Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Five car parking myths: Why we need to get smarter about parking

Dean Cracknell is the author of this post. He is a Freo devotee interested in creating diverse places for people. He is a guest contributor to The Fremantle Doctor blog. Dean can be followed on Twitter by checking out: @city_pragmatist

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 was a landmark moment in the civil rights movement and was based around the principles of fairness and equality.

I have also had a dream ... that one day, we can provide free pizza AND free beer to all citizens regardless of their race, gender, beliefs or religion. Not quite Martin Luther King I admit, but wouldn’t it be nice? Free pizza and free beer!

But, in the cold light of morning, I know this dream could never happen in real life. For one thing, we would probably run out of pizza and beer given there is usually huge demand for something that is given away free. And who would end up paying for it all? As the dismal economists take perverse pleasure in telling us, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’. Someone always has to pay the price. It is also true that some people don’t actually like pizza and beer. Would it be fair to provide free stuff for some while others miss out?

As weird as it may seem, I am going to argue that there are some parallels with the dream of handing out free pizza and beer and the reality of providing free car parking in our cities. So, let’s get down to the dirty business of busting five common car parking myths.

Myth 1 – Free Parking is Really Free

Parking is never free. Think about it. The “free” car parking space where your car now stands idle has been constructed and paid for by someone, usually a developer or a local government. The major cost is the land used for car parking, but there are also the construction costs of the parking bay, plus the vehicle manoeuvring areas, signage, ongoing maintenance costs and even the often pathetic attempt made at landscaping.
Guess who pays the price? We all do.

The costs of providing car parking are passed on to us by developers and are responsible for inflating house prices and the costs for everyday goods and services. Even a loaf of bread will include a small cost for providing the “free” shopping centre car parking. Sure, but can’t governments pay for parking? Yes, they do. But who funds governments? Ratepayers and taxpayers. So we all pay higher rates or taxes to provide “free” car parking or we get reduced services as money is funnelled into providing “free” car parking.

The worst thing about this situation is that people who don’t drive subsidise “free” car parking for those that do drive. The prices at the shop or house prices are the same whether you drive or not. Likewise, rates and taxes are also the same whether you drive or not. This is unfair as well as being unsustainable, given the environmental, economic and social costs associated with driving. What we actually have is a tax on non-drivers (the people who don’t like pizza or beer) to subsidise car drivers (the pizza and beer lovers). Some of us get a pretty good deal as it currently stands.

Parking guru Donald Shoup explains the situation well in his book The High Cost of Free Parking. Shoup summarises how “free” parking distorts the whole economy:

“When we shop in a store, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly because its cost is included in the prices of merchandise, meals, and theater tickets. We unknowingly support our cars with almost every commercial transaction we make because a small share of the money changing hands pays for parking. Residents pay for parking through higher prices for housing. Businesses pay for parking through higher rents for their premises. Shoppers pay for parking through higher prices for everything they buy. We don’t pay for parking in our role as motorists, but in all our other roles—as consumers, investors, workers, residents, and taxpayers—we pay a high price. Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for ‘free’ parking.”

Parking is never free - the costs are just cleverly hidden.

Myth 2 – Car Parks Are Boring and Ugly

Most car parks are boring and ugly. But they don’t have to be. The main missing ingredient I reckon is a bit of love. The car park pictured below in Miami is amazing and just shows what is possible with a bit of care and attention.

This carpark in Miami is pretty cool via
Car parks generally have their own colour scheme – an uninspiring shade of prison grey concrete. Adding some colour could produce remarkable results though. How about this one?
Amazing what a splash of colour could do to some of our carparks via
The Condor Carpark in Perth has created a kickass gallery of street art.

Interesting street art humanises carparks via
This myth has some truth - car parks are generally ugly, but they can and should be places of colour and imagination.

Myth 3 – Car Parks Are Only For Cars

Artrage’s ‘Rooftop Movies’ in Northbridge was a unique experience. They hired the entire upper floor of the Roe Street Carpark in Northbridge and attracted huge audiences hungry for something different. Hundreds of deckchairs were placed in front a big screen showing cult movie favourites.

The setup also included palm trees, astroturf, a bar and lights. Some of the pics are below:

Activating the roof of a carpark...cool idea via
This carpark is buzzing! via
Communities are also reclaiming parking spaces for themselves. The photo below is from Berlin:
A reclaimed carpark being used for a bit of fun via
Car parks don’t have to be reserved exclusively for cars. We need to re-imagine the way car parks are used, particularly when they are empty. 

Myth 4 – We Need More Car Parking

We often hear the simplistic cry that “we need more car parking”. More car parking, it is assumed, will solve the perceived “parking problems”. Unfortunately, it is not that easy in real life. Providing more car parking only encourages more people to drive and reduces the incentive to walk, ride or use public transport. Pretty soon, the extra car parking capacity is full at peak times and empty at quiet times, only serving to make the area look ugly and lifeless. It is also a very expensive option given that parking is never free.

A better approach is to think smarter and better manage the car parking we already have. Parking professional Todd Litman says that:

“The real problem is not inadequate supply, it is inefficient management.
A cost-effective, integrated parking management program can often reduce parking requirements by 20-40%, while improving user convenience and helping to achieve other planning objectives, such as supporting more compact development, encouraging use of alternative modes of transportation, and increasing development affordability.”

For example, one simple idea is to provide better information to motorists on where car parking is available in real time.

Information signs help with managing parking more efficiently
Some cities are now even providing less car parking, and attracting more people as a result. Cities like San Francisco, New York, London and even Los Angeles are encouraging new parklets on land previously reserved for car parking.

An example of a San Francisco parklet via
Freo has its very own parklet at Moore Moore cafe in Henry Street:

Freo's very own parklet at Moore & Moore Cafe
Car parking is important, but better management of parking and sometimes even providing less parking may be a way to attract more people and revitalise our town centres.

Myth 5 – We Know How Much Parking Is Needed

Parking is very important to the way our cities work. Most people assume that the bureaucrats have a very good idea of how much parking is needed for each new development or land use.

Unfortunately, this is not true.

In fact, there has never been a detailed parking study conducted across metropolitan Perth. Instead we base our car parking standards on New South Wales standards from 2002, which in turn are based on parking surveys from 1994 conducted in areas where new residential subdivisions were being built. Public transport accessibility in such areas was/is often limited. These studies have little relevance to parking in Perth’s town centres in 2012.

Donald Shoup compares city planners to early astronomers, who came up with misleading but convincing models of planetary orbit. By providing precise parking requirements, city planners give the impression that they can accurately forecast parking demand before a building’s construction. But Shoup says planners and engineers relentlessly repeat the mistakes of other planners and engineers in setting parking regulations. It’s like a giant merry-go-round of dodgy assumptions.

In short, we don’t know how much parking is needed because there have never been proper studies conducted for the local context. We are just guessing.

Cities need to be designed for people first, then cars I reckon. We need to get smarter about car parking.


  1. Simple solution: Get rid of cars.

  2. This is the sort of article that should be published in the Herald, given that there's always lots of people writing letters to the editor whinging about the lack of free parking in Fremantle.

  3. Hey Paula,

    These ideas are free (unlike "free" parking), so spread the word. We need to start thinking more about these kind of issues if we want liveable, interesting and sustainable cities.

    I don't think it is realistic to get rid of cars. But we need to design cities for people like we did for thousands of years up until the last 60 years.

  4. Fantastic article Dean. Very relevant points. I liked the analogy of free pizza & beer. I like pizza but hate beer(!)so really enjoyed the comparison for non-drivers paying for drivers. So true.

  5. I was looking for the posts related to how much does it cost to ship a car when i come across this post. It elaborates real myths about car parking and also put light on amazing ideas to make car parking more fascinating.