Donald Shoup, Land Economics, and Political Economy

Donald Shoup’s work, The High Cost of Free Parking, was the focus onTyler Cowen’s column in the New York Times last Sunday. Parking Today gathered up a bunch of the responses and basically dismisses most of them, and I’m not sure why. The writer seems to think that the discordant discussion derives just from ideology. But eonomists disagree on all sorts of things, and with parking, we don’t really have a lot of data or a ton of studies yet. I don’t think, for example, you can dismiss the question of movement along both the supply and demand curves, and I don’t think you can ignore the externality argument around parking spillovers–because the externality argument about spillovers is one of the reasons why we have all these parking requirements in the first place.

The other weird thing about the Parking Today entry is the suggestion that you have to “actually know Shoup” in order to respond to his ideas.

So in order to establish my street cred, Donald was one of my mentors at UCLA, and I read draft after draft of his wonderful book when I was a PhD student largely because Donald would pay anybody and everybody to read his draft and comment. He was an absolute fanatic about perfecting his arguments and his prose,* and his generosity and commitment to the quality of this work allowed me to read it, get a few hours of wages out of it, and bought me many a pizza when I was otherwise broke. Now, in perfect disclosure, Donald never considered me as a particularly bright student, but that’s because he had far, far more brilliant people to work with, like Jeffrey Brown and Daniel Hess and David King. Nonetheless, he was always wonderful and witty and ready to afflict the comfortable.

That said, I’ve always been convinced by the basics of Donald’s argument, and pretty much any time he tells me something about land economics, I always think he’s right. And even though I am bigger fan of his other work–the stuff that people don’t pay as much attention to, such his award-winning article in JPER on graduated zoning–it’s really hard to overstate the magnitude of his contribution of getting people to critically examine parking requirements.

But what I think we miss in this discussion is the political economy. As in, you can whinge about ideology all you want, but the political economy really influences property and its regulation, and while I love the catchphrase that free parking is a like a fertility drug for cars, I’ve always wondered about the direction of causation. Is it that people use cars because parking is free (or too cheap), or is parking free because drivers and property owners are politically powerful constituencies? IOW, are cars the fertility drug to free parking, and does any of that matter now? Because if parkers are voters and property owners have a vested interest in trying to wedge free parking out of collective provided street space, then the political web holding the regulations in place may be really hard to crack open.

In the discussion over at Marginal Revolution, there was one comment in particular that always messes me up:

Am I the only one who remembers when you had to pay for parking in any reasonable city or town, and the new-fangled strip malls outside of town were advertising free parking, easy in and easy out free parking right in front of the store? Then with the malls, you had the massive tracts of land with the shops concentrated at the center, building up with quick escalators so you could easily get in, park free, and the access every store you might want with a few feet walking, and then head back to your car parked free to head home or to the next shopping mall with free parking? Then malls started adding huge parking garages with free parking so you could park closer for free and not get rained or snowed on. I remember the downtown businesses, including the Sears and Wards and Woolworths calling on government to do something to provide free parking to allow them to compete.

link: Marginal Revolution: Kling on free parking

Ultimately, I think Donald has a pragmatic and useful strategy for going forward: trying to combat the regulatory creep that got us into the free parking boat: creating new types of use and revenue sharing around parking so that property owners in high-congestion areas have an interest in the take from charging, rather than just using their political clout to mandate a supply of parking that people don’t value enough to pay for themselves.

*I will remember forever just how incredibly patient he was in putting this book together. For graduate students who are starting down the publish publish publish as fast as you can road…it was a breath of fresh air.

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