American Planners and Parking

By Dom Nozzi

December 13, 2005

I emailed an important chapter of Donald Shoup’s highly influential and important The Cost of Free Parking to a number of colleagues in late 2005. As I mentioned when I sent it, that text is magnificent and crucial. I now worship the ground Shoup walks on (although I was already a great admirer of his).

It has been said that Shoup is too hard on city planners. My impression was that, on a number of occasions, he bent over backwards to take it easy on planners. More than once, for example, he says something like “This is not all the fault of planners…” In fact, speaking as one who has worked in the city planning trenches for 19 years, my take is that he was overly generous and easy on them.

When I look at the planners in my office (and nearly every other planner I’ve met in my life), all I see are people with a professional degree (and job) that is supposedly centered on improving community quality of life. Improving conditions for people should be the over-riding principle in everything they do and say.

Yet Shoup’s message is either entirely foreign to ALL of them, or they are openly hostile to his message (unlikely since to be hostile to something, you need to read to learn about it, and planners I work with don’t read anything related to planning — Pulp Fiction, yes. Planning, no.).

Given the fact that, as he points out, free parking is the lynchpin to so many of our quality of life, urban design and sprawl problems, what excuse do planners have to either be unaware of the destructive nature of free/required parking, or to be hostile to the idea of reducing its harmful effects?

It is similar to, say, a nation which only has doctors who reject the idea that bacteria and virus exist, and practice medicine as if they could ignore such things.

I certainly agree that American planners should not be held as completely to blame for the catastrophe of free/required parking, because they are not the policy-makers so much as Safeway-July-2015-smstaff who are obligated to implement policy (in our case, implementing a pro-car policy).

They do, after all, have families to feed.

But how do we excuse the fact that these admittedly powerless city planners are, in their heads, either oblivious to the parking problem or reject the idea that it is a problem? (Indeed, most of them think it is THE SOLUTION to our community woes.)

Do planners not have a professional obligation to at least be aware of the origins of community problems and how to fix them? Should we excuse them by saying that they are unaware of the ruinous nature of free/required parking, as was done (by some) with Germans who claimed they were unaware of what was happening to the Jews in Nazi Germany? Should American planners be “Good Germans”?

And what if the one-in-a-million chance happens and a majority of folks who “get it” are elected to council? For example, in the late 90s, I jumped all over such an opportunity and significantly expanded the area in the city which does not require parking. Since then, the City has actually expanded the approach even MORE, I’m astonished to report (of course, they are retreating now that we have a “Muscular Motorist” on our Council…).

Yes, destructive parking requirements are not entirely the fault of city planners. However, as Shoup points out, planners give parking requirements professional credibility by making the regulations seem so mathematically scientific and objective. Policy-makers who call for another “dose” of required parking thereby seem more admirable, informed, legitimate, objective, effective and concerned in the eyes of voters (when in fact the policy-makers are largely ignorant, and usually worsening community problems when they make decisions).

But does the fact that planners are only in charge of implementing rather than making policy excuse planners from knowing about what such requirements do? Or planners who are actually intellectually supportive of such regulations? Don’t planners have a moral obligation to point out that the emperor wears no clothes?

If planners DON’T have an obligation to speak truth to power, aren’t we saying it is okay for ineffective bureaucracies to remain ineffective? Bureaucracies that are ineffective in this manner because everyone is just doing what they are told, and no one points out the elephant in the bedroom.

I try to comfort myself in all of this by being confident that the day will inevitably come when our transportation and energy costs are so unaffordably high that overnight, EVERYONE will think that free/required parking is a blunder.

At some point, people with integrity need to have the courage and wisdom to speak up and point out that we are heading for a train wreck.

“First, [an idea] is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” (Schopenhauer)

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