Free Parking


What is the purpose of city streets? You might think that streets are just for moving people and goods, but this is not entirely true. In fact, about one third of the space (more or less depending on street type) is used for storage of private vehicles and other stuff, a.k.a. parking. To get a feeling for how this looks, we mocked up five different street sections using the Streetmix web site. Through traffic lanes and clear walking area on sidewalks count as "movement," everything else in the right-of-way counts as "storage".

The public right of way is clearly a valuable and versatile resource. Today, it's dominated by motor vehicle uses, though this wasn't always the case. But just how valuable is that right-of-way? I was curious to see if we could come up with some numbers by mapping the value of taxlots in the city of Portland. On typical residential streets the adjacent land is worth $10-$30/sf. The value is higher on commercial streets and soars to well over $100/sf in dense central city neighborhoods.


Land value in dollars per square foot. Commercial and desirable residential neighborhoods show up in red & orange.

Parking on private land costs money because the owner has to develop and maintain the facility in lieu of some other revenue producing use. Is it reasonable to expect a city to provide this service for free on public lands? Probably not, but thanks to a longstanding tradition, that’s what we do in all but the most dense central areas.


Pay parking in Portland. Meters show up in blue, permit areas are in yellow.

Of course, cars are not the only things that get parked in the street. You’ll find mulch, gravel, dumpsters, storage containers, and in some areas, bicycles. If there is any small shred of truth in the well-debunked theory of cyclists not paying their share, it is this: downtown parking is free for bikes but not for cars.

While it is true that bikes consume far less space than cars, they do still take some space. Take a look at these photos of bike parking run amok in Copenhagen and realize that free bike parking is, at least in the long run, probably a bad idea.

We city dwellers have grown accustomed to the amenity of free parking and take it for granted, which makes any conversation about alternative uses of the public right of way (and how to pay for it) very difficult. Politicians, whose job performance is measured by public opinion, know that making categorical change (e.g. charging for something that used to be free) is asking for trouble. So we shouldn't blame an elected official for avoiding the parking discussion. Instead we should ask ourselves: what are we giving up by continuing to stick with free parking for most of our city?

  • better control over parking availability and reduced traffic congestion.
  • options to provide local incentives for low- or zero-emissions vehicles.
  • a way to get non-resident commuters to help pay for their use of city streets.

As a city grows and evolves, the demands on the public right of way increase. We need to use it more effectively to meet our livability and mobility goals. By considering the value of the land, and the actual cost of free parking, we can quantify the trade offs of continuing with the status quo. I believe this approach would help cities move toward a more a more collaborative and informed discussion about the future of our streets.


Joshua Cohen is a Principal at Fat Pencil Studio