Free parking is not really free. What is the Connecticut price?


The downtown Fairfield Metro-North Station is surrounded by a sea of ​​above-ground parking lots and low-rise commercial developments.

Our love affair with the automobile is based on one thing: free parking. After driving on our “free” highways, we have to park somewhere, and we all hate paying for what is truly a privilege. It is as if there is a constitutional right to free parking.

But free parking is actually expensive and paid for more than a few dollars.

The industry standards group known as the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) has defined 266 different types of businesses and determined how much nearby parking they need. So when your local planning and zoning board reviews proposals for, say, a new restaurant, they consult the ITE manuals on what parking would be required.

Beware, a fast food restaurant like a McDonalds will require less parking than, say, a fancy steakhouse, given the number of customers and the length of time they stay to eat. But when it comes to parking rules, we’re talking about more than restaurants.

Think of convents. For some reason, the ITE “bible” says religious convents must have parking space for ten nuns or monks in residence. Hello? They are in a religious retreat! They’re not going anywhere! Wouldn’t it be smarter for the convent if it could use its land for better purposes than an empty parking lot, like growing its own food?

Or how about hotels? Their parking regulations are based on the assumption that they are full, which certainly doesn’t happen a lot. Wouldn’t it be easier for the hotel to make special arrangements for those sold-out nights than to have acres of asphalt baked in the sun most of the year?

Walk up Boston Post Rd and see the bitter fruits of this shortsighted planning. Thanks to zoning regulations, many big box stores dedicate 60% of their lot to parking and 40% to the stores themselves. Just think about what that means for the way they rate things. Isn’t it amazing that Amazon can compete on price?

Some time ago, I passed through New Britain where I lived. I barely recognized the city center with its empty shops and sidewalks next to a ten story parking lot. They “built” it (the parking lot), but no one came. The city center seems empty.

If you look at the communities with the busiest downtowns, you will see people, not cars. People attract people when they enter stores, walk around and shop. It’s the pedestrians we want, not the parking lots.

Donald Stroup of UCLA has written an excellent book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” and made his point with a story of two cities:

Decades ago, San Francisco and Los Angeles opened new downtown concert halls. The LA consisted of a $ 10 million six-story parking structure for 2,100 cars. But in San Francisco, they didn’t build any additional parking lots, saving developers millions.

In LA after a concert, music lovers rush into their steel cocoons and leave. But after a show in San Francisco, patrons (at least before COVID) left the concert and strolled the streets, spending tens of thousands of dollars at nearby bars, restaurants and stores. Guess which city economy has benefited the most from its investment in the arts.

The buzzword in development circles these days is TOD, Transit Oriented Development. By placing shops, mixed-use office buildings, housing and amenities close to train and bus stops, people will use public transport to get there instead of their cars. That doesn’t mean we don’t need station parking. But even a parking structure can have stores at street level and maybe affordable housing as well.

Planners should remember that human beings have two legs, not just four tires.

Jim Cameron is the founder of the Commuter Action Group, which advocates for Connecticut railroad users. Contact Jim at

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