Free Parking

Tyler Cowen wrote a very nice column for the New York Times noting the many ways in which government policy leads to the underpricing and over-provision of parking, generating all kinds of nasty effects. One of the results of the piece was a barrage of perplexing responses from people who normally agree with Tyler (in O’Toole’s case the response isn’t perplexing; getting these things wrong is literally his job).

One thing that surprises me is that libertarian economists wouldn’t immediately adopt the default assumption that mandated parking minimums are bad. What does it mean to be a libertarian if that’s not your default position? Ditto for below-market pricing of scarce resources. You’d expect progressive writers to make a strong case that goods a, b, and c should be affordable to everyone and government subsidized as a matter of basic decency. It’s bizarre that libertarians leap to this position when driving-oriented policies are up for discussion.

Another thing I found curious is the suspicion that unused parking spaces are evidence of a policy that’s not welfare-maximizing.

But the main point is that it’s very difficult to make a positive case for government provision of parking spaces or mandated parking minimums. Given the existence of government provided spaces, it’s harder still to argue against market parking pricing. We have many examples of private firms building and operating parking lots or decks, charging positive prices, and doing a lovely business that seems to work well for operator and driver alike. How does one justify government intervention?

Now you might argue that there are public good considerations involved; that parking spots are like other bits of transportation infrastructure in that there is a role for government provision. Personally, I think parking spots are more like gas stations than roads, and meanwhile roads should be congestion priced (as many transit systems already are — and then some, in some cases). You’d think that libertarians making the public good argument would have no problem defending government provision of and subsidy for transit, but of course they don’t. They get around this by arguing that people want to drive and they don’t want to ride transit. This is strange in that in few other cases would a libertarian claim to know what markets want, and while they might refer to mode shares, those shares are themselves determined by decades of heavy subsidies for all things auto.

Anyway, I appreciate Tyler making the case against government parking subsidies for a wide audience.


  1. bottomofthe9th says:

    yeah, as a libertarian averse to mandatory parking minimums (indeed, zoning more generally)–and like you I can’t believe that needs stating–I found Cowen’s argument sensible and O’Toole’s needlessly convoluted and dreaming up strawmen left and right.

  2. Paul Barter says:

    You make an excellent point when you say “… that parking spots are like other bits of transportation infrastructure in that there is a role for government provision. Personally, I think parking spots are more like gas stations than roads…”.

    I have argued a similar point in a parking study (not yet published).

    I think urban planning gets into trouble from thinking of parking as a form of ‘infrastructure’ (like roads) or as a necessary ancillary service (like restrooms in buildings) that must be tacked on with every development.

    It would likely be better to treat parking as a private good and as a real-estate based service, just like restaurants (or like gas stations as you say). Shoup’s ideas point in that direction.

  3. Ben Ross says:

    The intellectual gymnastics in the comments on Cowen are amazing. So many libertarians think it’s perfectly fine for homeowners to band together to use state power to interfere with their neighbors’ property rights, to stop uses that might be noisy, emit toxic fumes, or even just cause somebody to park on the public street in front of their houses. Yet I’m sure they’re all horrified when employees band together and use state power to make the owners of factories provide quieter and healthier workplaces, pay higher salaries, etc. By what possible reasoning does a homeowner have a greater claim to interfere with a homeowner on the next block, than a worker has to interfere with the running of the factory where he works?