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Arlington Looks to Avoid Parking “Tragedy of the Commons”

Parking isn’t something many people think about until it’s unavailable. Even city planners have historically considered parking somewhat of an afterthought.

Cities are paying more attention to the resource lately, however, in part due to the influence of one book in particular: The High Cost of Free Parking, by UCLA professor and urban planner Donald Shoup.

According to Shoup, most of the woes of our car culture result not from the automobile itself but from the lack of attention we pay to parking in America. Suburban shopping malls with their wide deserts of surface parking are still the norm in most of the country, and it’s estimated that America contains an astounding three parking spaces for every man, woman, and child.

Shoup says that it’s not only the overabundance of surface parking in America, but the fact that 99 percent of it is free, that is creating a “tragedy of the commons” of national significance. Free parking, Shoup says, is an enormous public subsidy that makes driving less expensive than its true cost, skews transportation choices, increases housing prices, degrades our environment, and encourages sprawl.

Dense urban areas such as Arlington, Virginia – across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. – do spend some time and care trying to manage this precious resource. According to outgoing Arlington County Parking Manager Sarah Stott, it is an endeavor that is not only complicated but also a bit of a tightrope walk. Stott gave a lecture on “The Future of Parking in Arlington” at Mobility Lab’s Lunch at the Lab earlier this month.

Stott’s presentation began after Mobility Lab Director Tom Fairchild asked the audience the fairly provocative question, “Does Arlington have too much or too little parking?” The room, largely composed of transportation planners, answered “too much.” Data regarding Arlington parking-garage vacancy rates, in fact, support this belief that too much parking may be being constructed in the county.

Stott, a parking expert in her own right, responded that the more important question is actually whether Arlington’s parking assets are priced appropriately. The county-owned on-street spaces particularly, Stott explained, are extremely valuable, and need to be priced to reflect that value.

Shoup contends in his parking treatise that on-street parking should be priced so that no more than 85 percent of the parking spaces are utilized at any given time, which will minimize block circling, congestion, and pollution. Arlington has adopted this goal, but has not yet adopted the dynamic pricing policies that would make this goal achievable. Stott contends that realizing the county’s parking targets is made more complicated by the desire to balance it with the needs of the residents, many of whom rely on on-street parking in their residential neighborhoods and complain of the dearth of such spaces.


With respect to parking supplied by the private sector, Arlington’s task becomes perhaps more complex. Zoning codes tend to overestimate the amount of parking needed for a particular land use, and are notoriously difficult to update (see, for example, Washington D.C.’s five-year long effort to update its zoning laws).

Arlington has utilized some creative methods related to the supply of privately-built parking. Specifically, the county allows a developer the ability to build less parking than would otherwise be required per zoning regulations so long as that developer pays a fee to fund the county’s transportation demand management (TDM) and transit efforts to reduce cars from the road in favor of other transportation mode choices. The fees paid by the developer are substantially less than the $40,000 it is estimated to cost to construct each below-ground garage parking space.

Arlington’s strategies are ones the parking guru Shoup specifically recommends in The High Cost of Free Parking to bring parking management more in line with market realities. The county’s goals are commendable, but it needs to take some extra steps, including dynamic pricing of its parking assets, in order to achieve these targets.

While perhaps difficult politically, these steps are necessary to further Arlington’s reputation as a jurisdiction where land-use and transportation policies are second to none, and to remediate the “tragedy of the commons” Shoup so persuasively maintains is a result from mismanagement of this use of land.

Splash photo by the author.

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