No Such Thing as Free Parking


No Room for cycling

A while back, I was in New York visiting a restaurant in a popular part of town (in Queens). There were no car parking spaces. So we spent 20 minutes driving around looking for a free car parking space. When we found a space, I noticed parking was free (zero cost). I suggested to the local New Yorker, wouldn’t it be better if you had to pay for parking?

A look of  bewilderment appeared on his face. “No, it wouldn’t be a good idea. They are always trying to tax us.”  (American really hate any tax) “Why I should pay for parking?” I decided not to pursue it any further. You have to know when it’s socially desirable to wheel out arguments about economics, social efficiency and sustainable transport. I didn’t want to spoil a nice meal by becoming an irritating combination of economist plus self-righteous cyclist. But, since this is a cycling blog, I hope readers will not mind so much.

In New York, car use is overwhelmingly the dominant choice of transport. Some parts of New York are very poorly served by public transport, most locals wouldn’t even consider using a bike (too dangerous)

But, this struck me as a classic example of market failure – a state of affairs where everyone is worse off because there is no charge for parking. When the price of driving is low and parking is free, demand is greater than supply. This causes the excess demand for parking spaces. It means:

  • People waste time looking for a parking space
  • Congestion is increased because people are driving around looking for a car parking space
  • More pollution and risk of accidents is created.
  • Because driving is comparatively cheap, people use it as a default form of transport – never walking or cycling.

But, driving into town has external costs. The social cost (= petrol + Pollution + congestion) of driving to the restaurant is much greater than the private cost (e.g. just paying for petrol).

If there was a significant extra cost of driving into town and parking, it creates a greater incentive to take alternative forms of transport – public transport / cycling or walking.

  • Parking charges would raise money which can subsidise alternative forms of transport
  • It would prevent time wasted driving around.
  • It would reduce congestion
  • It might even encourage a little more exercise. There’s no harm in Americans (or Britishers) burning off a few calories before putting them back on in their super-size meal type restaurantes.

Why We Need To Charge for Cars Entering Congested City Centres

  • Apparently, everyone dislikes traffic wardens because they fine people who park illegaly. Yet, when you take away traffic wardens, chaos is created. (BBC link about chaos in Aberystwyth)
  • It’s the same with charging for parking. No one likes to pay, but if you don’t charge for driving, you can get terrible congestion and time wasted in traffic.
  • Transport in cities needs planning. You can’t leave it to the law of jungle (or free market). There needs to be a recognition that the social cost of driving is quite different to the private cost. To get the best transport system, there needs to be extra charges placed on motorists so they pay the full cost of congestion and pollution created.
  •  There is no such thing as free parking. If it is free at point of use, other types of cost are created and other people lose out. Charging for motorists can even appeal to the self-interest of drivers. If they really refuse to use public transport or cycle, they will, at least, find it easier to find a parking spot. They won’t waste 20 minutes driving around looking for a spot. Surely $5 is worth that?
  • The problem is that any new tax is always going to be unpopular. When a congestion charge was proposed for Manchester, it was overwhelmingly defeated. People would rather have congestion and get stuck in traffic jams then pay towards better alternatives.
  • Yet, despite current levels of traffic congestion, the DFT predict a 43% increase in traffic in London. How much more congestion do you want?
  • It’s easy to blame politicians for failing to be long-sighted and implement long-term transport solutions, but, the truth is that voters would often vote against new policies which change the current status quo.
  • To encourage cycle use, there needs to be a careful discouragement of driving. Painting symbols of cyclists on New York roads won’t change the culture of driving. But, if people have to pay the full social cost of driving, then there will be greater consideration of what is best way to travel.



6 Responses to No Such Thing as Free Parking

  1. Jonathan July 5, 2012 at 11:37 am #

    Whilst I agree with the above I would like to make a couple of contrary points.

    It is great to say that the revenue raised from parking charges could be used to fund other transport alternatives – sadly this is never the case, due to inter governmental revenue / expenditure rules and secondly all levels of government would prefer to spend the money elsewhere (where they think they will get the most votes) – sadly you are far too logical in your thought – Governments aren’t – until it becomes a vote winner it, alternative forms of transport will not receive the extra funding it needs.

    This is why I have always said cyclists need to get a friend cycling and therefore increase the voting power of the cycling lobby. Others say you will not get those extra cyclist without the infrastructure – it’s all a bit chicken and egg!

    Secondly I am morally against punitive taxation – you cannot tax people onto public transport or bikes (well you can but it would need to be pretty harsh taxation and then you will only get the poorer sections of the community onto bikes. Additionally the spending on infrastructure would need to be massive if you want it to really work – most people will use public transport / bike if it is faster and convenient (additionally safe in terms of bikes) – we are a very long way from this currently.

    What I feel needs to happen (though I admit it is fairly wishful of me) is to educate people as to why it is better to use a bike in particular – the health both mental and physical, financial (maybe but not for some of us :) ) and speed. All of this dovetails into your previous post about your time on a cardiac ward – sadly Governments have been devaluing education consistently in order to reap more votes from supposedly better education results – I despair.

  2. ianmac55 July 5, 2012 at 7:52 am #

    I really liked this. And – I hope you don’t mind – I’ve copied it to my blog at If I haven’t acknowledged you enough, or you don’t want it to appear, please let me know!

    Good stuff!


    • tejvan July 5, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

      Hi Ian. Glad you liked it. It’s fine to copy articles as long as link back to blog.

  3. Tim July 4, 2012 at 11:34 pm #

    My thinking behind the overwhelming vote against the TIFF bid in Manchester is that many people were too short-sighted to imagine changing their existing patterns of behaviour or consider new opportunities.

    Drivers assumed they would always drive and have to pay for the privilege following the changes. People with no public transport often didn’t consider they might get some, or might get a better service.

    Also, the proposals were dominated by the “negative”, the congestion charge, particularly following an unpleasant campaign by a large local real estate company (Peel Holdings). Even now, your article only refers to the proposals in terms of the charge. Manchester had won 3 billion pounds of government funding (including a £1.15bn loan), and we voted against it. How often do people turn down 3 billion pounds? The condition was that all the improvements had to be in place before any charge could be introduced. The no vote was a tragedy for Manchester and there should never have been a referendum.

    In fairness, the proposals unfortunately offered little specifically to cyclists – being created by the public transport executive (now re-branded as TfGM). I know quite a few cyclists who voted against the proposals.

    • tejvan July 6, 2012 at 7:50 am #

      It is a shame. Especially as traffic congetsion is forecast to get worse.

    • Jonathan July 6, 2012 at 11:49 am #

      I think a major problem with congestion charging (and I have experienced all of these).

      Firstly when the system was set up it was deliberately awkward – you had to pay by a certain time (I often forgot) and it was often difficult to get through to pay). I have other things to think about in my life – like work family etc and often forgot to pay and then ended up with something like a £80 fine for being 2 days late.

      Fortunately in the past year or two they have made the system more reasonable and now you get your credit card charged at the end of each month for any trips you make – this is simpler and more convenient and I am far less against it now.

      But the main problem is that a vast majority of the money raised goes to the company doing the policing – can’t remember which one but it will be one of the Government favourites like G4s or Securicor, either way it was the usual politicians typically soft deals to their corporate friend.. Next to no money was raised to put back into public transport. Therefore it was just a punitive tax with no real benefit – it didn’t have that great affect on congestion when compared to lost retail business for London.

      Re the referendum – you should have done what Ken Livingston did – hold a referendum for West London and then ignore the result when it didn’t go your way and say it was a consultation and not a referendum – way to go democracy!

      I just wish Gov’s could be more creative and positive with their taxation idea and more efficient in spending the revenue.

      Sorry but I really do believe that these taxations are short sighted and only limited in their ability to fix problems like congestion. Also additionally there are quite a few people scrapping to make ends meet – they could I guess do with less tax not more.

      We need to get back a sense of self worth for people – a desire to live a healthier lifestyle and more self reliance in achieving that – taxation to me creates a more centralised economy and way of thinking in the individual – people look to see what Government can do to help them out of a hole and less on what they can achieve.

      People on the forum here are fortunate in that we had the desire and luck to find things
      such as cycling and the push to pursue that – be it sport / commute or whatever. A large number of people just turn their nose up at making that commitment and instead want free transport or a cheap car, these are the people who cycled to work in very high numbers in the first half of the 20th Century. Now cycling has in the majority become a middle class thing

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