“Parking Rock Star” Donald Shoup Plays Broadway


Early Friday morning, more than 100 transportation experts and advocates descended on the garish hell that is New Times Square to hear a two-hour presentation about parking. In a cozy theater across the street from Dave and Buster’s, UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup held forth on his much-discussed ideas for reforming traffic via "market-based" street parking.

Shoup opened with a joke referencing his own notoriety, quipping, "I was surprised to learn I was a ‘parking rock star.’ Because that’s an oxymoron, like ‘rap music.’" Clunk.

Shoup.jpgHe was on surer footing when sticking to his theories, which are simple on their face: Curbside parking is a valuable resource that cities give away for free, with one result being that drivers will burn fuel — and create traffic — driving around and around looking for free spots rather than paying for off-street lots or taking mass transit.

Shoup’s solution is for cities to install meters that price parking at rates that maximize usage without promoting cruising. The sweet spot, he’s found, is 85 percent occupancy: At that point, there’s always a free space or two on each block, but no more — "almost full all the time, but never totally full." In Redwood City, California, which instituted Shoup’s market-rate parking model, this required the city to tweak hourly meter rates in 25 cent increments in order to find the ideal fee.

While Transportation Alternatives, Shoup’s host for the talk, would prefer to see revenues raised by new meters be funneled into mass transit, Shoup is an advocate of what he calls "parking increment financing:" kick back at least half of the new parking fees to the local business improvement district or a similar entity (in Chicago, they’re called transportation enhancement districts, or TEDs), which can then use them to clean up sidewalks and add other street improvements, winning over local merchants who might otherwise fear that eliminating free curbside parking would cost them business. (It suddenly became clear why a Times Square Alliance honcho had delivered such a glowing introduction to Shoup’s talk.)

Shoup’s vision was of an enticingly free lunch — traffic goes down, parking spaces are easier to find, and your city is brimming with funds for bus shelters and bike racks. But as the Q&A afterwards made clear, there’s plenty of concern remaining about the political realities and unintended consequences of instituting such a plan in a complicated transit ecosystem such as New York’s. One audience member — later identified by another audience member as a Department of Transportation staffer involved in parking issues — slammed Shoup as "elitist" for ignoring the needs of commercial drivers; Shoup called the charge "knee jerk" and insisted he had the "moral high ground," saying most people care more about clean sidewalks than cheap parking.

When another questioner raised the issue of class more gingerly, noting that "there are neighborhoods where it’s hugely complicated to take the subway to the bus" and drivers rely on cruising for spots because they can’t afford lot prices, Shoup replied that his parking plans were "bottom-up" and that neighborhoods would "adopt this policy only if a majority requests it."

Shoup clearly has the ear of both the advocacy community and the transportation powers-that-be — another attendee spotted NYPD transportation chief Michael Scagnelli buttonholing Shoup after the talk. Whether his ideas can gain traction, though, is likely to depend on some of the less-clear effects on the city’s varied constituencies. As the Pay-to-Pray parking revolt of 2005 made clear, New York is a long way from Redwood City.

Parking meter photo: Matt⁵ / Flickr