A World of Parking

“The city of Los Angeles wasn’t built around the car. It was built around the parking lot.”

That quote is from this excellent Los Angeles Magazine piece by Dave Gardetta profiling Donald Shoup, a Yale-trained economist, who decided to study parking (and was called nuts for doing so). The essential question he is tackling: What if the free and abundant parking drivers crave is about the worst thing for the life of cities? The focus of the piece is on Los Angeles and its suburbs, and I pull the highlights below.

L.A. has been a wellspring for a parking guru like Shoup to become self-realized. Our downtown contains more parking spaces per acre than any other city in the world and has been adding them at a rate of about 1,000 a year for a century. 


This year Shoup’s 765-page book, The High Cost of Free Parking, was rereleased to zero acclaim outside of the transportation monthlies, parking blogs, and corridor beyond his office door in UCLA’s School of Public Affairs building.

Great trivia about the invention of the Dual-Parking meter:

Carlton Magee was an editor of the Albuquerque Morning Journalwhen in 1920 he helped uncover what would become the Teapot Dome Scandal. A few years later, in a hotel lobby, a judge whom Magee once accused of corruption walked up and knocked him to the floor. The editor drew his pistol and shot wide, killing a bystander. Acquitted of manslaughter, Magee moved to Oklahoma City to run the Oklahoma News, where parking, not vindictive judges, was the big story. Magee invented the Dual Park-O-Meter, filed for its patent, and on July 16, 1935, 174 parking meters were slotted into Oklahoma City.

The revenue that the city of Los Angeles earns from its parking meters:

Today there are 39,440 parking meters positioned along L.A. streets, each one earning on average about a thousand dollars a year. Some 2,537,521 citations were handed out to motorists by the city’s parking enforcement bureau last year. The most expensive ticket—“Parking hazardous waste carrier in residential area”—is almost never written and costs $378. The most common ticket, for parking on a street cleaning day, will set you back $68. Last year fines to drivers totaled $166,700,840—money that was used to pay for parking operations; surplus revenue is handed over to the city council.

One of the major issues brought up in the piece: in many parts of the country (San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and D.C. are exceptions), parking rates don’t change based on traffic conditions, day of week, etc. But Los Angeles is ready to change things:

This spring the DOT plans to introduce an $18.5 million smart wireless meter system based on Shoup’s theories. Called ExpressPark, the 6,000-meter array will be installed on downtown streets and lots, along with sensors buried in the pavement of every parking spot to detect the presence of cars and price accordingly, from as little as 50 cents an hour to $6. Street parking, like pork bellies, will be open to market forces.

Why don’t cities like New York and San Francisco have so few parking options? Answer:

San Francisco or New York might have ten times the parking each has now if they had buildings like 1100 Wilshire, where the first 15 floors are all garage. But the downtown areas of those cities won’t allow it.

Who knew parking (and its history) could be so interesting?

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