Parking Rock Star, Donald Shoup Blasts L.A.’s Parking Policies

Gary Rides Bikes explains how "Cash Out Parking" works.

It’s no secret that Livable Streets advocates are big fans of the theories of Donald Shoup.  The Shoupista that introduced him on Saturday referred to him as "Shoup Dogg," and Streetsblog prefers to sing "Shoup there it is."  These kind of salutations for an Economics professor who dresses the part of the academic activist from his tweed jacket to a t-shirt that reads "All may park, ALL MUST PAY" may seem silly; but his message for Angelenos is not.  Our parking policy doesn’t just make bad economic sense, it’s also playing a major role in holding our city back.  The UCLA professor is considered one of the foremost expert at parking policy, and when it comes to his host city; he doesn’t like what he sees.

But first, a quick overview of the Shoupian theory, made famous by the book "The High Cost of Free Parking."  When cities undercharge for street parking, they encourage people to "cruise for parking" instead of just parking close to where they need to go.  This creates an average increase of a half mile per trip, which rapidly adds up for even a cozy community such as Westwood.  Also, the municipality is missing out on a revenue stream that should be reinvested in the community and become a fund for urban renewal.  A local example of a city getting it right is the revival that South Paadena has seen in recent decades because of an intelligent use of their parking resources.

So what is Los Angeles getting wrong?  After all, didn’t then City Council Transportation Committee Chair Wendy Greuel name-drop Donald Shoup every chance she had when the city raised it’s parking rates and increased meter hours last year?

3_24_10_shoup.jpgParking rock stars don’t do their own tech support.

First, Los Angeles almost never charges an appropriate rate for street parking.  Shoup notes that it’s not uncommon to see a street with full meters and no place for a new driver to park their car, and then walk a block to see empty meters.  The basics of supply and demand will tell you that one street is charging too much for meters and another not enough.  Shoupian parking theories are a lot more complicated than "let’s raise rates," and the city’s clumsy handling of last year’s raises certainly didn’t qualify.

Second, the city used its revenue to partially plug a hole in the general fund, and gave none of it back to the local community.  These are the basics of Shoupian policy, that meters must be priced appropriately and repeatedly, and that the money has to go back to the community.

So how can the city fix this mess?  The first thing is that the City Council shouldn’t be passing meter rates for every street.  Instead they should be passing a goal for metered parking that reads something like, "by xxx every block in the city should average nearly 87% occupancy for its metered spaces."  This would allow for the LADOT to adjust rates appropriately for every metered block in the city until the city is maximizing its revenue and use of its spaces.  Similarly, the Council should pass a resolution that a certain percentage of the parking revenues are returned to communities from which they come.

That leads us to our third problem, the city is still reliant on the ground-breaking technology of the 1930’s, the parking meter.  Yes, there are some smart spaces available, but not enough of them.  Using electronic machines would allow LADOT to adjust the parking rates so that it costs more to park at peak hours than non-peak.  "Congestion parking" is needed to insure the maximum usage of spaces.  "How many other payment systems have remained the same since 1935?" Shoup rhetorically asked?  There was no need for anyone to hazard a guess.

Fourth, the city doesn’t make good use of its neighborhood parking programs.  While as a resident of certain areas of the city I can buy a permit to park on my local street, everyone else either gets a ticket or can only be there for certain hours; a non-resident working in the same area cannot.  Thus, in many places local streets are deserted in the middle of the day and laborers are crammed into parking lots that aren’t really necessary.  Charge those people for non-resident passes, and return the money to the community, and you eliminate a need for off-street lots and create a new revenue stream for the community.  As Shoup himself noted, "Nobody wants a lot of freeloaders parking in their neighborhoods."

But perhaps most damningly, Los Angeles doesn’t just encourage developers to provide parking; it requires them to do so.  Have you ever seen an overhead shot of Downtown Los Angeles?  Dang!  That’s a lot of parking!

Before the question and answer portion of the program, Shoup’s students made a brief pitch for "cash out parking" in light of the changes in state law.  Streetsblog has long been a fan of this program, and I encourage you to read more about it, or just listen to Gary’s interview above.

  • Charging for parking is a politically tough decision to make, so it’s no wonder that Shoup is batting .000 on his attempts to change this public policy.

    I am more hopeful about allowing developers to avoid paying for parking construction using a bike parking swap (swapping out car parking for bike parking)

    Here in L.A., we allow such a swap but only for large commercial or manufacturing properties, and only allow 2% of required car parking to be swapped with bike parking. It would make infill developers a lot of money (or allow them to build smaller scale projects) if we allowed small commercial, residential, or mixed use properties to swap out some (or all?) of their car parking for covered bike parking.

    The code that authorizes the aforementioned swap is LA Municipal Code, Sections 12.21-A.4(c) and 12.21-A.16. It would be great if that code were amended to allow smaller properties to take part and to allow a larger share of car parking to be replaced with bike parking.

    This would side-step the political problem of raising parking rates, and would send money and support (from developers) to politicians in support of such a code change.

  • Not sure how you calculate .000 Mr Bray-Ali… Shoup-ish and Shoup-inspired parking meter cost increases have been adopted by L.A., Pasadena, Santa Monica, San Francisco, New York… and various other cities. His state parking cash-out ordinance was adopted by the state of California and was strengthened last year. None of these entities have gone far enough, in my opinion, but it takes some time and political will to make culture change in a society that expects free parking.

    I completely agree with your comment on swapping car parking for bike parking, but I urge you to give Shoup his due. He has raised a great deal of awareness on the hidden and overlooked ways that parking affects our cities – and I think that this awareness is leading to positive changes in the way we approach parking issues.

  • Gary, I think your story about starting cash-out at your work made Shoup’s day!

    @ Josef and Joe: The reason we wanted to host a workshop on this topic at the Streetsummit is related to what you two are writing about. Parking reform policies don’t really have political champions. So no matter how much sense they make, its been really slow going getting governments to adopt them. We approached Shoup about the event with the argument that bicycling and walking advocates can become natural allies for strengthening CA’s cash-out law and for fighting the beast that is free parking.

    The Cash-out law was enacted in 1992, and it made pretty much no waves for years after. No one really opposed it, but no one supported it, either. As bicyclists and other car-free and car-lite people grow in number, I hope we start to build a constituency for cash out and other related reforms.

    @ Josef Why not go one better and lobby for removal of the minimum parking requirements altogether?

  • Oh I’m sorry guys, I thought I was quoting Shoup himself! I realize that I was “quoting” a talk I’ve watched online years ago from Portland State University. In the speech (at the time it was recorded, like in 2003 or 2004) he made some crack at his “batting average”. You’re totally right Joe, he has had an impact.

  • All that being said, I wouldn’t consider L.A.’s parking rate hikes an example of Shoupian theory at work. When pols grab part of the theory and warp it to suit their argument, I’m not all that impressed. Shoup’s parking theories are a lot more complex than “raise rates.” At his presentation he showed examples of where the city is clearly over-charging for parking.

  • Parking cash out is a great idea. Why not give people the freedom to take cash instead of a parking space? It increases choice and reduces the need for parking.

    Removing minimum off street parking requirements is a great idea. It should be legal to build a building without parking. If a developer thinks that can work, I say great. Why we would want to force more parking than is absolutely “necessary” on a neighborhood in an era of increasing environmental concern is beyond my comprehension.

    Charging a price that keeps 15% of on street parking spaces open (even if that price is zero) is a great idea. Why make people cruise around in dense neighborhoods when you could make money by saving them time, reduce traffic and send the badly needed funds back to the neighborhood?

    In short, Shoup is chock full of great ideas.

  • @Damien – I agree – the city of L.A. parking pricing is definitely not a Shoup-ian ideal. I’ll explain why I included it in my list above.

    When budget crunches hit the fan (was it only a year ago? or two?), the city of L.A. did raise curb parking prices after not doing that for something like 30? years… and when many constituents cried foul, they waffled and it looked like they might undo their good work, but ultimately stuck behind the rate increase. I suspect that neither of these (not the increase nor the fortitude to keep it) would have happened without the theoretical underpinnings that Shoup has developed and articulated for many years.

    It’s Shoup-lite (or perhaps Shoup-inchoate) but I think it’s a small step forward that we can give Shoup credit for.

    @Herbie – You’ve hit the core of the issue. There’s no group today that’s really doing the campaign work needed on this issue. There’s no group that owns the issue. That’s needed if we are to build a coalition of constituencies that would support change on it. I think that there are a dozen really good hooks that could use attention: eliminating or tranforming parking minimums (a la @Umberto/Josef above), parking cash-out (and other employer-based programs), Transit-Oriented-Development zoning, design standards, smart metering, Metro parking lot metering (they’re voting on fare increase stuff today… I was thinking of going and bringing this up, but too busy), etc. I think that there’s a lot of educational work to do – just to get the general public somewhat aware of parking as an environmental issue. We’re thinking that Livable Los Angeles ( ) will take on some of this at some point… but we’re all busy folks, so it’s slow getting off the ground.

  • Folks that are supporters of Don Shoup are strongly encouraged to join the Shoupistas on Facebook. Thanks!

  • Shoupian

    I love the idea of government charging “market rates” for its services. Eliminate income tax, sales tax, property tax, gasoline tax, vehicle licensing fees, and so on, and have them get by on what the market will bear for things like streets and curbside parking spaces.

    A transition to market pricing, rather than coercive public funding, will allow us to opt in or opt out of the government revenue system, and put the public and private sector on equal footing. Can’t happen too soon, is what I say.

  • Anonymous

    it would be awful to get rid of the gasoline tax or in any way make gasoline any cheaper than it already is. I would love to see it go to $10 per gallon! We would not be seing people drive huge vehicles, many more people would demand AND USE public transit, more people biking, more people walking–it would be great!



Donald Shoup, an Appreciation

On Tuesday, the news came that after 41 years of teaching at UCLA, Donald Shoup, distinguished professor of urban planning, will retire. For all of us who have had our paths in life profoundly influenced by his research, writing, and teaching on parking and transportation, it’s a good time to reflect. I never got to […]