Column:  Donald Shoup, UCLA’s parking guru, on how L.A. should manage its meters


The parking meter doesn’t get a lot of purchase in pop culture. There’s the meter-decapitation scene in “Cool Hand Luke,” Calvin Trillin’s novel of parking stubbornness, “Tepper Isn’t Going Out,” and Donald Shoup’s favorite, a Canadian movie called “The Delicate Art of Parking.” Shoup’s own work, and his book “The High Cost of Free Parking,” have made the UCLA urban planning professor a very big voice at a moment when Mayor Eric Garcetti is asking a working group of residents, business folk, planners and city officials for advice on improving the way the city manages the curbside rental spaces that bedevil us all, about nine concrete feet at a time.

The Los Angeles Parking Freedom Initiative wants the city to change its parking policies. What do you think needs to be done?

One of our problems is that we’ve tried to manage this extremely valuable resource with very little use of the price system. We have restrictions on how long you can park, but we don’t charge market rates except now in downtown L.A. I think ideas I’ve been proposing have agreement across the political spectrum. One, charge the fair market price for parking. That will open up parking spaces. Two, spend the revenue on public services like sidewalks and street repair. Third, remove all parking requirements for private businesses. Cities shouldn’t require developers to give birth to unwanted parking spaces. [The developers] know how much spaces cost and the demand for them.


The group wants most parking tickets cut to $23 from an average of $68. It also suggests it will take this to the ballot if the city doesn’t fix it.

It may be a threat that will make the city make changes. The main force in parking policy is inertia. [L.A. officials] just nudge up the price because they need the money.

If you did simply reduce most violations to $23, the lion’s share of the benefit would go to repeat offenders. [Cars] with four or more violations account for almost a third or more of all violations. There are some people who are gamblers or who think of it as a cost of doing business. John Van Horn, the editor of Parking Today magazine, said about 95% of all violations aren’t ticketed. He tried it for a month [in L.A.] — never paying at a meter — and it turned out to be a better deal than paying because citations are so rare and random.

The advantage of this initiative is that it opens up the question of what we should do.

A shop owner told The Times, “People say, ‘I will not come in unless I find a space in front.’” Are Angelenos spoiled?

That is appalling. If that is her concern, reducing fines for overstaying the meter in front of her store is going to ensure there won’t be an open space. If current fines don’t prevent people from overstaying at meters, then a lower fine will make it even likelier people will overstay meters.

America has had parking meters for 80 years. Are they there for making money or behavior modification?


It does produce revenue, and if it didn’t — if the money went to the U.N. or the Iraq war — there wouldn’t be any city that would charge high prices for parking. It’s only if you get a local benefit that people see that parking meters can do some good for them.

When Old Pasadena was almost a skid row, they were the first city in California to dedicate all the meter revenue to public services on the metered streets. Every time you put a quarter in, it comes out on the other side to clean the sidewalk or something else. The merchants thought they would chase people away. When the city said all the revenue would go to pay for services, instantly people said, “Let’s run the meters on Sunday, late at night, charge a higher price.” In Pasadena, you see the meter money at work. In Los Angeles, who knows where it goes? If L.A. did what Pasadena did with parking, it’d be a much better place.

In Los Angeles it goes into the general fund, about $160 million a year in parking fines alone.

Big cities tend to [do that]. Street cleaning citations are I think the most common because you don’t have to go looking for violations — you know where they’re going to be.

[The initiative group proposed that] in some low-income areas where they have a lot of cars and not much off-street parking, they should get rid of street cleaning and property owners should be responsible for cleaning in front of their own residences. It’s one of the more unreasonable things in their platform. Then you’d have to give citations for not cleaning the street in front of your house! And if residents say no [to cleaning], it would look horribly regressive that rich neighborhoods have clean gutters and poor areas have dirty gutters.

It’s not a bad idea to finance your street-cleaning program with citations for cars that will not move. [But] people who get tickets don’t like it. They blame the city, they blame everyone but themselves.


A better idea would be progressive fines [for all parking infractions, especially street cleaning]: a low fine for the first violation in a year. So the first would be $23, the next $63 and so on. If you have maybe five in a year — the only way to get through to some people is a very high fine.

The problem with L.A. is that the [current average] fine isn’t high enough to stop repeat violators, but it’s harsh on the majority of people who have only one ticket.

Your book title conveys that counterintuitive premise: “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

Charging for parking is a way to finance things cities would like to have. Commercial garage owners understand how valuable the spaces are. Across from my hotel in New York, the garage was $20 for the first hour, and $1.25 on the street.

Off-street parking is expensive to build. At Disney Hall, the spaces were $50,000 each. I compare Disney Hall and Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco [which has no dedicated parking]. We have parking space minimums with no maximum; in San Francisco, they have maximums with no minimum. Downtown L.A. [has] more [total] parking spaces per square mile than any other downtown on Earth.

Technology is making possible parking ideas that couldn’t have happened before — tracking repeat offenders or varied pricing by time and day, for example.


Like L.A. Express Park downtown — based on demand as indicated by sensors in the street.

Miami Beach now uses pay by license plate — you enter your license plate and pay at a kiosk — to give a discount to any plate registered in the city. It’s a way to make parking meters more acceptable.

In Ventura, they use [city-installed] Wi-Fi to communicate between the meters and city hall, and there was a lot of excess capacity in the Wi-Fi. Now the meters give free Wi-Fi to everybody on the street.

Some people blame heavy street parking demand on builders not putting enough parking in apartment buildings.

Some people think the car is essential, but so are water and electricity and we don’t say [utilities] have to be included in the price of housing. It would be better if the drivers paid for parking [spaces], not everybody who lives in a building.

How different are street parking issues here from other cities?

Every city thinks it’s unique, and I think they’re all the same. The parking space is the most commonly transacted piece of land on Earth, yet in most cities it’s very mismanaged; it’s not treated as valuable land.


In Carmel [which just voted to put in parking meters], the housing is astronomical even by L.A. standards, and yet all the parking is free — and they wonder why they have a problem.

Santa Monica tried out sensors that wiped extra time off the meter whenever a car pulled away. There’s little enough fellow-feeling in big cities, and that just seemed tacky to me.

It shows the city is literally nickel-and-diming the population. I think it’s a very bad idea.

Who got the first parking ticket at a meter?

It was 1935, in Oklahoma City, given to a Protestant minister. It was dismissed on the then-novel explanation that the minister had gone to get change for the parking meter.