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Free parking: An untapped urban resource

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Everyone who lives in a big city knows that renting space -- an apartment, a storefront, or even a table at a street festival -- is expensive.

What’s not so obvious is that the city and public institutions routinely give away the use of lots of valuable land for free. The beneficiaries of this space generally take their good fortune for granted while the community and its cash-strapped institutions lose out on a huge untapped source of revenue.

What is this free space? Thousands of parking spaces for cars. The free space (that is to say, the free land) is found along side streets and at many public buildings. If the beneficiaries of this free parking had to pay, millions of dollars of new revenues could fill community coffers.

Of course, “free parking” is never actually free, except for the person using the free spot. This is the central theme of UCLA Professor Donald Shoup’s comprehensive text, The High Cost of Free Parking. Land must be purchased or diverted from other uses, the parking area must be built, paved and maintained, and revenues foregone. The cost of this parking comes out of the communal pocket, instead of the pocket of the person who benefits. There is a similar subsidy for free parking at commercial buildings, like grocery stores, but it is shoppers, whether or not they drive, who bear the cost, which is hidden in the price of goods.

How much free parking do cities and other public institutions give away? Three examples near my own downtown neighbourhood at Spadina and Bloor in Toronto give a hint about the scale of the largesse.

On the first block of side streets running north and south of Bloor St., in a 15-block area west of Spadina, there are over 600 free daytime parking spots. These spots apparently help local businesses but the motorist might equally be attending a meeting or studying at the university. Almost 90% of shoppers in this area actually arrive by transit, bike, or on foot – not by car.  

Central Technical School, which is well-served by transit, has a massive 140-spot parking lot that covers an area big enough for 17 semi-detached homes. The lot is unsupervised: day or night, no one pays for parking.

Up the road at the Phil White Arena (where I play hockey) there are 90 free parking spots shared between the rink and an adjoining city park.

How much revenue could these 830 parking spots from the curbside, school, and arena bring in over a year? If each spot generated even $5 per day, the revenues would amount to $1.5 million annually.

Professor Shoup recognizes that motorists would fiercely resist paying for parking they now get for free. He proposes a simple solution: return revenues from previously free parking to the local neighbourhood. This would create advocates for paid parking and balance out the unhappy voices of motorists.

How might revenues from the three parking examples noted above be put to use?

Revenues from curbside parking could be used by neighbourhood groups for sidewalk snow removal to the benefit of pedestrians, particularly vulnerable seniors or parents with strollers; revenues from school parking lots could be invested by parent councils in breakfast programs or classroom supplies; and arena parking revenues could be administered by sports advocacy groups for hockey equipment programs for children from low income families.

Public institutions might still elect to provide free parking for some staff or visitors but they should be obliged to take stock of their parking assets and justify the trade-offs they are making between funding for core programs and parking subsidies.

Charging a fee for parking has benefits beyond new revenues. A study by Professor Shoup for a single Los Angeles neighbourhood found that motorists drove a collective 1.5 million extra km each year in search of a free spot. This not only squanders fuel but causes extra carbon emissions, air pollution, and traffic congestion. If, however, parking was priced at market rates there would always be a few available spots thus eliminating the wasteful search.

When parking has to be purchased the true cost of automobile is also revealed to the motorist thereby encouraging car-pooling, cycling, and transit use.

The point is not that we should get rid of parking but rather that those who use parking should pay for it.

Putting a price on parking simply recognizes a fact that we otherwise take as self-evident, namely that space in the city is valuable. It’s time we tapped this huge land resource for the benefit of the whole community.

Albert Koehl is an adjunct professor of natural resources law at Osgoode Hall Law School and author of the online transport advocate’s guide, Road Follies. 




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