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UCLA's 'parking guru' can solve biggest parking gripes ... but it'll cost ya

Parking meter in Los Angeles.
Phong Ho via Flickr
Parking meter in Los Angeles.

The "godfather of parking reform" is packing up his boxes. After four decades researching and teaching about parking as a professor of urban planning at UCLA, Donald Shoup is retiring.

Shoup's theories on parking are laid out in his influential 2005 book, "The High Cost of Free Parking," in which he argues that free or overly-cheap parking is actually bad for cities because it encourages more people to drive, making it difficult to find a space.

"If it's difficult - but free - people will be driving around and hunting for a space and that pollutes the air and causes accidents and gets in the way of pedestrians and bikes," he said.

 The real Donald Shoup poses with a cardboard doppelganger made in honor of his retirement.

Free parking is bad for us, really

To illustrate this point, he tells a Tale of Two Villages: Westwood and Old Town Pasadena.

In the 1980s, Westwood was a premiere shopping and entertainment district. Then in 1993, merchants got the city to cut the price of parking meters in half in an effort to attract more business.

Over the years, street parking became too crowded and difficult, deterring people from coming to Westwood unless they had to for school or work.

"Westwood is famous for a parking problem because all the parking you can see - which is the curb parking - is occupied," he said.

The byproduct of that parking problem, he said, are empty storefronts lining Westwood Boulevard and surrounding streets. It's no longer a shopping and dining destination.

Meanwhile, over in Pasadena, the then-derelict Old Town installed parking meters the same year Westwood cut its prices.

Pasadena used the revenue from the meters to beautify the area: cleaning the sidewalks, installing old-fashioned light fixtures and cobblestone alleys. And the prices were high enough to keep one or two spaces open per block, keeping the appearance that parking was available.

"I think the diametrically opposite parking policies – what you do with the parking prices and what you do with the revenue - had a huge effect on slowing Westwood down and helping Pasadena thrive," Shoup said.

Parking paraphernalia in Donald Shoup's UCLA office. Shoup is also known around campus as the "parking guru," "the Yoda of urban planning," and a "parking rockstar." He even has a gang of acolytes and former students so devoted, they call themselves "Shoupistas."

Stop complaining about Downtown LA

As for L.A.’s own busy downtown, Shoup shrugs off complaints over parking difficulties.

"There are more parking spaces per mile in Downtown L.A. than in any city on earth," he said.

In fact, downtown has too much parking he said, pointing to the Disney Concert Hall as an example.

Because the City of Los Angeles requires new buildings to provide off-street parking, Disney Hall built a 2,000 car parking garage. Meanwhile, San Francisco's Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall has no dedicated parking.

"So at Disney, most people drive into the garage and take the escalator to the concert and never set foot on the sidewalk,” he said.

“In San Francisco, there’s no parking at all – so you're forced to go out on sidewalk and walk and go to bars and go to dinner," Shoup said. "So, which do you think will be the more successful downtown?"

As for the high prices of garages and lots – he’s equally unsympathetic: "In a really desirable downtown, you’re never going to have cheap parking because what makes a downtown work is a high density of people, and you can't have a high density of people and free parking."

Go ahead, complain about parking tickets ... the first time

Shoup said parking tickets are a necessary evil, but he still thinks cities get them wrong.

He’s come up with an idea called graduated fines, which would slap repeat offenders with the highest prices. Tickets would start as a warning, then become progressively more expensive the more you got.

“Anybody can make a mistake or forget," he said. "But if you get 10 tickets in a year, it probably means you’re a scofflaw.”