Misunderstanding of Shoupian Theory Leads to Uninformed Attacks

Donald Shoup speaks at Buffalo University on January 10.  Photo: Bettybarcode/Flickr
Donald Shoup speaks at Buffalo University on January 10. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/bettybarcode/4316674000/##Bettybarcode/Flickr##

Memo to the City of Los Angeles: stop trying to ruin Donald Shoup for the rest of us.

Back in 2008 and early 2009, city officials claimed to be following the teachings of the UCLA professor and Parking Rock Star/Guru when it announced increases in parking meter fees from throughout the city.  This has led to a misunderstanding of Shoup’s teachings throughout the Southland.  Instead of a complex urban theory where funds raised from increased revenues spur redevelopment and lead to a reduction in local vehicle miles traveled, L.A.’s officials recognized Shoup’s theory as “charge more for parking.”

This fallacy, that the City of Los Angeles is somehow following Shoup’s guidelines for parking and urban planning was on display in an otherwise sparkling profile of Shoup in this Saturday’s Los Angeles Times.

Cities are starting to listen. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Redwood City, Glendale, Ventura, Portland, Ore., and the District of Columbia are among those implementing or contemplating changes to hew more closely to Shoup’s vision.

But Los Angeles isn’t really following the concepts outlined in Shoup’s 2005 tome “The High Cost of Free Parking,” they’re just raising rates.  At the 2010 StreetSummit, Shoup himself distanced himself from L.A.’s parking schemes and even argued that there are many places where metered  parking fees are too high.

In the picture at the top of the article, we can see Shoup’s three top concepts for parking reform, let’s see how the city is doing.

1. Charge the right price for curb parking. The lowest price that will leave one or two vacant spaces on each block – performance based pricing.

According to Shoup himself, the city isn’t doing a very good job of this.  After watching a Shoup presentation last March, I wrote:

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.

In other words, the city isn’t meeting the grade.

2. Return the meter revenue to the neighborhood that generated it.

Nope, the city uses meter money to plug a hole in the general fund.

3. Reduce or remove off peak parking requirements.

There is almost no inertia to reduce parking requirements for development.  Just look at the enormous parking garages that seem to spring up next to every Transit Oriented Develop highlighted by Metro.

Unfortunately, this misunderstanding of Shoup’s theory leads to emotional attacks that aren’t reality based.  And when there’s an opportunity for someone to make a research-free attack on someone arguing that drivers should pay their fare share of the public’s cost for their transportation decisions, City Watch columnist Charles Tarlow will be there.

Back in the spring of 2008, Tarlow went on a one person crusade against Congestion Pricing on Los Angeles’ freeways.  Tarlow didn’t let the reality that where congestion pricing has been tried it has won the approval of all economic classes in the region stop him from arguing that charging drivers for congestion free trips is a scam to benefit the rich.

Today, Tarlow argues against Shoupian theory because its asking drivers to sometimes pay more to temporarily store their private property on public streets.  Tarlow doesn’t interrupt his rant to talk about the public benefits of true Shoupian theory beyond the benefit for drivers of having more access to meters.  Instead, following the lead of the Times’ and politicians such as then Transportation Committee Chair Wendy Greuel, he boils down the entire “Cost of Free Parking” to:

Sadly, parking is a serious problem in our city  and “Shoupdog” is only offering an exclusionary solution to our very public problem.  Raising the price of parking reserves that public resource for those who can afford it and takes parking away from everybody else.

Who would do such a thing?

As with his rants against congestion pricing, Tarlow is wrapping his argument in class warfare and claiming the mantle of supporting the car-owning poor.  As with congestion pricing, actual poor people would benefit most from Shoupian theory in a couple of ways.

The most obvious way is that a city that charges an appropriate rate for on-street parking and reinvests that money in the community will most likely have a thriving transit system.   For example, Boulder, Colorado pays for its award winning rapid bus system with parking meter fees (amongst other things).   Working poor in Boulder have a lot more transportation options than they would if Boulder embraced the Tarlow theory that car ownership is something that should be encouraged at the expense of everything else for people of all economic incomes.

Secondly, by eliminating parking requirements for new development, the cost of parking can be removed from the cost of renting or owning improved housing.  In other words, people who can’t afford a car or don’t want to drive one won’t be paying for a parking space they don’t want.

  • Thank God for you, Damien. That Tarlow article had me doing “breathe in, breathe out” exercises all day to calm my anger.

    I feel angry because minimum parking requirements are one of the biggest barriers to affordable housing. I’ve personally been hurt by them. In my last apartment, my unit came with 2 indoor spaces, neither of which I or my roommate needed. Does Tarlow have any idea how much multi-level parking garages cost to build? The cost of a space, amortized over 25 years or so, can be several hundred dollars.

    In other words, my rent could have been several hundred dollars cheaper if I didn’t have to pay for parking I didn’t need.

    I was poor when I lived there. I could have used that money. I was car free by necessity because I couldn’t afford new tires. This is how I became a bicyclist. Does Tarlow think it is good for the poor to be forced to pay for parking structures in new apartments? Cause that’s what happens to thousands of people in Los Angeles under the current system, and what Shoup proposes is to eliminate these requirements and give developers the option to build affordable housing for low-income people who don’t own cars.

    The key point Tarlow misses is that whether drivers pay it or not, parking always has a COST. That’s why Shoup’s book is called “The High Cost of Free Parking.” Bundling that cost into other goods and services – like housing, like the cost of groceries at supermarkets – hurts everyone. And it especially cheats the carless poor.

    I also feel angry that Tarlow acts like drivers in SF are so oppressed by the lack of parking in that city. Hello! SF has given drivers MANY other options. They can bike on the city’s new infrastructure, they can take the BART or the Muni, or they can walk. Heck, maybe since there is more housing in SF without parking bundled in, they can afford to relocate so that their commutes are short enough that they can bike and walk. The alternative is Los Angeles, where parking spreads the whole city apart from itself and makes all trips longer. Poor people who want to commute from suburb to suburb would be chumps not to take advantage of the vast swaths of valuable land that have been donated to the automobile by the loving people of Southern California. And indeed, many poor people in LA County are breaking their banks to pay for their cars, burning up to 50% of their income. With Shoupian reform like parking cash-out, poor people would have the option to take cash payments in lieu of parking spaces at their jobs. They could choose cheaper housing that didn’t have parking.

    And gosh, finally, I feel angry that Tarlow seems to have no understanding of transportation behavior. He thinks that if we build transit “they will come”?! Damn, this is just empirically wrong. Do some research, Tarlow. Actually, in New York City, the place with the best transportation system in the US, most people who have free parking at their destination drive. Free parking is enormously valuable and makes driving a WHOLE lot more attractive.

    City Watch should be embarrassed that they published this factless rant.

  • @Herbie — yes, yes, and yes. I particularly agree that:


    Detractors like Tarlow always fail to acknowledge the way the entire (sub)urban landscape were built to favor the car … which they then treat as the state of nature, rather than a conscious choice with a wide array of +/- implications. If you assume that cars are the only and best way to get around, Tarlow makes plenty of sense!

  • HTMLfail–I meant to quote you in the middle there, but I guess I actually coded for deletion. Excellent.

    The quote I wanted to highlight is as follows:

    Poor people who want to commute from suburb to suburb would be chumps not to take advantage of the vast swaths of valuable land that have been donated to the automobile by the loving people of Southern California.

  • LA MapNerd

    The other mistake people commonly make when discussing Shoup is that many people (including many of his supporters) mistake him for an anti-car zealot, whose goal is to “get people out of their cars.”

    He’s nothing of the sort. His primary emphasis seems to be on making commercial districts and local businesses more profitable and successful, by making business districts less congested, more accessible, and more attractive.

    Correctly pricing curbside parking makes it available to customers seeking short-term parking by pricing it high enough to encourage employees and other long-term parking users to seek cheaper and less restrictive off-street parking lots; while still pricing it low enough to avoid driving away the short-term users looking to spend money.

    In his much-discussed experiment in Ventura, meters with fairly inexpensive rates were added to formerly-free curbside parking, but the city continued to provide free off-street lots.

    That shifted employee and other long-term parking to the off-street lots, made curbside parking available to short-term users who just wanted to dash in and buy something at one or two stores, reduced congestion by eliminating the practice of repeatedly looping around the block looking for scarce free curbside parking, and provided a revenue stream to the business district to clean up and improve the streetscape.

    All of these things make a business district more attractive to shoppers – most of whom arrive by car, while still reducing congestion.

    He’s not urging cities to raise parking prices and eliminate free parking. He’s urging them to price parking according to market demand (which, in some cases may mean lowering curbside rates that have been set too high), and to eliminate onerous on-site parking requirements for individual businesses that discourage development and re-use – while nevertheless making adequate collective off-street parking – with lower prices and fewer time restrictions – available, so as to pull long-term parking away from the curbside spaces.

    A lot of anti-car zealots want to raise parking rates far beyond market prices, and eliminate as much parking as possible, in the hopes that making parking sufficiently difficult and expensive will force people to “get out of their cars” and take transit instead (and to suitably punish those who resist).

    In LA, though, that’s a recipe for economic disaster. The inadequacy of the transit systems – both now and in the foreseeable future, even should the hoped-for 30/10 plan come to pass – and the plethora of municipal jurisdictions mean that most car-driving customers will simply go somewhere else – some place less interested in punishing them for driving – to do their shopping.

    And that’s not what Shoup wants at all. Not as far as I can tell.

    He wants businesses to succeed, not fail. His parking formulas are designed to attract and better accommodate more drivers, not fewer.

    He’s not trying to get people out of their cars; he’s trying to get them into the stores.

  • I am an anti-car zealot and I resent LA Map Nerds injection of reason into this discussion.

  • Maybe Tarlow should read about how toll lanes can save lives, according to the latest research:


    I bet proper parking prices could save lives, too. If, say, someone has a stroke in their car and needs to pull over for help, how long will it take them to find a space with overcrowded curb parking? How long will it take them with prices ala Shoup?

  • Maui

    Do any of you have friends? You all sound like the typical marxist “I am SO enlightened, and therefore will tell you how to live” pains in the a** that results in the rest of the country hating California. Good luck with that.

  • Rare are the times when I’ve heard “marxist” shouted at folks debating how to implement free market pricing.


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