Free parking isn’t really free

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Our obsession with automobiles is not only creating gridlock and ruining the quality of our air, but it’s eating up our real estate and sending land costs upward. Because, once we drive our cars off the crowded highways, we assume it’s our constitutional right to find “free parking.”

Trust me: whether at rail stations or stores, parking comes at a price paid in more than just dollars.

For decades, city planners and zoning regulations have shared with Detro

it in a conspiracy to deliver on that dream. Consider the following:

According to the industry standard-setting Institute of Transportation Engineers, there are 266 kinds of businesses which should be zoned to require a minimum amount of parking. Quoting from the ITE “bible,” religious convents must have one parking space for every ten nuns in residence.

Hello? The residents aren’t going anywhere! Why do they need parking? Couldn’t the convents find better use for their land?

Or consider hotels. Why are parking regulations based on requiring enough parking for the few nights each year when the hotel is sold out, rather that the majority of nights when occupancy is much less? Would we require a movie theater to require parking for an every-seat-filled blockbuster when its more typical offerings fill far fewer seats?

Just drive up the Boston Post Road and see for yourself. Due to zoning regulations, many shopping malls devote 60 percent of their land to parking and only 40 percent to buildings. Imagine what that does to the costs of what they sell.

Desperate to attract folks back to their decaying downtowns, some cities are putting more land into parking than to all other land uses combined. A Buffalo, N.Y., City Council member commented a few years ago: “There will be lots of places to park. There just won’t be a whole lot to do there.”

Last week I drove through downtown New Britain observing empty stores and sidewalks next to a gigantic ten story parking lot. They “built it,” but nobody came.

In fact, the cities that have done the best jobs of economic revitalization aren’t the ones that provided the most parking. They’re the ones that provided the least. The vitality of towns and cities requires people… walking the streets, going into shops and interacting… not scurrying from car to shop to car to home.

In his recent book “The High Cost of Free Parking,” UCLA’s Donald Shoup recounts the following tale of two cities:

Both San Francisco and Los Angeles opened new concert halls a few years back. The one in LA included a $10 million, six story parking garage for 2,100 cars. In San Francisco there was no parking built… saving the developers millions. After each concert, the LA crowd heads for their cars and drives away. But in San Francisco, patrons leave the hall, walk the streets and spend money in local restaurants, bars and bookstores. Guess which city has benefited most from its new arts center?

Why are Connecticut’s towns slaves to antiquated zoning mentalities that assume all humans come with four tires rather than two legs? Why do we waste precious land on often-empty parking spots instead of badly needed affordable housing?

Clearly, our transportation planners need to work much more closely with economic developers and sociologists to rethink what it is that we really need in our cities and towns.

We have become mindless slaves to car-obsessed planners for whom no vista is better than miles of open asphalt, be it highways or parking spaces.

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media.  Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.

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