Why Free Parking is a Bad Idea

Professor Donald Shoup of UCLA visited City Hall last week. He was in San Jose to present a lecture titled, “Why free parking is a bad idea.”  The information he shared is based on his book and research.

There are approximately 700 million parking spaces for 230 million cars in this country and 99 percent of cars trips have free parking.  Prof. Shoup showed an aerial picture of the Cisco Systems campus with its empty asphalt parking lots. He felt that these empty parking lots are not a good use of land and that it creates higher-than-needed vehicle miles traveled (VMT). He then continued to share what he thought would be a way to better utilize the land, which was to allow Cisco to build housing on their parking lots and waive all parking requirements.  He felt this would provide housing close to jobs, reduce VMT and bring a more appealing look to the current parking lots.

Another point that Prof. Shoup spoke to was metered street parking. He told the story of Old Town Pasadena and how it was dilapidated. The city of Pasadena started meter parking and put all of the metered parking money collected back into improvements of Old Town. At first there was opposition to metered parking but when people heard that the money would stay local and be earmarked directly to Old Town improvements the community supported the metered parking concept and asked that the City to keep the meters on till midnight and even on Sundays! Over time Old Town Pasadena’s private property owners improved their buildings since the city was investing into those blocks that had metered parking.  It has now become a very successful business district and generates more sales tax then other business districts that have free parking.

His main points are that street parking should be priced to where 85 percent of the spots are occupied but there is still some empty spaces. This allows someone to park quickly on the street but at a higher price for the convenience. The alternative today is we have inexpensive on street parking where people circle the block (cruising) countless times (unnecessary VMT) to try a find that one inexpensive magical parking spot.  He felt the money generated from the parking meters should be spent in those blocks doing sidewalk repair, tree maintenance, pedestrian lighting, under-grounding utility lines, sidewalk cleaning, landscaping etc…

I asked the question, “What about parking meter districts that border residential neighborhoods?” He felt permit parking was one way to make sure cars did not overtake residential areas however that the neighborhood should allow employees to buy a parking permit pass so they could park on residential blocks. His reasoning is that there is ample open parking especially during the day when residents commute to work. The employees would pay a higher price then the residents and the employee would only be able to park on a certain block. All of those funds collected would then be spent on those blocks and spent on things the residents want.  His idea was to let specific blocks choose if they want to allow employee permit parking and receive the benefits.

Since councilmembers typically hear “there is not enough parking” as the main complaint about any development, whether it be residential or commercial, I asked the following question: “What about new developments that want to have lower parking ratios?” He felt that the creation of permit parking areas around adjacent streets was good but more importantly he said the less cars allowed to park at the new development the better because it creates less traffic.

What do you think?
Are these pie-in-the-sky academic theories, or should San Jose curb parking and allow for a different lifestyle choices to emerge?

Finally I hope you will join me for the showing of the film, No Impact Man. The documentary follows a family that tries to live a zero-carbon footprint for a year; no water bottles, no soda cans, no magazines, no TV, no car.  Think you could do it?
When: Monday March 15 at 6:30pm
Where: City Hall Council Chambers
Limited seating please RSVP to [email protected]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fITT6rVPds ” title=“Here is a YouTube link to the trailer.”>Here is a YouTube link to the trailer.


  1. “The city of Pasadena started meter parking and put all of the metered parking money collected back into improvements of Old Town.”

            I don’t believe for one second that this city would use the money for it’s intended purpose.  Not a chance.

    “..he said the less cars allowed to park at the new development the better because it creates less traffic.”

          He is absolutely correct.  It will create less traffic because if people can’t park (to go to Santana Row, downtown or the movies) they just won’t go.

  2. I much prefer the Santana Row model, which explains my infrequent ventures to Downtown San Jose.

    And JJ is spot on about our city not spending incremental parking revenue on improvements.  Rather, they would squander it on something totally unrelated.

    • While Santana Row is much better since they opened the new six-story digs, Santana Row is precisely the example I would use to defend this guy’s position.

      Most drivers demonstrate a total inability to participate in civilized society when parking in Santana Row. They are perfectly content to create a three-minute bottleneck in a parking deck to save themselves 15 seconds of walking. The loss of everyone’s collective time is unbelievable.

      Graduated pay parking would solve some of the issues caused by antisocial drivers.

  3. The City of San Jose and the Redevelopment Agency should not be in the Off Street Parking business. Their operation is another good example that shows that Government cannot efficiently run a business. With about 7,000 spaces, I think that the net profit from off stret parking operations is somewhere between $3 million and $5 million per year. If annual profit and loss statements are posted on the City or Agency web sites, the numbers are not easy to find. These numbers should be readily available to every citizen. In any event, the annual return is a very low percentage of value.

    The City of San Jose commisssioned a Study by Walker Parking Consultants around 1996. The Consultants recommended that the Free Evening and Weekend Parking program in City garages and Parking lots should be eliminated immediately. The study also recommended that the Retail Free Parking Validation program should be phased out over a two or three year period.

    Walker Parking is a National Parking Consulting Firm. Their report was quickly and quietly buried and has never been seen again. Walker Parking has never been hired again by the City or the Agency.

    By keeping parking rates artificially low, the City impacts the rate structure at all of the privately owned parking garages in San Jose and thereby makes development of office buildings or hotels more difficult.

    If the parking rates were set based on market demand, the City would not have to build more garages. Private developers would include public parking in their projects.

    The City of San Francisco does not even allow new public parking garages.

    The City of San Jose is facing a severe budget crisis. I would not recommend the sale of all City/Agency garages right now because the commercial real estate market is very depressed. However, the City/Agency could lease its facilities one by one to private operators who could set their own operating rules and parking rates. Annual net rental income to the City would be millions of dollars more than what the City is earning now.

    It’s great that you have the courage to even speak openly about this “Sacred Cow”. San Jose should get rid of it’s inferiority complex.

    Shut down the Redevelopment Agency’s activities downtown. Then you will see some rapid improvement!
    The Agency was formed in 1956 to eliminate blight in the downtown. Almost 55 years and several billion dollars later it is still trying. Give them the hook!

    • It’s funny this came up now.  I recently had to park on the 5th floor of the garage above Camera 3, and the elevator is out of service indefinitely.  My wife and I couldn’t believe it, and agreed we’d definitely pay more to have a fully functional garage.  It’s disgraceful.

      Anyway, Al, I think you’re mostly right on.  If the city is running these garages at a loss, in the short term they should increase prices and in the long term they should sell to private companies.  I don’t care about some professor’s theory about whether it’s best to charge on principle.

      I do think calling downtown “blighted” is quite an exaggeration, though.  I’ve been going to a bunch of Cinequest movies, and I feel neither unsafe nor unclean walking around.  Whether it’s despite the Redevelopment’s Agency’s efforts or they’ve actually been getting something right, I think downtown is getting better.  I will definitely be spending more time there.

  4. The entire idea is total bullshit.

    Pier, you just don’t get it. This is exactly why business does not locate in San Jose and yet you would like to have even more regulations.

    It was all these feel good programs and the wasteful spending of money that got us here in the first place.

    I think your idea to show an environmental documentary at City Hall is total hypocrisy on your part. You are asking people to drive their cars to City Hall, then use lots of electricity to show this documentary, and then drive home using more fossil fuel. Just provide a link so that if people are interested they can watch it at home on their computer.

    To change the subject, what is your stance on the San Jose Police officers generosity in donating $5,000 of their own money after other donors pulled out, so the Martin Luther Freedom train could run this year? Apparently, some of our city council members are boycotting the Martin Luther King event to protest the San Jose Police officers donation to the event. Are you boycotting the event?

    • Steve?,
      You are simply silly. Your example of trying to guilt people on attending a movie on the environment since they may drive their car is ridiculous. We may as well cancel all public meetings.

      I think many people view their cars as freedom and liberty. They want to be able to drive as fast they want without getting caught and they expect free parking. Visiting other cities I know unlimited free parking is not the case however things change over time in certain areas.  You might offer to buy Steve a Meatball Sandwich and then he may attend your event.

      • I could care less if they drive to a movie. I do it all the time. I just don’t want to hear a lecture on the evils of our carbon footprint and then invite everyone over to the city hall to watch a propaganda film, especially since this council member pushes using the internet rather than the car or plane. Just the fact you had to resort to a personal insult towards me really weakens your own credibility….sorry.

    • Pierluigi, I guess the answer of your stance in boycotting the Martin Luther King event to protest our police officers donating their own money to make the freedom train happen is evident by lack of a response. I think you and the other city council members slamming our SJPOA by your protest are absoulutely wrong for doing so.

  5. > Professor Donald Shoup of UCLA visited City Hall last week. He was in San Jose to present a lecture titled, “Why free parking is a bad idea.”  The information he shared is based on his book and research.

    So, why doesn’t the city council return the favor and visit UCLA and tell them how to have a decent football team?

    I doubt that the city council knows much about running a football progam, but there’s no reason to believe that Professor Shoup knows much about running San Jose.

      • > Shoup is a Professor of Urban Planning.

        Yes. And so what?

        Allow me to reiterate my point: there’s no reason to believe that Professor Shoup knows much about running San Jose.

        > Clearly you’re not a professor of clever retorts.

        I think you’re wound a bit tight, Nice Try.  Maybe you should try a laxative.

        • I’m being too subtle.  It’s going to make my head hurt to think at your level, but let’s walk through your logic.  I’ll try to use small words so you can follow along:

          1. Shoup is from UCLA.
          2. UCLA’s football team is bad.
          3. Shoup knows as much about San Jose as the council knows about football.

          Now my logic:
          1. Shoup is a Professor of Urban Planning.
          2. Downtown San Jose is an urban area.
          3. Shoup has NOTHING to do with the UCLA football team.
          4. You are an idiot.

          Feel free to now make more poop jokes.

  6. There’s some real interesting points made.  The idea of using parking as a dedicated revenue stream to help the area is good.  I think the original idea behind parking meters was to keep turnover on spaces near merchants.  I’m not sure every business could afford some elaborate pricing scheme designed to keep 85% of the spaces filled.  Would you pay $1 to park for a few minutes to pick up dry cleaning?  Would you do it to buy a coffee or return a video?  Maybe for dinner or something.

    I actually really like how parking districts have worked in places from Menlo Park to Willow Glen, moving parking from the street to shared lots behind the central (or neighborhood) business district.  These lots serve double duty as locations for farmers markets and relieve business of the cost of individually providing off-street parking.

    Another huge benefit is that as circumstances change, and more development is desired, the lots are “banked land” that can be easily converted into new developments, with perhaps a new garage added to compensate for the loss of surface lot spaces.

    As far as changing the dynamics of municipal services and eliminating free parking as a service for local businesses, I think it’s going to be a hard sell in this economy.  People aren’t as loose with their cash and minor inconveniences will cause a disproportionate impact.  Good topic for thought and discussion, but we’re not there yet.

    I do like the idea of looking at the huge lots built at corporate campuses and seeing how well used they really are.  What about requiring people to opt into employee parking, choosing either commuter checks or a reserved space, but not both.  Then pruning back the total spaces to match the new reality of less usage where it occurs and allowing some compatible in-fill development.  I wouldn’t actually want to buy a condo across the parking lot from work, but maybe as part of an urban village I could go for housing within a short biking/transit distance from work.

  7. Total conflicts here.  Remember, this UCLA guy also comes from a place where the qualify of life due to traffic is diminished daily worse than anything here short of an unplanned Bay Bridge closure.

    Couple thoughts… 

    We’re considering charging more for parking downtown when no alternatives have been provided.  Light rail wasn’t built with sufficient parking in areas away from downtown (esp. the Winchester line) limiting it’s use for people who’d try to drive just halfway from their residential neighborhoods not served by any public transit. 

    No attempts have been made to improve bike parking security, which discourages people who would otherwise use that as the bridge between points A and B or to deal with gaps in distance between public transit points too far to walk.

    Downtown Pasadena is a great place to visit, I was just there, but it’s like Santa Row… Higher-end chain stores, trendy food, etc.  There’s no housing.  There are no dry-cleaners, grocery options, etc. etc.  Didn’t we want downtown SJ to become a liveable city?  More to the point, nothing exists in a vacuum.  Other places in Pasadena had better have free parking, or nearby cities like Alhambra, Alda Dena and Temple City can just absorb that business.  Same with downtown San Jose, where choices exist in all four directions that are nearly as appealing, with the exception perhaps of The Rep, opportunities for things like Cinequest because of the Cameras, and the quick eats like Iguanas, etc. that are the only hint that San Jose is a college town.  And indeed- parking needs and policies on campus affect downtown, too.  The MLK library has everything, but you can’t ever browse for free.

    People won’t stop for coffee on their way to work if they have to not only pay $1 to park but excpect another 2-3 min each way walking, they’ll stop somewhere with free parking near their destination out of downtown that is quicker and easier. Same for the cleaners, the cobblers, the milk for breakfast, etc.

    Validation for restaurants and other businesses besides the Cameras are already totally screwed up, but my attempts to reach [email protected] for help have been ignored. Many restaurants are out of validations before the month is up.  If you go downtown between 5:15-6, you will often pay double for a 90-min or less visit than someone who arrives at 6:05 and stays parked for 90 minutes, making picking up dinner on the way home from work, going to the gym, etc. unattractive downtown vs. other options because that the crucial “impulsive shopping” time.

    • Well said, Pamela. As you so well pointed out, the current situation drives people out of downtown and to either surrounding areas or even different cities. To think of charging more for parking will just further drive people and business from San Jose.

    • Actually, there are hundreds of units of housing in Downtown Pasadena. There are so many housing options in Old Town Pasadena alone (Westgate Apartments, Delacey Place condos, 85 N Raymond, Col Fair Building, Holly St. Apartments, Brookfield Apartments, Pasadena Collection, etc. etc.)

  8. Did anyone read the Mercury News article on the Tech Museum.  The director says:

    “I’ve never seen a city as empty as San Jose,” Friess said. “It’s a disaster. As a museum director, it takes a lot of effort to get people in the door.”

    Another rocket scientist.  Hello, is anybody home?  There is an airport downtown.  As long as it is there, San Jose will be a dead sea kept alive by redevelopment money.


    • The airport will never be moved, but if it were, just how would that bring life to downtown? The problem is much bigger than the location of the airport. San Jose is so spread out and most people have no reason or desire to drive downtown, look for parking, pay for parking, and then have to drive back to their homes 15 – 30 minutes+ away from downtown.
      Bad decisions made by current and former City Councils have left us with a deteriorating city that can barely afford to maintain what we have let alone adding more to keep on trying to revive downtown.
      It is a very sad situation and nobody in charge seems to have a plan to fix it. Moving the airport just doesn’t seem like the magic bullet to cure all the ills.

    • I’m not sure if all you “move the airport” posters are the same guy, but here’s a little advice:

      Some people, like myself, actually see your point.  If the airport is losing money as you and your alter-egos have pointed out, it’s worth considering all options including moving it.

      However, if you keep tying the airport to every problem San Jose faces, no one will take you seriously.  As “Just Wondering” pointed out, it’s a stretch to blame the lack of people downtown solely on the airport.

      Stick to the facts, and you might actually build a following.

      • However, if you keep tying the airport to every problem San Jose faces, no one will take you seriously.

        Sometimes a single entity can have multiple effects.  While there may be various causes for the lack of people of downtown, ignoring the 800 pound gorilla downtown is foolish and naive.  My advice is to keep an open mind, and not ignore the obvious.

  9. Eliminating free downtown parking will be another Council very bad downtown planning decision since many people will go elsewhere where there is free parking making downtown which is finally starting to turnaround less popular and causing more business failures

    San Jose Council wisely spend billions taxes on downtown blight clean up and new city buildings

    Council also wasted at least $1-2 billion on poorly managed and implemented downtown planning and economic development that produced mostly low income jobs with little tax revenue that even after 25-50 years will not payback to tax subidies spent

    Other better managed cities and private development projects paybacks are 8-15 years and generate medium or high income jobs

    Council controlled VTA pushed through looks good but politically designed downtown focused light rail system that is poorly designed, slow, and lowest utilized public system in US  

    It does not go where people want to go or goes soooooo slow that most environmentally aware residents who want to use and voted highest local tax subsidized public system in US are reluctantly forced to drive

    Years of really bad dumb and dumber Council and VTA unaccountable politician decisions will take 4-6 billion more and 2-3 decades to fix if VTA doesn’t go bankrupt first

  10. Hi Mr. Oliverio,
      I am a resident of Pasadena and found your blog about the problems that exist in SJ.
      I read the comments that followed and most people do not “get it” because they are stuck in a suburban minded mentality.
      Do you wanna know who is to blame for all the mess we’re in?
      The federal gov’t and the Eisenhower administration with their highway subsidies.
      The free money given out to cities across the country cemented all our fates that we would become a car-obsessed and dependent society.
      We are ruled by oil and there’s no way around it until energy costs go through the roof (do you believe in PEAK OIL <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHXdS9XYVs8&gt; ?).

      (Click on that link to watch Richard Heinberg describe what Peak Oil is)
      Anyway, most people in this country are so lost when it comes to thinking outside the box. They just want their large SFR houses and their gas guzzling cars.
      We here in Pasadena are still trying to implement a streetcar system akin to Portland, OR.

    Keep pressing hard for sustainability because you are doing the right thing.

    As oil costs go up higher and higher, people will start to “get it” as their wallet hurts.

    I’m just afraid they’ll be pandered to by public officials that “promise” them cheaper gas while supporting more war efforts in the last oil rich nations as a result.