Member only
Episode
207

The True Cost of Parking

Nov 2, 2021
How Stuff Works
-
21
minutes
Transport
City life
20th Century
Weird history
Economics
USA

“Who pays for free parking? Everyone but the motorist” - Professor Donald Shoup

You might only think about the cost of parking when it comes to putting coins into a parking meter. But parking is full of hidden costs that extend far below the surface.

In this episode, we'll take a look at the history of parking, what it really costs, and how it's almost always far too cheap.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The True Cost of Parking.

[00:00:28] Now, it might sound like the most boring subject in the world, and parking isn’t something normally found in lists of most people’s favourite topics, but how we deal with parking, what it really costs and who actually pays for it is fascinating.

[00:00:47] So, in this episode we will learn a bit about the history of how cities have adapted to accommodate private cars, how this has changed over the years, why parking is never actually free, why it is almost always too cheap, despite people thinking it is expensive, and what the future of parking might look like.

[00:01:11] We have a lot to cover in today’s episode, so let’s get right into it.

[00:01:16] Now, for many of the episodes we make, I don’t know a huge amount about the subjects before researching them, and it is a fascinating process of discovery also for me.

[00:01:28] However for today’s episode I would claim to be somewhat of an expert, as I actually spent quite a few years working for a parking technology startup in London. 

[00:01:40] So, it is an area I’m pretty familiar with.

[00:01:44] One person even more familiar with parking than me, though, is a man called Donald Shoup, a Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of a famous book from 2005 called The High Cost of Free Parking. 

[00:02:06] Many of the ideas in today’s episode come directly from Professor Shoup’s famous book, and if you decide that this is an interesting subject you would like to explore further, then this is most certainly the book for you.

[00:02:22] There is a terrible statistic that the average car spends 95% of its life stationary, parked still, doing nothing, and most importantly, taking up space.

[00:02:35] Most people don’t think that this really costs anything. 

[00:02:40] Indeed, if you see a parked car, whether that’s on the street or in a garage, your first reaction probably isn’t “wow, that’s expensive”.

[00:02:51] Perhaps if you are the owner of the car you might be paying to park your car there, but the point that Professor Shoup would make is that in almost every case you won’t be paying enough for parking, and the true cost is hidden from view.

[00:03:08] Now, to get into exactly why this is, and how this has changed, we need to take a trip back to the start of the 20th century.

[00:03:19] Before the mass adoption of private cars, people would simply walk or travel by horse and cart to their destination. 

[00:03:27] Cities tended to be much smaller in terms of land area, people worked closer to where they lived, and it just wasn’t a requirement for most people to travel long distances.

[00:03:42] If you were rich enough to afford your own horse and cart, you would travel to your destination and the horse and cart might wait there for you to finish your business.

[00:03:54] As the horses were replaced by cars, and cars outnumbered horses, urban planners needed to find a way to accommodate these new cars while they weren’t in use.

[00:04:07] Roads were widened, and on the edges designated parking spaces were created, what we would call on-street parking.

[00:04:17] They were, in almost all cases, free. There was no payment required, and anyone could stay as long as they liked. 

[00:04:27] Horses and carriages never needed to pay, so why should the automobiles that replaced them?

[00:04:34] The parking meter, the first paid parking space, was invented in 1935, but by then people had got so accustomed to parking being free that there was an outcry when they first started appearing on US streets.

[00:04:53] They didn’t appear on British streets until 1958, and there was a similar backlash when motorists were suddenly forced to pay to park their cars on the streets, something that they were used to doing for free.

[00:05:09] Alongside paid on-street parking, many city governments started requiring property developers to create off-street parking spaces with every new building, in order to reduce pressure on on-street parking.

[00:05:26] These laws varied greatly from city to city, country to country.

[00:05:31] In the US, for example, the number of parking spaces required might be based on the size of an office building, it might be based on the number of beds in a hospital or number of seats in a restaurant. 

[00:05:47] The result of many of these laws was that property developers were legally required to build a set number of parking spaces based on the type of building.

[00:05:59] Fair enough, you might be thinking. People need to be able to get to these places, and for many people public transportation isn’t an option, so it’s a good thing to make sure that parking spaces are available.

[00:06:14] Hold on to that thought, as we’ll get to some of the alternatives in a minute.

[00:06:20] The result of these policies, in the cities and countries in which they existed, is simply a vast number of parking spaces.

[00:06:30] Now, we’ll mainly be talking about the United States here, but you may recognise that a lot of what we’ll say also applies in your own country.

[00:06:40] In the US it is estimated that there are eight parking spaces for every single car, so that’s over two billion parking spaces.

[00:06:52] A parking space itself is about 17 square metres, but when you consider that you need to leave room for a car to go in and out, and roads into and out of a parking lot, one parking space takes up around 37 metres squared, the size of a small studio apartment.

[00:07:14] And then you need to multiply that by 2 billion, because there are two billion parking spaces in the US. 

[00:07:22] In many cases, city planning laws actually required more space for parking than for the actual building. 

[00:07:30] And the requirements were often quite arbitrary, and far greater than what was really required.

[00:07:39] The result of this was that, in many cities especially across the US, parking was so easy to find at your destination that it would be foolish not to drive. 

[00:07:51] Petrol, or as Americans would say, “gas” was cheap, public transportation was often poor, and parking was free, so of course you were going to drive.

[00:08:04] This caused more cars on the road, which meant more parking spaces needed to be built, and the result was the situation that exists still today in many cities across the world, where driving is still the most convenient option, primarily because it was easy to park wherever you wanted.

[00:08:23] And most importantly, it was free.

[00:08:27] Or was it?

[00:08:28] There’s a saying in English that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, which means “nothing in life is free”.

[00:08:36] And when parking is concerned, the saying rings true, it is certainly correct.

[00:08:43] There are a multitude of hidden costs to parking that most people don’t consider, and that we all pay, even if we don’t have a car.

[00:08:54] Let’s first talk about what it costs to create parking spaces, and then discuss how we pay for it.

[00:09:02] Firstly, you have to physically build a parking space, they aren’t made from nothing. 

[00:09:08] For an on-street parking space in the US it is estimated to cost around $1,750 to build it, and then another $400 to maintain every year.

[00:09:22] Off-street parking spaces are even more expensive, as you have to either dig underground or create entire buildings for them, and the sky's the limit for how expensive they can get.

[00:09:36] It cost $130 million to build the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and then another $110 million to build the parking lot, which was paid for by the Los Angeles local government. 

[00:09:53] There are 2,500 spaces there, so it’s a cost of $44,000 per parking space. 

[00:10:02] Secondly, there’s the cost of the land itself. If a developer wants to build a restaurant and they are required to have 20 parking spaces, they might need to buy a plot of land that is 2 or 3 times as big as the restaurant.

[00:10:18] Similarly, if there’s a building with a garage built underneath it, this space doesn’t magically appear from nowhere. It is taking up the space that could be used for something else - storage, offices, or even more housing.

[00:10:35] Thirdly there’s the cost of leaving that piece of land open, unavailable for development for something more profitable or useful than being a place to store a car.

[00:10:47] House prices can be up to €25,000 per square metre in central London, so by leaving up to 30 square metres available for every parking space, the city is leaving vast amounts of money on the table.

[00:11:03] So, who pays for it, and how?

[00:11:07] Well, all of us, indirectly.

[00:11:10] With the example of the restaurant, the prices are higher than they would be if there was no parking, because the cost of building the parking and the land for the parking have to be recouped somewhere.

[00:11:24] With the example of the building, people who live in the building are paying more, because the housing supply is reduced.

[00:11:31] And overall in a city, the more space that is given up for parking the less space there is available for housing, therefore the price that we all pay, whether we buy or rent, is increased.

[00:11:46] And this is before we have even considered some of the “quality of life” costs that we all pay by encouraging cars to drive into city centres.

[00:11:57] It’s estimated that up to 30% of congestion in congested downtown areas is caused by cars circling looking for a parking space. This applies in city centres, where people are looking for on-street parking, and has become even more of a problem as cities have started to reduce the amount of on-street parking.

[00:12:21] And what price do we put on having walkable cities, what price do we put on having cities with cleaner air, what price do we put on having greener cities where parking spaces have been turned into spaces for humans and nature, not cars.

[00:12:38] The price we pay for it differs, and depends on the value that each one of us places on it personally, but again, it certainly isn’t free.

[00:12:49] So, what can be done?

[00:12:52] Well, let’s talk about some of the ideas that urban planners, in particular Professor Shoup, have suggested, before talking about how this problem can be solved in the medium term.

[00:13:05] The main point that Professor Shoup makes is that parking is simply far too cheap, and if drivers were made to pay the real cost for it, people would drive less and look for alternative modes of transportation. 

[00:13:21] At the moment the cost is subsidised by everyone, meaning we all pay more for almost everything so that people can park conveniently and cheaply.

[00:13:33] Shoup says that there shouldn’t be a fixed number for what the price of parking actually is, there isn’t a dollar or Euro amount for what the “right” cost of parking should be, but that cities should dynamically adjust the cost so that there are always a few on-street parking spots available.

[00:13:55] It should be expensive enough that it is a deterrent, that it discourages people from using their cars to drive into city centres, but should still be available to some drivers.

[00:14:08] Secondly, Shoup says that urban planners should abolish all laws around parking requirements, and the market should decide.

[00:14:17] If a restaurant wants to have a bigger dining space and fewer parking spaces then that should be its decision. This, Shoup proposes, would be a more efficient way of finding the right amount of parking spaces per building. 

[00:14:34] Shoup’s seminal work was published in 2005, and since then much has changed. Indeed, we are closer to a future with autonomous vehicles now, in 2021, than we are to when Shoup’s work was published. It was published 16 years ago, and most estimates have full autonomy arriving in less than 16 years’ time.

[00:15:00] In a world of autonomous vehicles, where you could be dropped off at your destination, the need for parking at your destination is greatly reduced, if not completely eliminated.

[00:15:13] Whether you believe in a future of shared autonomous vehicles, a sort of self-driving taxi situation, or a situation where you can drive yourself to a destination and then you go and tell your car to drive itself to an out of town parking lot to wait for you, the end result is similar: cities no longer need to give up their valuable inner city space to parking spaces.

[00:15:41] It’s hard to find many people, apart from those people making their livelihoods from parking, who would shed too many tears about a world that looked like this.

[00:15:51] When people were angry about being forced to pay for parking, or angry about no longer being able to park conveniently on the street, the frustration wasn’t directly about the parking spaces, it was about an increased inconvenience in their journey.

[00:16:09] If a future of autonomous vehicles allows people to get to where they want with all of the convenience of a personal car that turns up right at their final destination, but with none of the inconvenience or cost–direct or indirect–of finding a parking space, then this must surely be a commendable development.

[00:16:32] And what would this look like for cities?

[00:16:35] Well, as some cities discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were fewer people driving into the centres and less parking required, cities with fewer parked cars can be a beautiful thing.

[00:16:50] For many of us, we were so used to seeing lines of parked cars on the street that we were blind to how a road would look without cars. And suddenly, when a city has the opportunity to test out removing the parking spaces from a street, such as Amsterdam in the Netherlands and even Nottingham in the UK, residents have discovered that their cities suddenly become a lot more pleasant to walk around, there are more cyclists, and the spaces that had previously been reserved for cars for the past century are reclaimed by the people of the city.

[00:17:31] Unfortunately, these cases of parking spaces being reclaimed are still few and far between, and especially populist governments love handing out free parking as a way to please constituents.

[00:17:46] In Valletta, the capital of the small Mediterranean island of Malta and a city that has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1980, the city government has actually got rid of pavements to make way for parking spaces.

[00:18:04] It might seem mad, but instead of getting rid of parking spaces to make room for pedestrians, the exact opposite is happening, and only to please the local car-driving residents and win votes. 

[00:18:20] Even in cities like London, which have ambitious emissions targets and some forward-thinking policies about car use it’s still possible to park your car on-street completely for free if you are a resident and you have an electric car, and even if you have the most polluting car imaginable it only costs £158 a year for the most expensive area of London, so that’s around €185 to store your car on a piece of land that could be worth three quarters of a million Euros.

[00:18:58] It is a huge subsidy for anyone who drives a car, but a subsidy that certainly isn’t free.

[00:19:06] So who pays for it? All of us.

[00:19:10] Residents, tourists, homeowners, renters, absolutely everyone.

[00:19:15] Professor Shoup, in his seminal work, asks a question that is as relevant now as it was back in 2005. 

[00:19:24] He asks, “Who pays for free parking? Everyone but the motorist.”

[00:19:31] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The True Cost of Parking.

[00:19:38] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and whether you are a passionate driver who goes everywhere by car or someone who doesn’t even have a driving licence, I hope it has made you think about parking, and the way in which cities are planned, in a slightly different way.

[00:19:57] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:01] What is the parking situation like in your city? How has it changed over the years? Do you think parking is too expensive, too cheap, or just right?

[00:20:12] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com. You can even ask me how I ended up going from working in a parking technology company to making this podcast...

[00:20:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The True Cost of Parking.

[00:00:28] Now, it might sound like the most boring subject in the world, and parking isn’t something normally found in lists of most people’s favourite topics, but how we deal with parking, what it really costs and who actually pays for it is fascinating.

[00:00:47] So, in this episode we will learn a bit about the history of how cities have adapted to accommodate private cars, how this has changed over the years, why parking is never actually free, why it is almost always too cheap, despite people thinking it is expensive, and what the future of parking might look like.

[00:01:11] We have a lot to cover in today’s episode, so let’s get right into it.

[00:01:16] Now, for many of the episodes we make, I don’t know a huge amount about the subjects before researching them, and it is a fascinating process of discovery also for me.

[00:01:28] However for today’s episode I would claim to be somewhat of an expert, as I actually spent quite a few years working for a parking technology startup in London. 

[00:01:40] So, it is an area I’m pretty familiar with.

[00:01:44] One person even more familiar with parking than me, though, is a man called Donald Shoup, a Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of a famous book from 2005 called The High Cost of Free Parking. 

[00:02:06] Many of the ideas in today’s episode come directly from Professor Shoup’s famous book, and if you decide that this is an interesting subject you would like to explore further, then this is most certainly the book for you.

[00:02:22] There is a terrible statistic that the average car spends 95% of its life stationary, parked still, doing nothing, and most importantly, taking up space.

[00:02:35] Most people don’t think that this really costs anything. 

[00:02:40] Indeed, if you see a parked car, whether that’s on the street or in a garage, your first reaction probably isn’t “wow, that’s expensive”.

[00:02:51] Perhaps if you are the owner of the car you might be paying to park your car there, but the point that Professor Shoup would make is that in almost every case you won’t be paying enough for parking, and the true cost is hidden from view.

[00:03:08] Now, to get into exactly why this is, and how this has changed, we need to take a trip back to the start of the 20th century.

[00:03:19] Before the mass adoption of private cars, people would simply walk or travel by horse and cart to their destination. 

[00:03:27] Cities tended to be much smaller in terms of land area, people worked closer to where they lived, and it just wasn’t a requirement for most people to travel long distances.

[00:03:42] If you were rich enough to afford your own horse and cart, you would travel to your destination and the horse and cart might wait there for you to finish your business.

[00:03:54] As the horses were replaced by cars, and cars outnumbered horses, urban planners needed to find a way to accommodate these new cars while they weren’t in use.

[00:04:07] Roads were widened, and on the edges designated parking spaces were created, what we would call on-street parking.

[00:04:17] They were, in almost all cases, free. There was no payment required, and anyone could stay as long as they liked. 

[00:04:27] Horses and carriages never needed to pay, so why should the automobiles that replaced them?

[00:04:34] The parking meter, the first paid parking space, was invented in 1935, but by then people had got so accustomed to parking being free that there was an outcry when they first started appearing on US streets.

[00:04:53] They didn’t appear on British streets until 1958, and there was a similar backlash when motorists were suddenly forced to pay to park their cars on the streets, something that they were used to doing for free.

[00:05:09] Alongside paid on-street parking, many city governments started requiring property developers to create off-street parking spaces with every new building, in order to reduce pressure on on-street parking.

[00:05:26] These laws varied greatly from city to city, country to country.

[00:05:31] In the US, for example, the number of parking spaces required might be based on the size of an office building, it might be based on the number of beds in a hospital or number of seats in a restaurant. 

[00:05:47] The result of many of these laws was that property developers were legally required to build a set number of parking spaces based on the type of building.

[00:05:59] Fair enough, you might be thinking. People need to be able to get to these places, and for many people public transportation isn’t an option, so it’s a good thing to make sure that parking spaces are available.

[00:06:14] Hold on to that thought, as we’ll get to some of the alternatives in a minute.

[00:06:20] The result of these policies, in the cities and countries in which they existed, is simply a vast number of parking spaces.

[00:06:30] Now, we’ll mainly be talking about the United States here, but you may recognise that a lot of what we’ll say also applies in your own country.

[00:06:40] In the US it is estimated that there are eight parking spaces for every single car, so that’s over two billion parking spaces.

[00:06:52] A parking space itself is about 17 square metres, but when you consider that you need to leave room for a car to go in and out, and roads into and out of a parking lot, one parking space takes up around 37 metres squared, the size of a small studio apartment.

[00:07:14] And then you need to multiply that by 2 billion, because there are two billion parking spaces in the US. 

[00:07:22] In many cases, city planning laws actually required more space for parking than for the actual building. 

[00:07:30] And the requirements were often quite arbitrary, and far greater than what was really required.

[00:07:39] The result of this was that, in many cities especially across the US, parking was so easy to find at your destination that it would be foolish not to drive. 

[00:07:51] Petrol, or as Americans would say, “gas” was cheap, public transportation was often poor, and parking was free, so of course you were going to drive.

[00:08:04] This caused more cars on the road, which meant more parking spaces needed to be built, and the result was the situation that exists still today in many cities across the world, where driving is still the most convenient option, primarily because it was easy to park wherever you wanted.

[00:08:23] And most importantly, it was free.

[00:08:27] Or was it?

[00:08:28] There’s a saying in English that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, which means “nothing in life is free”.

[00:08:36] And when parking is concerned, the saying rings true, it is certainly correct.

[00:08:43] There are a multitude of hidden costs to parking that most people don’t consider, and that we all pay, even if we don’t have a car.

[00:08:54] Let’s first talk about what it costs to create parking spaces, and then discuss how we pay for it.

[00:09:02] Firstly, you have to physically build a parking space, they aren’t made from nothing. 

[00:09:08] For an on-street parking space in the US it is estimated to cost around $1,750 to build it, and then another $400 to maintain every year.

[00:09:22] Off-street parking spaces are even more expensive, as you have to either dig underground or create entire buildings for them, and the sky's the limit for how expensive they can get.

[00:09:36] It cost $130 million to build the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and then another $110 million to build the parking lot, which was paid for by the Los Angeles local government. 

[00:09:53] There are 2,500 spaces there, so it’s a cost of $44,000 per parking space. 

[00:10:02] Secondly, there’s the cost of the land itself. If a developer wants to build a restaurant and they are required to have 20 parking spaces, they might need to buy a plot of land that is 2 or 3 times as big as the restaurant.

[00:10:18] Similarly, if there’s a building with a garage built underneath it, this space doesn’t magically appear from nowhere. It is taking up the space that could be used for something else - storage, offices, or even more housing.

[00:10:35] Thirdly there’s the cost of leaving that piece of land open, unavailable for development for something more profitable or useful than being a place to store a car.

[00:10:47] House prices can be up to €25,000 per square metre in central London, so by leaving up to 30 square metres available for every parking space, the city is leaving vast amounts of money on the table.

[00:11:03] So, who pays for it, and how?

[00:11:07] Well, all of us, indirectly.

[00:11:10] With the example of the restaurant, the prices are higher than they would be if there was no parking, because the cost of building the parking and the land for the parking have to be recouped somewhere.

[00:11:24] With the example of the building, people who live in the building are paying more, because the housing supply is reduced.

[00:11:31] And overall in a city, the more space that is given up for parking the less space there is available for housing, therefore the price that we all pay, whether we buy or rent, is increased.

[00:11:46] And this is before we have even considered some of the “quality of life” costs that we all pay by encouraging cars to drive into city centres.

[00:11:57] It’s estimated that up to 30% of congestion in congested downtown areas is caused by cars circling looking for a parking space. This applies in city centres, where people are looking for on-street parking, and has become even more of a problem as cities have started to reduce the amount of on-street parking.

[00:12:21] And what price do we put on having walkable cities, what price do we put on having cities with cleaner air, what price do we put on having greener cities where parking spaces have been turned into spaces for humans and nature, not cars.

[00:12:38] The price we pay for it differs, and depends on the value that each one of us places on it personally, but again, it certainly isn’t free.

[00:12:49] So, what can be done?

[00:12:52] Well, let’s talk about some of the ideas that urban planners, in particular Professor Shoup, have suggested, before talking about how this problem can be solved in the medium term.

[00:13:05] The main point that Professor Shoup makes is that parking is simply far too cheap, and if drivers were made to pay the real cost for it, people would drive less and look for alternative modes of transportation. 

[00:13:21] At the moment the cost is subsidised by everyone, meaning we all pay more for almost everything so that people can park conveniently and cheaply.

[00:13:33] Shoup says that there shouldn’t be a fixed number for what the price of parking actually is, there isn’t a dollar or Euro amount for what the “right” cost of parking should be, but that cities should dynamically adjust the cost so that there are always a few on-street parking spots available.

[00:13:55] It should be expensive enough that it is a deterrent, that it discourages people from using their cars to drive into city centres, but should still be available to some drivers.

[00:14:08] Secondly, Shoup says that urban planners should abolish all laws around parking requirements, and the market should decide.

[00:14:17] If a restaurant wants to have a bigger dining space and fewer parking spaces then that should be its decision. This, Shoup proposes, would be a more efficient way of finding the right amount of parking spaces per building. 

[00:14:34] Shoup’s seminal work was published in 2005, and since then much has changed. Indeed, we are closer to a future with autonomous vehicles now, in 2021, than we are to when Shoup’s work was published. It was published 16 years ago, and most estimates have full autonomy arriving in less than 16 years’ time.

[00:15:00] In a world of autonomous vehicles, where you could be dropped off at your destination, the need for parking at your destination is greatly reduced, if not completely eliminated.

[00:15:13] Whether you believe in a future of shared autonomous vehicles, a sort of self-driving taxi situation, or a situation where you can drive yourself to a destination and then you go and tell your car to drive itself to an out of town parking lot to wait for you, the end result is similar: cities no longer need to give up their valuable inner city space to parking spaces.

[00:15:41] It’s hard to find many people, apart from those people making their livelihoods from parking, who would shed too many tears about a world that looked like this.

[00:15:51] When people were angry about being forced to pay for parking, or angry about no longer being able to park conveniently on the street, the frustration wasn’t directly about the parking spaces, it was about an increased inconvenience in their journey.

[00:16:09] If a future of autonomous vehicles allows people to get to where they want with all of the convenience of a personal car that turns up right at their final destination, but with none of the inconvenience or cost–direct or indirect–of finding a parking space, then this must surely be a commendable development.

[00:16:32] And what would this look like for cities?

[00:16:35] Well, as some cities discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were fewer people driving into the centres and less parking required, cities with fewer parked cars can be a beautiful thing.

[00:16:50] For many of us, we were so used to seeing lines of parked cars on the street that we were blind to how a road would look without cars. And suddenly, when a city has the opportunity to test out removing the parking spaces from a street, such as Amsterdam in the Netherlands and even Nottingham in the UK, residents have discovered that their cities suddenly become a lot more pleasant to walk around, there are more cyclists, and the spaces that had previously been reserved for cars for the past century are reclaimed by the people of the city.

[00:17:31] Unfortunately, these cases of parking spaces being reclaimed are still few and far between, and especially populist governments love handing out free parking as a way to please constituents.

[00:17:46] In Valletta, the capital of the small Mediterranean island of Malta and a city that has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1980, the city government has actually got rid of pavements to make way for parking spaces.

[00:18:04] It might seem mad, but instead of getting rid of parking spaces to make room for pedestrians, the exact opposite is happening, and only to please the local car-driving residents and win votes. 

[00:18:20] Even in cities like London, which have ambitious emissions targets and some forward-thinking policies about car use it’s still possible to park your car on-street completely for free if you are a resident and you have an electric car, and even if you have the most polluting car imaginable it only costs £158 a year for the most expensive area of London, so that’s around €185 to store your car on a piece of land that could be worth three quarters of a million Euros.

[00:18:58] It is a huge subsidy for anyone who drives a car, but a subsidy that certainly isn’t free.

[00:19:06] So who pays for it? All of us.

[00:19:10] Residents, tourists, homeowners, renters, absolutely everyone.

[00:19:15] Professor Shoup, in his seminal work, asks a question that is as relevant now as it was back in 2005. 

[00:19:24] He asks, “Who pays for free parking? Everyone but the motorist.”

[00:19:31] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The True Cost of Parking.

[00:19:38] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and whether you are a passionate driver who goes everywhere by car or someone who doesn’t even have a driving licence, I hope it has made you think about parking, and the way in which cities are planned, in a slightly different way.

[00:19:57] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:01] What is the parking situation like in your city? How has it changed over the years? Do you think parking is too expensive, too cheap, or just right?

[00:20:12] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com. You can even ask me how I ended up going from working in a parking technology company to making this podcast...

[00:20:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The True Cost of Parking.

[00:00:28] Now, it might sound like the most boring subject in the world, and parking isn’t something normally found in lists of most people’s favourite topics, but how we deal with parking, what it really costs and who actually pays for it is fascinating.

[00:00:47] So, in this episode we will learn a bit about the history of how cities have adapted to accommodate private cars, how this has changed over the years, why parking is never actually free, why it is almost always too cheap, despite people thinking it is expensive, and what the future of parking might look like.

[00:01:11] We have a lot to cover in today’s episode, so let’s get right into it.

[00:01:16] Now, for many of the episodes we make, I don’t know a huge amount about the subjects before researching them, and it is a fascinating process of discovery also for me.

[00:01:28] However for today’s episode I would claim to be somewhat of an expert, as I actually spent quite a few years working for a parking technology startup in London. 

[00:01:40] So, it is an area I’m pretty familiar with.

[00:01:44] One person even more familiar with parking than me, though, is a man called Donald Shoup, a Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of a famous book from 2005 called The High Cost of Free Parking. 

[00:02:06] Many of the ideas in today’s episode come directly from Professor Shoup’s famous book, and if you decide that this is an interesting subject you would like to explore further, then this is most certainly the book for you.

[00:02:22] There is a terrible statistic that the average car spends 95% of its life stationary, parked still, doing nothing, and most importantly, taking up space.

[00:02:35] Most people don’t think that this really costs anything. 

[00:02:40] Indeed, if you see a parked car, whether that’s on the street or in a garage, your first reaction probably isn’t “wow, that’s expensive”.

[00:02:51] Perhaps if you are the owner of the car you might be paying to park your car there, but the point that Professor Shoup would make is that in almost every case you won’t be paying enough for parking, and the true cost is hidden from view.

[00:03:08] Now, to get into exactly why this is, and how this has changed, we need to take a trip back to the start of the 20th century.

[00:03:19] Before the mass adoption of private cars, people would simply walk or travel by horse and cart to their destination. 

[00:03:27] Cities tended to be much smaller in terms of land area, people worked closer to where they lived, and it just wasn’t a requirement for most people to travel long distances.

[00:03:42] If you were rich enough to afford your own horse and cart, you would travel to your destination and the horse and cart might wait there for you to finish your business.

[00:03:54] As the horses were replaced by cars, and cars outnumbered horses, urban planners needed to find a way to accommodate these new cars while they weren’t in use.

[00:04:07] Roads were widened, and on the edges designated parking spaces were created, what we would call on-street parking.

[00:04:17] They were, in almost all cases, free. There was no payment required, and anyone could stay as long as they liked. 

[00:04:27] Horses and carriages never needed to pay, so why should the automobiles that replaced them?

[00:04:34] The parking meter, the first paid parking space, was invented in 1935, but by then people had got so accustomed to parking being free that there was an outcry when they first started appearing on US streets.

[00:04:53] They didn’t appear on British streets until 1958, and there was a similar backlash when motorists were suddenly forced to pay to park their cars on the streets, something that they were used to doing for free.

[00:05:09] Alongside paid on-street parking, many city governments started requiring property developers to create off-street parking spaces with every new building, in order to reduce pressure on on-street parking.

[00:05:26] These laws varied greatly from city to city, country to country.

[00:05:31] In the US, for example, the number of parking spaces required might be based on the size of an office building, it might be based on the number of beds in a hospital or number of seats in a restaurant. 

[00:05:47] The result of many of these laws was that property developers were legally required to build a set number of parking spaces based on the type of building.

[00:05:59] Fair enough, you might be thinking. People need to be able to get to these places, and for many people public transportation isn’t an option, so it’s a good thing to make sure that parking spaces are available.

[00:06:14] Hold on to that thought, as we’ll get to some of the alternatives in a minute.

[00:06:20] The result of these policies, in the cities and countries in which they existed, is simply a vast number of parking spaces.

[00:06:30] Now, we’ll mainly be talking about the United States here, but you may recognise that a lot of what we’ll say also applies in your own country.

[00:06:40] In the US it is estimated that there are eight parking spaces for every single car, so that’s over two billion parking spaces.

[00:06:52] A parking space itself is about 17 square metres, but when you consider that you need to leave room for a car to go in and out, and roads into and out of a parking lot, one parking space takes up around 37 metres squared, the size of a small studio apartment.

[00:07:14] And then you need to multiply that by 2 billion, because there are two billion parking spaces in the US. 

[00:07:22] In many cases, city planning laws actually required more space for parking than for the actual building. 

[00:07:30] And the requirements were often quite arbitrary, and far greater than what was really required.

[00:07:39] The result of this was that, in many cities especially across the US, parking was so easy to find at your destination that it would be foolish not to drive. 

[00:07:51] Petrol, or as Americans would say, “gas” was cheap, public transportation was often poor, and parking was free, so of course you were going to drive.

[00:08:04] This caused more cars on the road, which meant more parking spaces needed to be built, and the result was the situation that exists still today in many cities across the world, where driving is still the most convenient option, primarily because it was easy to park wherever you wanted.

[00:08:23] And most importantly, it was free.

[00:08:27] Or was it?

[00:08:28] There’s a saying in English that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, which means “nothing in life is free”.

[00:08:36] And when parking is concerned, the saying rings true, it is certainly correct.

[00:08:43] There are a multitude of hidden costs to parking that most people don’t consider, and that we all pay, even if we don’t have a car.

[00:08:54] Let’s first talk about what it costs to create parking spaces, and then discuss how we pay for it.

[00:09:02] Firstly, you have to physically build a parking space, they aren’t made from nothing. 

[00:09:08] For an on-street parking space in the US it is estimated to cost around $1,750 to build it, and then another $400 to maintain every year.

[00:09:22] Off-street parking spaces are even more expensive, as you have to either dig underground or create entire buildings for them, and the sky's the limit for how expensive they can get.

[00:09:36] It cost $130 million to build the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and then another $110 million to build the parking lot, which was paid for by the Los Angeles local government. 

[00:09:53] There are 2,500 spaces there, so it’s a cost of $44,000 per parking space. 

[00:10:02] Secondly, there’s the cost of the land itself. If a developer wants to build a restaurant and they are required to have 20 parking spaces, they might need to buy a plot of land that is 2 or 3 times as big as the restaurant.

[00:10:18] Similarly, if there’s a building with a garage built underneath it, this space doesn’t magically appear from nowhere. It is taking up the space that could be used for something else - storage, offices, or even more housing.

[00:10:35] Thirdly there’s the cost of leaving that piece of land open, unavailable for development for something more profitable or useful than being a place to store a car.

[00:10:47] House prices can be up to €25,000 per square metre in central London, so by leaving up to 30 square metres available for every parking space, the city is leaving vast amounts of money on the table.

[00:11:03] So, who pays for it, and how?

[00:11:07] Well, all of us, indirectly.

[00:11:10] With the example of the restaurant, the prices are higher than they would be if there was no parking, because the cost of building the parking and the land for the parking have to be recouped somewhere.

[00:11:24] With the example of the building, people who live in the building are paying more, because the housing supply is reduced.

[00:11:31] And overall in a city, the more space that is given up for parking the less space there is available for housing, therefore the price that we all pay, whether we buy or rent, is increased.

[00:11:46] And this is before we have even considered some of the “quality of life” costs that we all pay by encouraging cars to drive into city centres.

[00:11:57] It’s estimated that up to 30% of congestion in congested downtown areas is caused by cars circling looking for a parking space. This applies in city centres, where people are looking for on-street parking, and has become even more of a problem as cities have started to reduce the amount of on-street parking.

[00:12:21] And what price do we put on having walkable cities, what price do we put on having cities with cleaner air, what price do we put on having greener cities where parking spaces have been turned into spaces for humans and nature, not cars.

[00:12:38] The price we pay for it differs, and depends on the value that each one of us places on it personally, but again, it certainly isn’t free.

[00:12:49] So, what can be done?

[00:12:52] Well, let’s talk about some of the ideas that urban planners, in particular Professor Shoup, have suggested, before talking about how this problem can be solved in the medium term.

[00:13:05] The main point that Professor Shoup makes is that parking is simply far too cheap, and if drivers were made to pay the real cost for it, people would drive less and look for alternative modes of transportation. 

[00:13:21] At the moment the cost is subsidised by everyone, meaning we all pay more for almost everything so that people can park conveniently and cheaply.

[00:13:33] Shoup says that there shouldn’t be a fixed number for what the price of parking actually is, there isn’t a dollar or Euro amount for what the “right” cost of parking should be, but that cities should dynamically adjust the cost so that there are always a few on-street parking spots available.

[00:13:55] It should be expensive enough that it is a deterrent, that it discourages people from using their cars to drive into city centres, but should still be available to some drivers.

[00:14:08] Secondly, Shoup says that urban planners should abolish all laws around parking requirements, and the market should decide.

[00:14:17] If a restaurant wants to have a bigger dining space and fewer parking spaces then that should be its decision. This, Shoup proposes, would be a more efficient way of finding the right amount of parking spaces per building. 

[00:14:34] Shoup’s seminal work was published in 2005, and since then much has changed. Indeed, we are closer to a future with autonomous vehicles now, in 2021, than we are to when Shoup’s work was published. It was published 16 years ago, and most estimates have full autonomy arriving in less than 16 years’ time.

[00:15:00] In a world of autonomous vehicles, where you could be dropped off at your destination, the need for parking at your destination is greatly reduced, if not completely eliminated.

[00:15:13] Whether you believe in a future of shared autonomous vehicles, a sort of self-driving taxi situation, or a situation where you can drive yourself to a destination and then you go and tell your car to drive itself to an out of town parking lot to wait for you, the end result is similar: cities no longer need to give up their valuable inner city space to parking spaces.

[00:15:41] It’s hard to find many people, apart from those people making their livelihoods from parking, who would shed too many tears about a world that looked like this.

[00:15:51] When people were angry about being forced to pay for parking, or angry about no longer being able to park conveniently on the street, the frustration wasn’t directly about the parking spaces, it was about an increased inconvenience in their journey.

[00:16:09] If a future of autonomous vehicles allows people to get to where they want with all of the convenience of a personal car that turns up right at their final destination, but with none of the inconvenience or cost–direct or indirect–of finding a parking space, then this must surely be a commendable development.

[00:16:32] And what would this look like for cities?

[00:16:35] Well, as some cities discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were fewer people driving into the centres and less parking required, cities with fewer parked cars can be a beautiful thing.

[00:16:50] For many of us, we were so used to seeing lines of parked cars on the street that we were blind to how a road would look without cars. And suddenly, when a city has the opportunity to test out removing the parking spaces from a street, such as Amsterdam in the Netherlands and even Nottingham in the UK, residents have discovered that their cities suddenly become a lot more pleasant to walk around, there are more cyclists, and the spaces that had previously been reserved for cars for the past century are reclaimed by the people of the city.

[00:17:31] Unfortunately, these cases of parking spaces being reclaimed are still few and far between, and especially populist governments love handing out free parking as a way to please constituents.

[00:17:46] In Valletta, the capital of the small Mediterranean island of Malta and a city that has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1980, the city government has actually got rid of pavements to make way for parking spaces.

[00:18:04] It might seem mad, but instead of getting rid of parking spaces to make room for pedestrians, the exact opposite is happening, and only to please the local car-driving residents and win votes. 

[00:18:20] Even in cities like London, which have ambitious emissions targets and some forward-thinking policies about car use it’s still possible to park your car on-street completely for free if you are a resident and you have an electric car, and even if you have the most polluting car imaginable it only costs £158 a year for the most expensive area of London, so that’s around €185 to store your car on a piece of land that could be worth three quarters of a million Euros.

[00:18:58] It is a huge subsidy for anyone who drives a car, but a subsidy that certainly isn’t free.

[00:19:06] So who pays for it? All of us.

[00:19:10] Residents, tourists, homeowners, renters, absolutely everyone.

[00:19:15] Professor Shoup, in his seminal work, asks a question that is as relevant now as it was back in 2005. 

[00:19:24] He asks, “Who pays for free parking? Everyone but the motorist.”

[00:19:31] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The True Cost of Parking.

[00:19:38] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and whether you are a passionate driver who goes everywhere by car or someone who doesn’t even have a driving licence, I hope it has made you think about parking, and the way in which cities are planned, in a slightly different way.

[00:19:57] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:01] What is the parking situation like in your city? How has it changed over the years? Do you think parking is too expensive, too cheap, or just right?

[00:20:12] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. The place for that is our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com. You can even ask me how I ended up going from working in a parking technology company to making this podcast...

[00:20:28] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:33] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.