How Free Parking Drives Americans to Waste Energy

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Density is a choice. Or, rather, it's a multitude of small choices that end up shaping our cities in very particular ways. In Saturday's New York Times, economist Tyler Cowen highlights one of the many ways that our urban planning practices have encouraged the spread of sprawl: free parking. Cowen glosses Donald Shoup's book The High Cost of Free Parking, which definitively showed that regulations requiring free parking have distorted the shape of our cities. Regulations that mandate parking spaces drive their price downward, often to nothing, meaning developers end up building too much parking. Decades of such policies encouraged the outward expansion of our cities, which drove up the amount of energy it takes Americans to meet their lives' basic requirements.

If developers were allowed to face directly the high land costs of providing so much parking, the number of spaces would be a result of a careful economic calculation rather than a matter of satisfying a legal requirement. Parking would be scarcer, and more likely to have a price -- or a higher one than it does now -- and people would be more careful about when and where they drove.

The subsidies are largely invisible to drivers who park their cars -- and thus free or cheap parking spaces feel like natural outcomes of the market, or perhaps even an entitlement. Yet the law is allocating this land rather than letting market prices adjudicate whether we need more parking, and whether that parking should be free. We end up overusing land for cars -- and overusing cars too. You don't have to hate sprawl, or automobiles, to want to stop subsidizing that way of life.

As Professor Shoup wrote, "Minimum parking requirements act like a fertility drug for cars."

Read the full story at New York Times.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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