting his hand to greet oncoming traffic, thinking that cars were the dominant life form on earth. Think about it. If you were looking down on the world from above with no knowledge of life on the planet, what would you think?

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