Donald Shoup: A scholar who looks at the overlooked

Last night, UCLA and USC hosted a reception in honor of Donald Shoup of UCLA for receiving the American Planning Association’s Pioneer Award. It’s given to those who have transformed the profession.

Donald was one of my teachers from 2000 to 2004 when I was at UCLA. I was not one of his proteges, per se. He had other students at the time that he simply found more interesting than me. That happens. At the time, I took it rather personally, until I began teaching myself and just realized that you have more affinity for some students than you do others, and it’s a matter of fit, not a matter of like or dislike. Regardless of how little we had in common intellectually, Donald was unfailingly kind to me, always urbane, funny, inspiring. He is a marvelous classroom instructor.

The speeches last night focused on Don’s most famous contribution: his writing and thinking about parking. By the time I’d come to UCLA, he had established his reputation as a parking specialist. He was working on his masterpiece, The High Cost of Free Parking, while I was there, and he very kindly let me read it. Donald would pay armies of students to read the book; it was mostly finished by then, but even so, he took nearly 3 more years to polish it. I was always broke, always needed money, and Don’s hourly work allowing me to edit a) bought me a little pizza now and then and b) taught me a lot about the dedicated, disciplined, long-haul creative process that goes into a book that, now that’s it is published and famous, reads as though the writing were effortless. It wasn’t. He wanted that book to be excellent, and it is, but he worked on that sucker to make it shine the way it does.

I was, like many others, confused about Donald’s devotion to the topic. I had noticed in our few conversations that he was a man of clear, obvious, and sparkling intelligence. What was he doing with such a small topic when the rest of the world was talking about globalization? Or major structures, like capitalism? Or culture? Nonetheless, after I read the first two chapters he gave me, it was clear what he was doing: brilliant work on land economics and urban regulation that examined parking, a topic that everybody else had just not thought about sufficiently.

For those of us who knew Donald in his pre-book days, when people rolled their eyes a bit and called him “the parking guy”, watching Donald’s fame explode after the publication of that book was a pleasure unadulterated by professional envy–and for me that is saying a lot, for I get jealous at lot. But Donald had, for so many years, labored on a topic that people told him, over and over, was not important. He had faith, and he had vision. And he was right, and his perseverance paid off for him. I’ve never known an academic who took a more genuine, ample, and good-hearted pleasure in his own success than Donald, and that, too, made me happy. He says, with a twinkle in his eye, that he was, simply, “a late bloomer” in the academy. There is always time to make a contribution.

That, I would argue, is not strictly true, simply because there is way more than “a contribution” here. Donald has a lot more work that attests to his considerable gifts as a scholar. Two of those stand out. One is his work with two of his most accomplished students, Jeff Brown, now at FSU, and Daniel Baldwin Hess, at SUNY Buffalo on universal access to transit for students here:

Jeffrey Brown, Daniel Hess, and Donald Shoup, “Fare-Free Public Transit at Universities: An Evaluation,” Journal of Planning Education and Research, Vol. 23, No. 1, Fall 2003, pp. 69–82.

That article doesn’t have the world’s most rigorous evaluation in it, but the idea of marketing, promoting, making transit free to students is brilliant. It was an insight on cultivating transit customers when relatively young, long before people really started to understand that you really do need to market public services.

The other papers I have always thought brilliant, and I am not alone, are:

Donald Shoup, “Graduated Density Zoning,” Journal of Planning Education and Research, Vol. 28, No. 2, Winter 2008, pp. 161–179.

and

Donald Shoup, “Regulating Land Use at Sale,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer 1996, pp. 354–372.

The first of these won the Chester Rapkin award for the best paper in JPER, and with good reason: once again, Donald had his land economist hat on, pointing out a policy change that that, if implemented, alters the incentives so that holdouts become less of a problem in land assembly for infill. Holdouts are a major problem that everybody complains about, and nobody had a fix for. Until Donald.

Donald is retiring from UCLA, which means I suspect that he will just go to fewer meetings, and, as he said last night, he can disobey his chair with impunity. He’ll keep writing, he’ll keep teaching, and he’ll keep delighting us with his magnificent explorations of what everybody else overlooks. In honor of his retirement, the Luskin School is creating the the Donald and Pat Shoup Endowed Fellowship in Urban Planning. From the website:

The Donald and Pat Shoup Endowed Fellowship will support students at UCLA Luskin in perpetuity, lowering the costs of attending graduate school and making advanced study possible for those who might otherwise not be able to attend.

Professor and Mrs. Shoup have generously offered to match each donation to the fellowship endowment 2-to-1. For every $100 you give, the Shoups will give an additional $200.

The man understands incentives. 😉