Free Parking Isn’t Free

Excerpts from this Salon article:

To Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, parking requirements are a bane of the country. “Parking requirements create great harm: they subsidize cars, distort transportation choices, warp urban form, increase housing costs, burden low income households, debase urban design, damage the economy, and degrade the environment,” he writes in his book, “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

Americans don’t object, because they aren’t aware of the myriad costs of parking, which remain hidden. In large part, it’s business owners, including commercial and residential landlords, who pay to provide parking places. They then pass on those costs to us in slightly higher prices for rent and every hamburger sold.

“Parking appears free because its cost is widely dispersed in slightly higher prices for everything else,” explains Shoup. “Because we buy and use cars without thinking about the cost of parking, we congest traffic, waste fuel, and pollute the air more than we would if we each paid for our own parking. Everyone parks free at everyone else’s expense, and we all enjoy our free parking, but our cars are choking our cities.”


The environmental impacts of all this parking go way beyond paving paradise. The impervious surfaces of parking lots accumulate pollutants, according to Bernie Engel, a professor of agricultural engineering at Purdue. Along with dust and dirt, heavy metals in the air like mercury, copper and lead settle onto the lots’ surfaces in a process called dry deposition. These particles come from all kinds of diffuse sources, such as industry smokestacks, automobiles and even home gas water heaters.

“If they were naturally settling on a tree or grass, they would wash off those and into the soil, and the soil would hold them in place, so they wouldn’t get into the local stream, lake or river,” Engel says.

But when the same substances settle on parking lots, rain washes them into streams, lakes and rivers. Engel calculates that the Tippecanoe land used for parking creates 1,000 times the heavy-metal runoff that it would if used for agriculture. Because the surface of the lots doesn’t absorb water, it also creates 25 times the water runoff that agricultural land would, which can increase erosion in local waterways.

Parking lots also contribute to the “urban heat island effect.” The steel, concrete and blacktops of buildings, roads and parking lots absorb solar heat during the day, making urban areas typically 2 to 5 degrees hotter than the surrounding countryside. “This is most apparent at nighttime, when the surrounding area is cooler, and the urban area starts radiating all this heat from the urban structures,” explains Dev Niyogi, an assistant professor at Purdue, who is the Indiana state climatologist.

The urban heat island effect can be so dramatic that it changes the weather. One Indianapolis study found that thunderstorms that reach the city often split in two, going around it, and merging again into one storm after the urban area. “The urban heat island is not simply a temperature issue. It could affect our water availability,” says Niyogi.

All right, there’s not much free parking in Singapore (which is a good thing), but whereever there is, you can see people ‘paying’ for it by wasting time and stressing themselves out hovering around the free parking spaces like vultures.

I’ve written about the aforementioned urban heat island effect many, many times on this blog. People say they don’t want to cycle or walk because it’s too hot here. But it would not be so hot here if these same people weren’t driving (and hence creating demand for roads and parking lots, contributing to the urban heat island effect). So as long as these people continue insisting on heat as a reason not to cycle, it’ll get hotter and hotter. And more people will use heat as an excuse to take private motorized transportation. So it goes.

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