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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

July 15, 2011 at 10:20 AM

Looking beyond downtown Seattle, ‘free’ parking isn’t really free

Downtown Seattle has the dubious distinction of having the sixth costliest garage parking among cities in the United States, according to reporting by the Seattle Times’ Susan Gilmore. It’s a competitive issue to be taken seriously, especially if it hurts downtown businesses. On the other hand, garages charge what the market will bear and Seattle has a dense downtown with plenty of attractions and assets. (And one doesn’t have to own a car here).

But even “free” out in the suburbs isn’t really free. The externalities, such as environmental damage and climate-altering emissions, of big surface parking lots, wide streets, extensive car use, etc. aren’t priced in to conventional studies or public policies. Much of this is an artifact of a moment in history when energy was very cheap and debt low. Not for nothing are many suburbs suffering worse from the recession and its aftermath than center cities.

Beyond that, “free” parking, is heavily subsidized, although these costs are largely hidden from drivers. Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA, analyzes the costs and consequences of this in his book, The High Cost of Free Parking. Tyler Cohen has written about it for the New York Times.

He writes, “If developers were allowed to face directly the high land costs of providing so much parking, the number of spaces would be a result of a careful economic calculation rather than a matter of satisfying a legal requirement. Parking would be scarcer, and more likely to have a price — or a higher one than it does now — and people would be more careful about when and where they drove.”

This isn’t what most Americans want to hear, even if climate change is happening now and we’re deeply in debt maintaining armies in the oil-rich Middle East, even if a high-cost energy future is inevitable. But reality will happen whether we like it or not. Too bad we’re cutting transit funding and failing to retrofit suburbia with abundant transportation options.

Links from the week:

Today’s Econ Haiku:

A debt-ceiling deal?

A manufactured crisis

While millions lack jobs

Comments | More in Downtown and urban issues, Energy, Oil prices, Sustainability

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