Home > Cultural Movement, Design the Details, Ecological Design, Economics, Public Transit, Visual Stimulus > To the end of free parking–happy birthday parking meter!

To the end of free parking–happy birthday parking meter!

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Park it

The infamous and falsely maligned parking meter had its 77th birthday yesterday. Despite the misunderstandings, the parking meter in some form or another is here to stay as a way to manage a perceived scarcity. There needs to be someway to keep those vehicles moving.

Note, it is a perceived scarcity. In a previous post titled, Got Parking? Hell Yeah, we highlighted a study that found that there are at least 500 million empty parking spaces at any given time in the United States. The majority of which are perceived free, which has consequence.

Ninety-nine percent of automobile trips end in free parking and this has a major effect on people’s choice of what means of transportation to take.

~ Mikhail Chester  No Free Parking, Physics Central


In “The High Cost of Free Parking,” economist Donald Shoup builds an argument from the title off of the premise of applying a market rate to parking spaces to help achieve community goals (reduce congestion, raise revenue, create thriving business districts…).  Communities that have followed his findings have done so because they realize that storing automobiles for 22-hours a day is never free.  As he says, “just because the driver doesn’t pay for the parking, doesn’t mean the cost goes away.”

So, we are a day late, but let’s celebrate the parking meter! Happy Birthday, nickel meter.


  1. July 17, 2012 at 9:53 am

    This is an interesting idea that most cities are over supplied/under-priced in terms of parking but it seems that in northern Michigan it could be a challenge to get a better handle on the issue. Among other reasons, because of all of the different zoning jurisdictions that have their own control over parking regs. Both in terms of their desire to provide public parking and their ability to regulate the minimum and maximum amounts of private parking. For the City, for example, to charge more for public parking (e.g. the parking decks) there is a need to remain competitive both with private parking providers within the City (e.g. office parks and commercial areas with their own parking) as well with private and public areas outside the City. The City could also make it more difficult to build both residential and commercial parking by either reducing required parking minimums and/or putting caps on the amount of parking in new developments. But, again, you have the issue of needing to remain competitive with areas outside the City.

    Of course, however unlikely, the City could just take the position that we’re going to do things differently and we’re not going to try and compete with Garfield and East Bay based on providing convenient and cheap parking in our commercial and residential areas. And to a certain degree the City can do that because the City has amenities that the townships don’t. But there’s a limit, both in terms of what the market will bear as well as what the residents/business owners want in terms of freedom to use cars.

    Maybe instructive would be to look at a specific development like the recent case of the CVS at Front and Division. Because TC is not Manhattan, some provision for parking has to be made for that lot to be re-developed because most everybody shopping (or living) there is going to arrive via car. Aside from limited street parking, there isn’t public parking within the vicinity so there is going to have to have parking on-site. How much parking? Even with the City’s most intensive zoning (C-4) if you’re not close to a parking deck I don’t think there’s hard ceiling on how much parking can be built. And, even if there was, how would that have affected the development proposal? Would CVS have proposed a bigger store (not what most folks wanted), mixed-use (maybe, but probably not considering the location), big grassy areas, etc? And if there was a maximum put on parking there it’s possible that CVS would have not been interested at all and there’d still be a bombed-out gas station.

    If there was the ability to harmonize parking policy across more of the relevant zoning jurisdictions (e.g. Garfield, East Bay, TC) there would probably be a better way to get a handle on the possible over-supply of parking in the TC area but it seems like a challenge if the City, for example, decided they wanted to go it alone.

  2. July 17, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Certainly, northern Michigan has some needs for parking–no question. We also undervalue land, so a lot of time the cheapest option, both monetarily and in terms of quality, is simply to pave it over and provide parking wether the market needs it or not. This has a whole host of longterm costs associated with it which is externalized by the property owner onto the greater community.

    Short-term, the City has room to begin charging where it doesn’t before it really gets into increasing rates on a market basis. It’s perplexing to many of us why we offer free parking 20-feet from the bay near the volleyball courts. One, it encourages all day parking in a much coveted location and, two, it’s a missed opportunity to fund some basic improvements to parkland through a smart pricing scheme. Similar opportunities exist in other locations.

  3. mikecgrant
    July 18, 2012 at 7:09 am

    Agreed that there are specific opportunities within the City to look at whether public parking is the best use and also whether the City could be charging more, or charging at all, for parking. On the former, as I believe you pointed out yesterday, the parking lots between Clinch Park and downtown are an awful use of that property. For one, they are largely vacant for a good part of the year. For another, their proximity to downtown and the Bay. I for one would love to see that parking replaced by a parking deck and those surface lots re-developed for businesses and housing. Whenever something like this has been proposed in the past, however, (the downtown mall, the Chamber of
    Commerce building, the proposal to put a hotel on the corner of Front and Union), there is a great deal of opposition from folks not wanting more buildings in the downtown.

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