Vox/Mobility Lab video: The high cost of free parking


When Steve Jobs pitched Apple’s new California campus – which opened earlier this year – he wanted to turn parking lots into green landscapes. But the city of Cupertino demanded 11,000 parking spots, which put a wrench in that part of Jobs’ vision.

Cupertino’s parking requirements are not unique. It’s estimated that, in America, there are eight parking spots for every car, covering up to 30 percent of our cities, and collectively taking up about as much space as the state of West Virginia.

The more parking we have, the more encouraged we are to drive and to shape our urban landscapes based on that parking.

This story and stats are part of a new video on the price of parking and how we have historically done it all wrong in this country. It’s produced by Mobility Lab, the Chilton Media Group, and Vox, released today as part of Vox’s entertaining and educational video series.

In old photos of curbside parking spaces at the dawn of the automobile era, one can see that they were always packed full, and pricing parking wasn’t even an issue yet because parking meters weren’t invented until 1935.

UCLA’s Donald Shoup

UCLA professor and parking guru Donald Shoup is interviewed in the film, detailing the two big parking inventions that came to dominate how we think about and manage parking.

One was the afore-mentioned parking meter, which manufacturers gave away to cities until the meter revenue could be used to pay back the companies. The other was off-street parking requirements that cities began issuing around the same time. Most parking lots today exist because of these so-called “mandatory parking minimums.” Cities began using these requirements to guide development.

Bottom line, says Shoup: “We require our cities to be built with a lot of parking. Off-street parking requirements really spread throughout the United States faster than almost any other urban-planning invention. They arose partly because of the lack of management of on-street parking.”

There are parking requirements for almost all kinds of development, for hospitals (per basinet), golf courses (per holes), swimming pools (per gallons of water), and, even for much-harder-to-figure places like funeral homes (per what?).

Many of the cities we love, like Paris and New York and Amsterdam, don’t have parking requirements. And they wouldn’t look anything like they do now if they did have them.

Other places should take note. Many of the under-used existing parking could be repurposed to much better uses. Shoup makes three recommendations:

  1. Remove off-street parking requirements
  2. Charge the right price for on-street parking, and
  3. To make that pricing politically popular, spend the revenue on public services along the metered streets.


Other Mobility Lab parking resources: