The city of Fort Collins has a whole lotta parking. In fact, it has so much parking, that any time I want to go anywhere, I can assume that there will be a parking spot at my destination just waiting for my car to fill it. Even downtown there are only a few times of the week when I might expect to have to park more than a block from my destination. In Fort Collins, parking is ubiquitous.

… and that’s a problem.

Even though most of the parking in Fort Collins is “free,” it turns out that it’s actually costing us quite a lot.

How much does parking cost?

Donald Shoup, a professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA with an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering and a PhD in Economics, has been studying the cost of parking as well as the ramifications of having too much parking. He wrote a book entitled, “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

Shoup researched the expense involved in creating various types of parking. The absolute cheapest urban parking space would involve asphalt on a cheap plot of land. To create a spot large enough for a car, 8 1/2 by 18 feet, it would cost about $4,000. The most expensive examples that he found involved underground parking spaces — the most outrageous case was the underground lot beneath Seattle’s Pacific Place Shopping Center which cost a whopping $60,000 per space to build!!!! (Each parking spot cost more than the average car.)

The new parking structure at CSU off of Pitkin soon after it opened.

For a local example, we can look to the price of one spot in the newly finished CSU parking structure off of Pitkin along S. College Avenue. The structure cost $17.5 million to build and provides 650 parking spaces. That puts each parking space at about $27,000. (That price probably includes the cost of the marquee out front that lets motorists know if there’s space available and on which level.)

In comparison, projections CSU made in 2015 for a 910-space flat parking lot came out to $5 million, or $5495/space. That’s still quite a lot of money. And that estimate doesn’t include future maintenance, snow removal, etc.

Who pays for parking?

So who is paying the cost for these parking lots? In some structured parking, the people choosing to park their cars there are footing the bill. In others, the City foots the bill and the amount you pay hopefully covers maintenance and employee costs.

Most on-street parking, because it’s part of the public right-of-way, is created and maintained by the City — which means it’s coming out of our taxes. And the City doesn’t get a cut of gasoline tax, nor does it get automobile registration fees that go to the county. So the expense of “free” on-street parking is coming out of sales and use taxes. And everyone pays in to that pot whether they own a car or not.

“Free” parking available in private lots (such as the parking lot in front of a grocery store or another business) is covered by the developer who built the store. The developer passes the cost on to the businesses that lease space. They in turn pass the cost on to the consumer. So with every bag of groceries, or new hairdo, or reclining chair that you purchase, you’re also paying a small bit of the cost of that free parking… whether you arrived on foot, by bicycle, by bus or by car.

As Jeff Speck explains in his book, Walkable City, “The ramifications of this situation are disturbing. Nobody can opt out of paying for parking. People who walk, bike, or take transit are bankrolling those who drive. In so doing, they are making driving cheaper and thus more prevalent, which in turn undermines the quality of walking, biking, and transit.”

What do you mean we have too much parking?

Parking does not operate on a free-market system. Zoning requirements from the City require a certain amount of parking depending on where a business or residence is located and how large it is. This is what forces the developers to pay for parking that they might not otherwise choose to include in a new development. So, for example, the shops at Front Range Village could have been built with two-thirds or even half the parking that is currently there and shoppers would probably never notice the difference. But the developer couldn’t. They had to fulfill the City’s zoning requirements.

There’s a new development planned at the corner of Drake and S. College, where the Kmart building now stands. Kroger is going to tear down the old building and put up a new King Soopers similar to the one on N. College. And they’re going to include 360 parking spaces just for people shopping in the grocery store and another 7 spaces for people to park their shopping carts. There will be also 60 Park n’ Ride spaces for those using the MAX line. By my count, that’s pretty much the same number of spaces that are there now.

On the left is a Google aerial view of the University Mall — anchored by Whole Foods to the north and what used to be Kmart to the south. On the right is a color coded version of the same map. Red shows parking lot space as well as loading zones. Purple shows roads. So essentially all the area shown in purple and red is for cars. Brown represents buildings. Green shows pedestrian spaces. Yellow is the train line and blue is the MAX line. Blank spaces are plain old ground — dirt, grass, bushes, trees, and rocks.

Every space that we give over to cars is space that can’t be used by people (unless people are living in their cars). In a city where affordable housing is hard to come by and office vacancies are low, land that is sitting around waiting for a car to come sit on it is land that’s not being used for other purposes. It’s land that has been set aside to sit mostly empty rather than being used to meet real and present needs. It’s wasted space.

We have been subsidizing parking at the expense of affordable housing and affordable office space. We have been subsidizing parking and that has encouraged us to drive more and walk, bike or take transit less, because we know there will always be a spot to park at our destination. And the more we drive, the unhealthier we become, the unhappier we become, and the more polluted our environment becomes.

We need to change our zoning requirements for parking throughout the city. We need to change our mindset that expects “free” parking rather than a market-driven approach to providing parking spaces. We need to look holistically at how we’re developing the land we have. We need to stop subsidizing parking and forcing developers to create parking spaces that will rarely, if ever be used.

We need to build Fort Collins for people — not for cars.

Sources for this article:

The numbers for the CSU parking structure came from a Coloradoan article that I have since been unable to locate. I wrote the numbers down on a scrap of paper and failed to include the source info. Several articles from the Coloradoan confirm the number of lots. The projects of the price of the structure were higher than the final cost, based on the number I had jotted down.

Stadium, medical center spur Colorado State parking sites, by Rob White of the Coloradoan. (12 April 2015) This article gave projections on the cost of the CSU parking structure and parking lot.

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck.

The High Cost of Free Parking, by David Shoup.