A Conversation with Donald Shoup: Parking for E-scooters

As more people make the shift to sustainable mobility options like e-scooters, cities are evolving their transportation infrastructure to combat car dominance and to allow human-scaled modes to thrive. In addition to creating dedicated spaces for people to ride shared micro-mobility devices, this transition also includes creating space for them to park when not in use. 

To explore how cities should think about parking and micro-mobility, we sat down for a conversation with parking expert Donald Shoup. 

Shoup is a research professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and the author/editor of two quintessential books on car parking, “The High Cost of Free Parking” and “Parking in the City.” Shoup argues for three key principles: 1.) Cities should charge market rates for on-street parking 2.) Governments should relax or remove off-street parking requirements, and 3.) Revenue from parking fees should be visibly reinvested to benefit the neighborhood.

  1. There’s an interesting conversation taking place about micro-mobility parking in cities — how do you contextualize that discussion within the history of car parking, public space, and autodom?

If cities plan parking for scooters the way they have planned parking for cars, they will require every building to have ample off-street parking spaces for all scooters everywhere.

When only the rich owned cars at the beginning of the 20th century, motorists simply parked their new cars at the curb where they had formerly tethered their horses and carriages.  But when car ownership grew rapidly during the 1910s and 1920s, the parking problem developed. Curb parking remained free (the parking meter was not invented until 1935), but there were no longer enough spaces for everyone to park whenever and wherever they wanted.  Drivers circled in vain looking for a vacant curb space, and their cars congested traffic. In the 1930s, cities began to require all buildings to provide off-street parking to deal with the parking shortage. The resulting dominance of cars in the city has been a great planning disaster. Fortunately, the scooter parking problem will be easy and cheap to solve, and solving it will help to civilize micro-mobility.

  1. In ‘Parking in the City’, you argue that abundant car infrastructure causes people to drive more, and makes it harder to opt for active transportation by making cities less dense. How can we get more people to choose modes like walking, cycling, or taking an e-scooter?

The best way to encourage active transportation is to stop subsidizing cars. One way to reduce the subsidies for cars is to charge fair market prices for on-street parking and remove off-street parking requirements.

Some critics argue that removing an off-street parking requirement amounts to social engineering and a war on cars. Parking requirements, however, are social engineering and they are a war on walking. All the required parking spaces spread buildings wide apart and increase driving.

Removing a requirement that restaurants must provide 10 parking spaces per thousand square feet of floor area, for example, is no more a war on cars than removing a requirement that everyone must eat in restaurants 10 times a month would be a war on restaurants. Removing a parking requirement does not interfere in the market, and it is not a war on cars.

The goal of market-oriented parking reform is not to force drivers out of their cars. Drivers should always be able to park, but not at the expense of everyone else, and certainly not at the expense of people who cannot afford a car or choose not to own one.

When it comes to parking, I’m pro-choice. Cities should not require developers to give birth to unwanted parking spaces. Parking requirements were a bad idea, poorly executed, and it is easy to see the disastrous results—asphalt everywhere and a lack of people on the streets. 

  1. Many newer cities (San Jose, for instance) are already built around cars, and may not grow significantly denser for many years. How can they best retrofit themselves to encourage more sustainable transport modes like micro-mobility?

I’m a big fan of parking reforms that allow homeowners to convert their garages for cars into apartments for people. Many single-family neighborhoods have garages that can provide a new supply of small, well-located micro-apartments near stores and public transit. Residents who ride e-bikes and e-scooters won’t need a car and will not increase traffic congestion.

Many homeowners oppose affordable housing projects nearby, but neighbors may not even notice a garage conversion that swaps cars or storage for people and leaves the home’s exterior unchanged. Critics cannot say that a converted garage will be out of scale in the neighborhood because the garage is already there. Garage apartments create horizontal, distributed, and almost invisible density instead of vertical, concentrated, and obvious density.

Just think how many people could live in the garages (some for three cars) that already exist today. Cars could move onto the driveways and people could move into the garages.

  1. Parking minimums (and maximums) are already a central component of emerging micro-mobility policies around parking; how would you advise cities to approach how much space to set aside for e-scooters and e-bikes at this stage in their development?

Cities should carefully measure the productivity of the curb space whether it is used for parked cars, bus lanes, bike stations, scooter spaces, loading zones, and other possible uses like cafés and parks.

Luke Ohlson at Transportation Alternatives effectively used video to show that converting parking spaces into a bike station can greatly increase curb productivity. During one hour on a block in Manhattan, the video showed that 200 riders arrived at or left a bike station that replaced three parking spaces, while only 11 people arrived at or departed from three curb parking spaces across the street.

Santa Monica has converted a few on-street parking spaces for cars into on-street parking space for scooters, but has not yet evaluated the results of the change. Videos would easily show the scooter spaces’ productivity in serving riders.

  1. Let’s also talk about perception. One of the most common complaints we hear is that e-scooters are causing “clutter” on our streets today and there is simply not enough space in the public right of way to accommodate them. Do you have any ideas for how to best address such concerns? 

The perception of scooter clutter often comes from seriously inconsiderate parking by some riders. Because so many people ride scooters, even a small share of inconsiderate parkers can cause widespread clutter, which is much worse than simple littering. Requirements for safe scooter parking would bother only the careless riders who create the problem.

Financial penalties for bad scooter parking are probably necessary, just as they are for illegal car parking. GPS-based regulations will help, and on-street scooter parking may be necessary in dense areas.

  1. There is increasing demand for access to the curb: there are private cars, ride-hail pickups, docked and dockless bike share, e-scooters, and delivery vehicles bringing us all the stuff we’re ordering online from Amazon. And that’s just today–never mind what’s coming around the corner. How should cities determine who gets access to the curb, and at what price? 

Accurate prices and judicious regulations can allocate curb space to the most appropriate uses. Here are the links to a proposal to charge market prices to allocate curb space for cars in New York and San Francisco. The proposal can be extended to all other potential uses of the curb.

  1. To better protect pedestrian rights of way, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo recently announced that shared e-scooters “must be left in parking spaces designated for cars”.  Do you have any advice for Paris, or any city, seeking to successfully transform car parking into e-scooter parking? 

The best way to transform car parking into scooter parking is to charge the right prices for both and use the revenue to improve public services in the metered neighborhoods. The link between parking charges and the resulting public services will let everyone know that vehicles parked on the street are paying to improve the places where people live.

Read more about how Bird is focusing on parking.