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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Free parking isn’t free

I don’t have to woo voters, so this is easy for me to say: Free parking is bad for the country.

We’re used to hearing about America’s heavy reliance on oil and the problems that flow from that, but most of the time cars aren’t moving. And most of that parking is free, or so it seems. In reality, the expectations of plentiful parking and relatively cheap gas prices have incurred tremendous costs. These twin forces made it affordable for us to spread out, which in turn will make it expensive to enact solutions.

It’s only in city centers where parking isn’t obviously free. The story of downtowns is similar across the country. Government sets out curbside meters with time limits. This ensures that workers and others won’t occupy these spaces all day long. These spaces are prized, because the price is kept artificially low. Off-street parking in private lots costs more.

What happens next is detailed by Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, is his book “The High Cost of Free Parking.” The prospect of a cheap parking space compels many drivers to methodically circle downtown streets in search of a metered space. This increases congestion, wastes fuel and makes downtowns less inviting. The fact that these spaces can be hard to find is a clear signal that the price is too low. His solution is to adjust prices so that about 15 percent of metered spaces are always available and funnel all proceeds back into downtown streets and sidewalks.

I can already hear the howls of protests from downtown merchants: “People will stop coming downtown, especially when they can park free elsewhere.”

Free parking is a matter of perception. I suspect most people believe suburban merchants offer acres of asphalt because it’s a smart business decision. That’s true for some, but the truth is that businesses must provide a certain number of spaces whether they like it or not. City and county codes prescribe how many spaces based on the type of business and its square footage. For some businesses, the mandated parking can take up more space than the building. The mandate is designed to ensure that cars won’t spill over into nearby neighborhoods.

But land isn’t free, and the cost of these parking spaces affects the prices business owners will charge for their products and how much they can pay their workers. The mandate can also make it difficult for businesses to expand or cater to walk-up customers. Though there are many fans of “new urbanism” and its focus on keeping work and shopping close to home, these parking edicts provide significant hurdles. As a result, we have a tedious, inefficient procession of strip malls and large apartment complexes because government codes have decreed that cars shall steer development.

Parking lots are ugly and are often bigger than they need to be. These business costs are spread to everyone. Those who walk, bike, carpool or ride the bus are subsidizing those who drive and park. That’s something to remember the next time you hear the complaint that public transit needs to pay for itself.

The prevalence of free parking means it’s impossible to directly charge drivers for upkeep. Consider the current debate about a possible parking tax in downtown Spokane. As Marty Dickinson, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, correctly noted in a recent article, this would put an unfair burden on those businesses, “especially when you’re competing against suburban areas that have free parking for employees.”

The debate about a parking tax is part of a larger discussion about how to finance street maintenance, but you can’t tax suburban parking if the price is hidden to begin with.

While Shoup makes astute observations about the price of parking, it’s unrealistic to think that meters will be popping up at suburban shopping centers. The first politician to suggest it would be mowed down. But that still leaves the question of how to finance street maintenance. It isn’t fair to limit a parking tax to downtown, especially if some of the proceeds are spent elsewhere. So a more widespread revenue source is needed.

All automobile owners need gasoline and license tabs, so those fees and taxes should be raised to meet the demands placed on roads. This means cities and the county need to cooperate and coordinate. That’s better than each entity circling the problem in search of a discount solution.

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at or at (509) 459-5026.
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