Car parking remains a major part of our economy, and it is easy to realize why its availability and low price are clung to so fiercely. Parking allows access for customers to stores, employees to work, entrepreneurs to meetings, tourists to places where they can deposit all their money, the needy to services, residents to their homes. Because of this, it's harder to see that the costs are so high that they outweigh all economic benefits provided.
Covering our cities with asphalt isn't just ugly, it eats up millions of dollars in taxable land revenue per year. When neighborhoods become more walkable, with less parking and smaller roads, existing property values—and tax revenues—go up. Highways and parking lots represent a massive amount of taxable property that could yield thousands of dollars per lot, per year—representing millions of dollars of lost revenue for cities. Instead, the constant need for maintenance drains public and private coffers—and this cost is overshadowed by the opportunity cost of what could be built in our cities instead.
Yet all this space is given away freely as a standard practice. In the U.S., 99 percent of trips by car end up in a free spot. The value of that land—and to a lesser extent, the costs of paving, sweeping, policing, and maintaining it—makes parking one of the largest subsidies going. Donald Shoup, the world's foremost expert on all things parking, calculates that the average parking subsidy to a U.S. commuter who drives to work is $5 per work day. Shoup estimated the entire parking subsidy of free parking to be at least $127 billion in 2002—an amount that would put a nice dent in the cash-strapped transportation budget.
We are quite literally paying people to drive.
It's not just taxpayers footing the bill, but businesses and housing developers. This is not always because they see it as a good investment. In fact, it's prohibitive—the average cost to build structured parking in the U.S. is $15,000 per space. But most cities have had parking minimum laws on the books since the 1950s, requiring any new housing, workplaces, and commercial developments to provide a certain number of parking spaces whether or not their residents, employees, or customers drive. There is always some pushback against these requirements, partly as a matter of space and subsidy, and the huge costs involved. Equity is also an issue—it's hard to make housing affordable to people who don't own cars when you are required to invest in parking spaces.
Apex Bar in Portland turned a parking lot into a beer garden and bike parking
In 2010, Jesse McCann was looking for a building to open a bar in Portland, Oregon. Like many a business owner, he was thrilled when he finally found one with a big parking lot right out front with room for five cars. But instead of using the lot to provide car parking for his customers, he fenced it off and filled the space with outdoor seating and a rack for 63 bicycles. People thought he was crazy. But McCann's investment paid off—from the day Apex Bar opened, its outdoor tables and bike racks have been full to overflowing on nice days.
Business owners tend to like bike parking. Many are wary at first, especially when car parking spaces are being replaced. But once a bike corral or staple is put in, the value added becomes immediately clear, and as they become more common, they are more broadly accepted and welcomed.
Bike parking is undeniably an affordable investment. For each vehicle, bike parking takes up ten times less space than car parking and the cost is from 30 to 300 times less. When bike parking is available at destinations, people are more likely to choose to ride to those places, and also to ride overall.
A study in Melbourne, Australia found that bike parking brought in five times the revenue of car parking. A study in Toronto found that customers who biked and walked to local businesses spent more money overall than those who drove. Critics of bike corrals often voice the concern that the city will lose revenue from parking meters. But parking is so undervalued that meters typically charge less than the value of a parking space; it makes more sense to maximize capacity—and the benefits.
Bikestations like his one in DC offer storage for commuters, repair services, and even showers
The bicycle parking boom is taking many creative forms. "Bike Stations" or "Bike Hubs" at transit centers or in office districts charge bike commuters a small monthly fee for the use of showers, secure bike parking, and a bike shop and repair station. Whimsical bike racks designed by artists (David Byrne created a series for New York) are embraced by commercial districts for their distinctive style. Churches and schools are installing bike racks on an "if you build it, they will come" basis, and it's working. Bicycle parking all over the country is stepping out from next to the dumpster behind the restaurant and taking its proud place right next to the front door. And the economy is reaping the benefits.
Bicycle parking brings all of the same benefits as car parking and has others as well. By inducing more people to ride bicycles, it contributes to better health, less poverty, safer streets, more breathable air—and perhaps of most direct financial value, it reduces congestion and frees up car parking. It does cost money to provide bike parking for free—but this cost is so low in relation to the benefits, that the city would profit even if it paid everyone five bucks a pop to park their bikes.
Converting car parking to bike parking is one of the cheapest, easiest, and most effective ways for any city to make a sizeable dent in the bad economics of our current transportation system.
But the law of induced demand cannot be escaped. One of the problems bike-friendly cities face is overcrowding of bike parking areas. Bike parking in Amsterdam is so freely available that many people own multiple bikes and keep them parked at transit centers around the city to ride when they happen to be in the neighborhood. The benefits must outweigh the costs of dealing with this bike jam, or the business-minded local government would doubtless begin charging for parking.
It's a problem I hope we all have the pleasure of dealing with at some time in the near future.
Top image: A busy bike corral in Alexandria, Virginia via Theogony
Elly Blue is an author and publisher with a focus on feminist nonfiction about bicycling. She publishes the quarterly zine Taking the Lane. This essay was excerpted with permission from her book Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy. Follow her at @ellyblue.