Published on March 1st, 2016 | by Kyle Park Points


Free Parking Is The Huge Subsidy That Keeps People In Cars

March 1st, 2016 by  

Originally published on Bikocity.

Apparently, people love their cars. And people love driving. Who knew? When surveyed, most commuters – even when offered the same tax benefits at $225 a month – would not trade in their car for public transit. Congress recently decided to give commuters the same paybacks whether saving money while using public transit or driving, and it seemed to have little effect, as drivers continue to receive free parking privileges. Take those away and they might change their tune.

TransitCenter conducted a study in five major U.S. metropolitan areas regarding travel choices in response to such benefits. Washington (D.C.), Miami (Florida), New York (New York), San Francisco (California), and Seattle (Washington) were chosen, and their commuters’ choices analyzed. The data did not favor public transit in any measurable way.

In 2014, when driving saw a bigger benefit than public transit ($255 to $130), driving saw a rise in numbers. In 2016, when both choices see the same benefit at $255, driving is still projected to and seeing a rise. In fact, the only situation where driving sees a decrease while public transit rises is if the benefits remained equal and driver’s parking privileges were eliminated. Basically, offering incentives to take public transit just is not enough.

Transit Benefits Effects


There are other studies to corroborate these results. Two scholars at Virginia Tech conducted research in 2014 and found that commuters in Washington, D.C., preferred to drive to work despite whatever benefits there may be. In a world without benefits, driving commuters will increase and public transit riders will decrease. The same patterns and results held true in Baltimore (Maryland), Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), Newark (New Jersey), and New York (New York).

Driving vs Public Transit

source: Andrea Hamre 2016

Overall, both authorities concluded that the only way to increase public transport ridership while decreasing drivers is to eliminate parking benefits. “Overall, this study lends further support to the notion that public transport subsidies seem to be rendered less effective when offered in the presence of car parking subsidies,” writes Andrea Hamre of Virginia Tech. Hamre and colleague Ralph Buehler collaborated on the Virginia Tech studies and are considered transport scholars.

TransitCenter goes as far as to say that commuter parking benefits “subsidize traffic congestion” in their 2014 report.

It seems that offering commuters incentive to use public transportation just is not enough. In order to truly change the minds and decisions of commuters, cities must simultaneously create disincentives to drive and park.

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About the Author

is a working father in New York City by way of Sarasota, Florida. He is a public transportation enthusiast, clean air advocate, lifetime recycler and frequent panderer. He also reluctantly tended to his family's compost heap for many formative years. He hopes to one day leave his daughter with a safer, healthier environment than when she was born; which shouldn't be hard since she was born in Queens, New York.

  • Ross

    Alternative modes of transport with sufficient capacity should be available before parking is restricted.

    • Colin

      Not restricted – just supplied based on the cost of provision. Like almost all other goods you use. You pay for the land you build your house on, so why should the land for your car be free?

  • Roger Lambert

    I’m sure there are lots of regressive taxes one could dream up when in a misanthropic mood to punish the average Joe in the pocketbook for enjoying a comfortable lifestyle and this is a perfect example. Free parking, btw, is lobbied for by downtown businesses and Mayors who want a vibrant cityplace.

    Of course, raising the cost of shopping is not going to magically build mass transit systems and in a future with unlimited clean energy I’m not sure why typical use of a car for shopping is such an enormous evil.

    Reducing human population is a 100-year project. Building renewable energy systems and deploying them is what we need to keep focused on without distraction.

    • JamesWimberley

      The way to create a vibrant downtown is to reduce the cars and promote walking. The car-centric downtown is a contradiction in terms.

      • Roger Lambert

        I live in Burlington, Vermont – a small city. Most of the people who live in the metropolitan area live 5 to 25 miles away, and park and ride is rare and extremely inconvenient. We do have a pedestrian mall downtown but we have on-street metered parking, and several municipal parking garages which are subsidized – the first two hours are free.

        Without those free 2 hours, people went to shopping malls outside of the city center, and our downtown was dying. Why? Because parking was convenient and was free at the malls, and they saved a couple of miles of driving.

        I’m just sick of well-meaning proposals that add costs for the proletariat. If you want people to use more mass transit – make mass transit cheaper and more convenient. Don’t raise the cost of living for everyone by making parking expensive – especially downtown. Parking garages are inconvenient enough as it is.

        Use a carrot, not a stick.

  • Capt Oblivious


    • Capt Oblivious

      Preeeeetty sure ‘free parking’ is the exception and not the norm, guys. How is this a story?

    • Adrian

      From 1 block outside the downtown core, all the way to the next downtown core.

      It’s understandable how Capt Oblivious could miss noticing it. though.

      • Capt Oblivious

        A few cities in the US != the world. This so-called ‘free parking’ doesn’t exist anywhere else.

        If you think those few, albeit large, US cities would make an iota of difference to climate change if they converted 50% of their drivers to transit users, you would be sadly mistaken.

  • Adrian

    Unsuprising given how utterly useless public transit systems and routes are in many American cities.

    That said, I never drive in the city when visiting Manhattan – Amtrak to get there and the subway to get around – much faster and less stress than driving. Likewise Boston, provided everyplace I need to go is near the T or just a short bus ride from it.

    Park and ride lots are great things, particularly when they are on a rapid transit link, and also have EV chargers. 🙂

    • JamesWimberley

      I was quite shocked by the rundown state of the Boston metro when I used it 18 months ago: the worst I have ever used, and I have travelled widely.

  • JamesWimberley

    It bears repeating that neither electric cars nor driverless ones will reduce traffic congestion. This arises from a very simple externality: beyond a low minimum. every car added to a limited urban road network slows all the other cars down. If you do not price the externality, you get an inefficient outcome, with too many cars. Subsidising parking makes the problem worse, but it does not create it.

    The technical solution is simple and well-known: congestion pricing. It’s even been demonstrated in Singapore and London. Politicians are terrified, But Boris Johnson is still Mayor of London. To get away with pricing, you must have a good public transport system to take the deterred drivers.

    • ROBwithaB

      There is a certain chicken-and-eggness about this.
      Do you build the public transport infrastructure first, at huge expense, without knowing how many will use it? Politically very difficult.

  • egriff5514

    In the UK town/city centre parking is universally charged for, frequently time limited on the street and deliberately set high to discourage cars… in residential areas close to stations/shopping, there are strict ‘residents only’ parking schemes. There are a lot of ‘park and ride’ schemes’.

  • ChrisSokolowski

    This report omits one major consideration. Soon enough, driverless cars will be with us, and the whole dynamic of parking will change.

    Eliminating free or low priced public parking will cause gridlock. For people on short car trips, they will keep the cars on the road circling the block indefinitely without a driver since driving the car will be cheaper than parking it. For people commuting by car, driverless cars will sent back to the owners’ residences since that will be cheaper than paying for parking at the destination. Either way, the amount of time a car spends on the road increases without free or low-priced parking.

    It might make sense to have free public parking just to reduce driving and keep the streets from becoming gridlock. Gridlocked streets would encourage light rail mass transit, but considering that most cities rely on buses for their mass transit, the gridlock would seriously affect the viability of bus mass transit as well.

    • Zorba

      Yes, it’s interesting to consider what the long term future of transport will be. I’ve lived in countries where I drove all the time, and also spent over ten years in London where I didn’t own a car and used a combination of walking, public transport and the occasional cab.

      So while I can see public transport working in dense areas (with the occasional rented vehicle for holidays etc) when you’re in spread out suburbs people prefer their own vehicle. One could envisage self-driving pods taking you from your home, perhaps joining together in some sort of train formation for most of the commute to minimise space taken up on the road, then splitting up as you near your destination. Ultimately, it would be best if people didn’t own these vehicles as, instead of parking all day, they could be in use for other people. But I think there will always be people who prefer to own their own “space” for commuting, for reasons ranging from hygiene to convenience to status and personalisation.

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    • darth

      I disagree. A driverless car will not “circle the block”. It will drop off Person A, then go pick up the next fair. Why would it just circle? When Person A needs a ride, they just call the next car from the service, doesn’t need to be the same car. Since driverless cars will utilize roads more efficiently than humans, there will be less gridlock. For example, reversible lanes become much more practical since all the driverless cars will know when the lane switches directions and you won’t need physical barriers to prevent accidents. This alone could greatly improve rush hour traffic congestion.

      • Radical Ignorant

        Hope you are right. It just makes sense. But then not everything makes sense. Why do people choose to have their own garden to be able to enjoy greenery (4×4 meters) in suburbs instead of haveing great common green parks? Because we don’t trust each other and we value our independence a lot.
        But then using taxi for S1 or some other radiculus price? No driver, electricity instead of gas, minimal number of moving parts should make price really low. You don’t need to share this taxi when you ride. It’s there. And there isn’t even a driver if you aren’t in mood to be be close to anyone. And with this taxi you don’t worry about parking place… seems very compelling.

        • Frank

          I think the smarphone app should/will give you a choice. I would assume the smarphone app will send GPS coordinates, so “carpooling” should be pretty efficient. I think some people will buy a car, but others won’t bother if a car shows up whenever they want and takes them whereever they want for less money than owning a car. I think not having to pay a human taxi driver will both improve availability(like at 2am), and reduce costs.

  • As far as the situation in my country goes, the largest form of parking subsidies is on-street parking in residential areas. When a new housing project is done, all costs associated with infrastructure needed in the new neighbourhood is coughed up by the buyers of those houses. This infrastructure includes water, electricity, roads, parking, parks, sewers, etc. Each house buyer pays an equal share, irrespective of how many cars his household possess. This amounts to a huge flow of money from car-less households to car-rich households.

  • Some Random Fool

    while you’re at it, why don’t you include free medical care which keeps people alive, and free school which teaches is how to drive and skills necessary to work and make an income?

    • neroden

      Nobody in the US gets free medical care, thanks to our completely deranged non-system of “health care”.

      Drivers ed isn’t taught free in most schools any more either.

      I do think we should have free medical care. But medical care is 100% good. Parking is not. Look at an aerial photo of “downtown” Houston; they’ve leveled the city for parking, and it’s made it a horrible unpleasant place where it’s practically impossible to walk from one building to the next.

      • Otis11

        I have to disagree… I regularly walk downtown ‘from one building to the next’ as you put it, and actually much more. (In Houston)

        There are too many parking garages in my opinion (though still, somehow, not enough?)… but it doesn’t impede walking.

        Where in Houston are you talking about?

  • neroden

    Free parking in urban areas costs cities and employers a *fortune*. It’s mostly subsidized out of tax dollars or taken out of employees’ salaries. So it would make sense to charge the market rate for parking instead (there are private paid parking garages, almost everywhere,…)

    • Marion Meads

      So let’s charge more fees to the 99% to enrich the 1%. This is another excuse for wealth siphoning or taxation so that the 1% avoids their taxes.

      I have boycotted business places that don’t have free parking for their customers and minimize visiting cities like San Francisco unless there’s complimentary parking. There are still some spots that have up to 4 hrs free parking.

      • Colin

        Car ownership and driving miles are positively correlated with wealth. Subsidised parking spaces are therefore a transfer from the poor to the rich.

        • Capt Oblivious

          Except the poor don’t pay taxes. Go away. Thanks.

      • JamesWimberley

        ” .. Minimise visiting cities like San Francisco …” You should also avoid Paris, Venice, Oxford, Florence, Edinburgh, Vienna, Prague, Kyoto, Amsterdam, Cracow, Dresden and other car-hating hellholes.

  • JamesWimberley

    Cities still need incentives for park – and – ride.

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