Donald Shoup, a Yale-trained economist, is credited with fomenting a long-overdue revolution in parking.
LOS ANGELES — Donald Shoup has a quick comeback when people introduce him, as they often do, as the “parking rock star.”
” ‘Parking rock star’ is an oxymoron, like ‘rap music,’ ” the UCLA urban-planning professor quips. “Maybe I should change my name to Shoup Dogg.”
Add another moniker for a man who has been hailed as the “prophet of parking,” the “Jane Jacobs of parking policy” and the inspiration for a Facebook group called “The Shoupistas.”
The last is a fitting term for disciples of the Yale-trained economist, whom many credit with fomenting a long-overdue revolution in parking. At a sprightly 72, he is invited to expound his theories at brown-bag seminars and transportation conferences around the world, from San Francisco to Sydney, where he will speak in November.
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Why parking — a mundane, eye-glazing, exasperating aspect of life? (Even Shoup, who finds the subject fascinating, says: “Nothing is more pedestrian than parking.”)
Because, in the urban-planning world according to Shoup, free or inexpensive parking is at the root of many an urban ill: congestion, sprawl, wasteful energy use, air pollution and municipal-parking requirements that force developers to dig deep holes for underground parking spaces, with the construction imposing steep economic and environmental costs. Perversely, the plentiful spaces in turn encourage more driving.
When street parking is free or inexpensive — as in many cities — demand exceeds supply, and people expend time and fuel cruising for scarce spaces. Cheap street parking thus increases congestion by encouraging people to drive rather than walk, pedal or take public transit.
Shoup’s 2005 textbook, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” for many the de facto bible on the subject, posits a simple-sounding solution: Charge fair-market prices for curb parking. Use the meter revenue to pay for services and enhancements in the neighborhoods that generate it. Eliminate off-street parking requirements.
Cities are starting to listen. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and the District of Columbia are among those implementing or contemplating changes to hew more closely to Shoup’s vision.
Mayor Mike McGinn has proposed raising Seattle downtown meter rates to $4 an hour, to raise money for street improvements and get closer to the market rate. In a budget hearing this week, Councilmember Tim Burgess suggested another approach: setting an occupancy rate goal and changing parking rates to meet the demand. The city wants about 85 percent of the spots to be filled, so Burgess asked staff to determine whether the rate could be changed based on how many spaces were available.
In an informal poll last year on Planetizen, a planning-related website, Shoup placed 15th on a list of the Top 100 Urban Thinkers. Jacobs, the late New York urbanist known for organizing grass-roots efforts to block urban-renewal projects that would have destroyed local neighborhoods, was No. 1.
“It’s really remarkable how he has become the godfather of this parking idea,” said Ventura, Calif., Mayor Bill Fulton, who as a UCLA planning student in 1982 took Shoup’s class on public-resource economics. “Don has been saying the exact same thing for 40 years, and finally the world is listening to him.”
Fulton, in fact, said he recently became a full-fledged Shoupista when Ventura, Calif., implemented a Shoup-style parking-management program and quickly saw the intended results. By charging for 400 of the 2,900 public-parking spaces downtown, the city has spurred employees of local businesses to park at free city lots and walk to work rather than use curb spaces needed by customers.
Starting in mid-September, Ventura’s meter rates were set at $1 an hour for the first two hours and $1.50 for each hour after that, with the aim of achieving 85 percent occupancy.
Put another way, 85 percent occupancy — which Shoup considers ideal — would leave one or two spaces free per block. The city said it plans to adjust rates as needed. If parking use drops below 80 percent, the prices will be lowered until the 85 percent goal is achieved.
Fulton headed out to get a cup of coffee the morning the program went into effect and wrote in a blog posting: “Only 30 minutes after we instituted the parking management program, it is working.”
Not everyone subscribes to Shoup’s theories. He recently sparred online with Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute known for his website, The Antiplanner, dedicated to “the sunset of government planning.”
“I am an economist, and as long as Dr. Shoup is thinking like an economist … our thinking coincides,” O’Toole wrote in an e-mail. “It is when he starts thinking like an urban planner, trying to change people’s behavior and in particular trying to reduce driving, that we have a problem. … Mobility is valuable, and any limits placed upon it harm people and the economy.”
Shoup depends on his bicycle for much of his mobility. He freely confesses, however, that when behind the wheel of his silver 1994 Infiniti J30, he often circles the block looking for a free parking space. “I don’t like paying for parking,” he said with a shrug. “But free parking is ultimately not beneficial.”
It’s the conclusion more planners are reaching.
“There’s a sense in a lot of places that parking policy has gone disastrously wrong,” said Patrick Siegman, a principal with Nelson & Nygaard Consulting Associates, a transportation planning firm in San Francisco. “As people think about it from scratch again, they’re realizing that a lot of old ideas have been a huge failure.”
At a recent meeting of the Glendale Transportation and Parking Commission, Bonnie Nelson, a co-founder of Nelson & Nygaard, followed Shoup as speaker and cited him chapter and verse.
“Don is treated in some places like Einstein, like he has discovered the theory of relativity,” Nelson said.
Seattle Times staff contributed to this story.