Do Americans have the right to free parking?

We certainly have enough cars to warrant the discussion...

(Image credit: (Frederic Soltan/Corbis))

I know what you're thinking: parking policy sounds like a tedious, unsexy, small-stakes squabble. But its economic, environmental, and social impact cannot be overstated. Plus, many Americans really care about parking. After all, we are a country with over 250 million registered passenger vehicles, and roughly 800 million parking spots. Not to mention that the average American spends 614 hours driving every year.

As parking battles are waged from city to city, some activist groups have begun to deploy diverse strains of "freedom" rhetoric to help advance their goals. (One group in L.A., for instance, has dubbed itself "The Los Angeles Parking Freedom Initiative.") This raises some questions: Is parking a right? Should Americans be provided with free parking? Should the government just quit regulating parking altogether?

To determine whether parking extends beyond policy and into the arena of rights, let's first look at the basic nature of rights. Whether they are human rights, which apply to every individual on the planet, or civil rights, which apply to citizens of a particular nation, rights are shared by everyone in the group. The right to free speech, the right to due process, the right to vote — these are entitlements shared by all American citizens. Moreover, my right to vote does not inherently inhibit your right to vote.

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With this framework in mind, it's clear why parking is certainly not a right, and instead just a matter of public policy. First off, driving is not an absolute right — you have to earn that privilege and it can be taken away. Not everyone can, will, or should drive a vehicle. And if driving is not a right, by extension, parking isn't.

But moreover, parking in a spot inherently obstructs someone else from parking in that spot — an outcome incompatible with rights. My right to a free public education does not, on principle, conflict with yours. But my ability to park somewhere does.

But even if we don't have a natural right to park our cars, should Americans get free parking anyway?

In Los Angeles, activists have been organizing for months under the banner of The Los Angeles Parking Freedom Initiative. They argue that the city takes advantage of its citizens to ameliorate its budget problems. The LA Times reports that an average L.A. parking ticket costs $68, and that money secured from parking fines has grown from about $110 million in 2003 to almost $161 million this year. Activists are now seeking to cap non-public safety related parking fines at $23.

Activists in Keene, New Hampshire, are fighting for more than just a decreased financial penalty; they want parking fines eliminated altogether. Although there is free parking in Keene after 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and all day on Sunday, libertarian activists involved in the Free Keene campaign are not satisfied. To demonstrate their discontent, they are feeding expired meters before tickets can be issued, and have allegedly prevented the city from issuing more than 4,000 parking tickets since 2009. They also have taken to harassing parking enforcement officers.

In other areas, like Detroit, the city actually spends more money issuing parking fines than it does from collecting them. And almost half of the Motor City’s 3,400 parking meters don't work on any given day, further complicating parking governance.

So why don't these governments just make parking free? Why not forget faulty parking meters and quit it with regressive fines that disproportionally hurt the poor? Wouldn't that solve these vexing problems?

While it would certainly make libertarians happy, this kind of move would hinder some policy aims that lie behind parking penalties. As Washington Post reporter Emily Badger explains, parking tickets aren't really supposed to generate municipal revenue. (Although many cities do use parking tickets for such ends.) Rather they're supposed to help "manage public assets" and ensure that curbs and streets will be preserved for the public good. Moreover, research shows that free parking is often directly responsible for staggering traffic congestion — when people leave their cars parked all day, others are left to "cruise" around in search for empty spots, causing major traffic issues.

Free parking also seems to change behavior, and not in a good way. One study showed that free parking in Manhattan meant 19,200 more cars entered the tiny island each day. Other studies have found that limiting the number of available parking spots can incentivize cities to invest in public transportation, which can help the environment and strengthen a city's economic structure.

In some cities and regions, free or subsidized parking makes sense. In others, charging market rates to park or issuing higher penalties might be the right policy. Whatever the municipality and its citizens decide, and the needs vary from place to place, the point is that "free parking" is never free. There are always tradeoffs.

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