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Book Review: The High Cost of Free Parking
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Downtown Kirksville
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Downtown Kirksville
By Rachel Ruhlen
Sept. 14, 2013 7:43 p.m.



At 734 pages, The High Cost of Free Parking is not a book I can easily summarize in one short article. So I've decided to focus on a few things as they relate to small, rural towns like Kirksville.

When I read books about bicycling or traffic in general, I often find myself thinking, "That's true for big cities, and probably smaller cities like Columbia, but does it have anything to do with towns like Kirksville?" Is that because no one bikes and walks in small towns, or because small towns are the minority? According to the 2010 Census, about 70% of the US population lives in cities larger than 50,000 people.

Nonetheless, I learned quite a few things from this book that are applicable to small towns.

At first glance, parking might not seem to have much to do with bicycling, outside of the chronic need for bicycle racks, and nothing to do with walking. So why am I interested in parking? In fact, parking lots detract from a city, creating unpleasant areas to walk past and generating congestion. Bicyclists, particularly those on sidewalks, and pedestrians are at increased risk of colliding with a vehicle entering or exiting a parking lot. Indirectly, parking causes crowded parking due to a positive feedback loop known as "build it and they will come", crowded parking causes congestion as drivers cruise looking for parking, and congestion is dangerous to bicyclists and pedestrians because motorists are looking for a parking space instead of watching for hazards.

But I admit that through reading this book, I've gotten interested in the effects of parking that aren't directly related to bicycling and walking.

Underpriced or free curb parking generates crowded parking and traffic congestion as would-be parkers search fruitlessly for a parking space. But that doesn't sound like Kirksville, does it? When have you ever circled the block even once in Kirksville without finding a space? According to Shoup, the ideal pricing for parking results in 85% occupancy at all times. At 85% occupancy, you never have to drive far to find a parking spot. When occupancy drops below 85%, "smart meters" would charge less, and at certain times of the day or night, parking would be free. When occupancy is greater than 85%, "smart meters" would charge more.

I walked through downtown Kirksville on a Thursday at noon, which should be pretty close to downtown's "peak parking". I counted 2 empty spaces on Washington St. and 18 parked cars, or 90% occupancy. I'd say the pricing (it's free) is spot-on for our downtown.

Of course, street parking isn't the only place to park downtown. I used Google maps to capture images of several downtown Kirksville blocks, measured the land area of each block, and measured the land area of the parking lots in each block. I found that 30% of the land area of the Kirksville downtown blocks is parking lots. That's about average, according to Shoup.

But is average too much, too little, or just right? Shoup says that is the wrong question. Let the free market decide how much parking to provide, and price it to achieve 85% occupancy in order to control congestion.

Cities mandate parking requirements in response to complaints from residents about spill-over parking. But there are other ways to control spill-over parking--like charging for parking. For example, residents receive a permit to park on their street, and anyone else must buy a permit. Permits are priced so that street parking is at 85% to control congestion.

It turns out that underpriced and overabundant parking kills businesses. "But wait a minute," you say, "if there's nowhere to park, no one will go shopping there." That turns out to be false! As long as a place is attractive, people will find a way to get there. Ugly parking lots and congestion (caused by people cruising for parking) discourage people from visiting.

Free parking isn't as harmful to towns like Kirksville as it is in places with higher population density, but we could benefit from revising the code pertaining to parking requirements, letting the free market decide how much parking to provide and charging for street parking as needed to control spill-over parking and to prevent congestion.

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