Free parking isn’t free

America’s obsession with automobiles is not only creating gridlock and ruining the quality of our air, but it’s eating up our land and sending real estate costs upward. Because once we drive our cars off the crowded highways, we assume it’s our constitutional right to find “free parking.”

For decades, city planners and zoning regulations have shared with Detroit in an unspoken conspiracy to deliver on that dream. Consider the following:

According to the industry standard-setting Institute of Transportation Engineers, there are 266 types of businesses which should be zoned to require a minimum amount of parking. Quoting from the ITE “bible,” religious convents must have one parking space for every 10 nuns in residence. Hello? The residents aren’t going anywhere! Why do they need parking? Shouldn’t the convents be allowed to find better use for their land?

Or consider hotels. Why are parking regulations based on requiring enough parking for the few nights each year when the hotel is sold out, rather than the majority of nights when occupancy is 50% or less? Would we require a movie theater to require parking for an every-seat-filled blockbuster when its more typical offerings fill far fewer seats?

Just drive up Route 1 and see for yourself. Due to zoning regulations, many shopping malls devote 60% of their land to parking and only 40% to buildings. Imagine what that does to the cost of what they sell.

Desperate to attract folks back to their decaying downtowns, some cities are putting more land into parking than to all other land uses combined. A Buffalo, N.Y., City Council member commented a few years ago, “There will be lots of places to park. There just won’t be a whole lot to do there.”

In fact, the cities that have done the best jobs of economic revitalization aren’t the ones that provided the most parking … they’re the ones that provided the least. The vitality of towns and cities requires people … walking the streets, going into shops and interacting … not scurrying from car to shop to car to home.

In his new book The High Cost of Free Parking, UCLA’s Donald Shoup recounts the following tale of two cities:

Both San Francisco and LA opened new concert halls in recent years. The one in LA included a $10-million, six-story parking garage for 2,100 cars. In San Francisco there was no parking built … saving the developers millions. After each concert, the LA crowd heads for their cars and drives away. But in San Francisco, patrons leave the hall, walk the streets and spend money in local restaurants, bars and bookstores. Guess which city has benefited most from its new arts center?

Why are we slaves to zoning rules that assume all humans come with four tires rather than two legs? Why do we waste precious land on often-empty parking spots instead of badly needed affordable housing?

Clearly, our transportation planners need to work much more closely with economic developers to rethink what it is that we really need in our cities and towns.

Jim Cameron has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is vice chairman of the CT Metro-North/Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at or For a full collection of Talking Transportation columns, visit