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Solimar Research

The Man Who Changed the Way We Think About Parking

William Fulton on
Apr 19, 2015

Back in 2010, when I was Mayor of Ventura, the city installed parking meters downtown for the first time in 40 years. Not for every parking space, of course. The meters covered only 300 or so prime spaces on Main Street and a few popular side streets. Thousands of other downtown spaces – both onstreet and off – remained free.

 The problem we were trying to solve was a pretty typical one: Demand was so high for the prime spaces that people were cruising up and down Main Street, causing a constant traffic jam, in search of a space. The spaces themselves were hogged by merchants and their employees. It was hard to enforce the existing two-hour time limit, and the parkers gamed the system with such familiar tricks as wiping the meter maids' chalk of their tires. Meanwhile, a half-block away, parking lots and a parking garage sat empty.

The initial political blowback from our paid parking system was, to put it mildly, overwhelming. Merchants complained that there was no place for their customers to park. Longtime customers said they would never come downtown again. Even the Tea Party got worked up. They said it was double taxation because the parking spaces had already been paid for with tax money, and they got the notorious Los Angeles radio talk show hosts John & Ken to rail about me for an entire afternoon. (For the record, John and Ken called me a "dumbass".) 

Despite all the blowback, however, one thing was clear: The paid parking system worked. The merchants and employees stopped parking in the prime spaces on Main Street and parked in the off-street lots and garage instead, but there were still plenty of free spots for customers as well. The traffic jam on Main Street vanished. Spots were available on every block, all the time, for drivers willing to lay out a dollar an hour. Some business reimbursed their customers for the parking, and retail sales actually went up. Just about the only people who vanished from downtown were window-shoppers who never bought anything. Over time everybody got used to the new system and decided it was a good thing.

None of this would have happened were it not for the inspiring vision of one man: Don Shoup. 

Since the publication of his book, The High Cost of Free Parking a decade ago, Don Shoup has accomplished something every academic hopes to achieve and almost no one ever does: He has completely reframed an important public policy issue so that everybody thinks about it differently. 

Even policy wonks used to think of a good parking space as a birthright – a free public good that everybody was entitled to. Now, policy wonks – and, increasingly, everyday folks – understand that parking is an expensive commodity to provide in America's increasingly crowded and expensive urban neighborhoods. As with any other commodity, if parking is too plentiful and too cheap, we'll use it inefficiently – and we won't be able to make profitable use of urban land as a result. That's bad for business and it's bad for the quality of urban neighborhoods. Even in my new job running a think tank in Houston, not a day goes by where I don't invoke Don Shoup's name.

The idea that Don Shoup has emerged as one of the most influential urban thinkers in America is nothing short of extraordinary. For almost half a century, he has been a quirky, bearded, bicycling professor of urban planning at UCLA – often regarded as interesting but not always viewed as a heavyweight. When I went to UCLA planning school in the early ‘80s, he was largely dismissed by his colleagues in the program. Instead of talking about large planning concepts, he talked about how people cruised for parking spaces in Westwood. Instead of publishing in academic journals, he published op-ed pieces in the Los Angeles Times. Instead of testing us on big-picture concepts, he administered quirky quizzes.

One of his quiz questions was: "Who said, ‘The difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight, but the difference between a little money and no money at all is enormous'." The answer, of course, was not Milton Friedman or Paul Krugman but Dolly Levi. I was the only student in the class who got the question right – only because I had just gone to see a revival of Hello Dolly! the weekend before. Quirky the question may be, but embedded in the answer is a good lesson about life in an age of income inequality.

Even though I got that question right, I often struggled in Don's class. In fact, my struggles later formed the basis for one of Don's favorite stories -- about a young writer trying to understand how to write like an economist. I won't repeat the story here, but you can watch Don tell it here. The story tells a lot – not so much about me but about how much Don loves a good yarn. 

Which, of course, is one of the reasons why he has been so successful in the last decade. Above all else, Don Shoup is engaging. He tells his stories in a low-key, funny way. And by being so matter-of-fact, he makes his take on parking seem logical – and therefore the traditional view of parking as a free commodity seem like utter nonsense.

The next time you walk down the street in a vibrant urban neighborhood, thank Don Shoup. He's the reason there's always a place to park – for a price – and the reason parking hasn't consumed the entire neighborhood.

Don Shoup is retiring from UCLA and the Shoup Fellowship Fund has been established in his honor. If you donate to the fund by May 30th, Don and Pat Shoup will match your contribution 2:1. (I already donated $1,000.) Just visit Shoupista.com to donate!

 

 

 

 

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