The rule of thumb in America is that multi-storey car parks cost about $25,000 per space and underground parking costs $35,000. Donald Shoup, an authority on parking economics, estimates that creating the minimum number of spaces adds 67% to the cost of a new shopping centre in Los Angeles if the car park is above ground and 93% if it is underground. Parking requirements can also make redevelopment impossible. Converting an old office building into flats generally means providing the parking spaces required for a new block of flats, which is likely to be difficult. The biggest cost of parking minimums may be the economic activity they prevent.
Free parking is not, of course, really free. The costs of building the car parks, as well as cleaning, lighting, repairing and securing them, are passed on to the people who use the buildings to which they are attached. Restaurant meals and cinema tickets are more pricey; flats are more expensive; office workers are presumably paid less. Everybody pays, whether or not they drive. And that has an unfortunate distributional effect, because young people drive a little less than the middle-aged and the poor drive less than the rich. In America, 17% of blacks and 12% of Hispanics who lived in big cities usually took public transport to work in 2013, whereas 7% of whites did. Free parking represents a subsidy for older people that is paid disproportionately by the young and a subsidy for the wealthy that is paid by the poor.
A few crowded American cities, including San Francisco, have abolished their parking minimums. So has one shrinking city—Buffalo, in New York state. But most of the country seems to be stuck with a hugely costly and damaging solution to the parking problem. And the American approach to parking is spreading to some of the world’s fastest-growing cities.