In 1978, an associate professor named Donald Shoup co-wrote a paper and started a revolution.
With his doctoral student Don Pickrell, Shoup published “Problems with Parking Requirements in Zoning Ordinances,” a short article that used simple economic principles to demonstrate that cities’ methods of managing parking requirements in new developments were completely backward. When citizens insisted on cheap and easy parking as new buildings were being built, city managers made developers include enough off-street parking spots to accommodate the increased traffic. Shoup and Pickrell showed that these requirements drove up the cost of housing, encouraged driving and decreased public transit use. The evidence was clear and the policy recommendation clearer: End minimum parking requirements and let the market dictate the supply of parking.
Shoup was mostly ignored. His interest in what seemed like a narrow issue was questioned. It took decades for planners and cities to catch on, but the arc of history is long. Today, minimum parking requirements are on the decline and city managers around the world are intimately familiar with the subtle ways in which parking regulations affect all aspects of city life. Shoup’s seminal book, The High Cost of Free Parking, is required reading for any urban planning academic or professional with their hands on the levers of public policy. Thousands of planning students and practitioners identify themselves as “Shoupistas,” fighting for Donald’s revolutionary ideas at council meetings and on planning blogs and message boards.
And Donald Shoup, after 41 years of teaching in UCLA’s urban planning department, is retiring this summer.
“It’s hard to imagine who has influenced the practice of planning more than Donald,” says Evelyn Blumenberg, chair of the Department of Urban Planning.
“Don is probably the most creative, original planning scholar who has been at work during the past several decades,” says Alan Altshuler, a decorated professor of urban planning at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “There may be another U.S. planner who has combined path-breaking research, profound analysis and practical impact in such distinguished fashion, but I cannot think of who that might be.”
Finding a Niche
Although Shoup is most widely recognized as a “parking guru,” he began his career as a land-use economist. When he noticed that parking had an outsized impact on land use, he turned his attention to the places we park our cars — which, he points out, is the most frequently transacted real estate in the world. Parking prices, he realized, affected nearly every issue that city managers hoped to address, from affordable housing to transit, from environmental quality to crime. Over the decades, he kept up a steady drumbeat of journal articles, conference presentations, monographs and op-eds that all came back to the same theme: Change the way you think about pricing parking and you can change the way your city works.
“It’s not that the issue became important and he suddenly became relevant,” says Martin Wachs, a senior transportation researcher at the RAND Corporation who retired as a professor of Urban Planning at UCLA and UC Berkeley in 2006. “It’s that in debate and discussion before public bodies he was able to show how inconsistent and ineffective current policy was. He honed his arguments so carefully that he became effective, and ultimately refuted every argument to his positions.”
Brian D. Taylor first met Shoup when he was Shoup’s student at UCLA, and now serves with him on the Urban Planning faculty. In the 25 years that he has known him, Taylor has come to greatly respect Shoup’s habit of viewing the world through an economist’s eyes. “He is a walking embodiment of microeconomic principles,” Taylor says, “and he’s very interested in what these principles mean for people in their daily lives, and how they can help us in very practical and grounded ways to make improvements to the way the world works.”
Shoup’s focus on land use and parking grew from a natural tendency to see everyday life as a series of equations defining supply and demand, and to see the work of solving society’s problems as a matter of bringing these equations into better balance. This approach came as a bit of a shock to UCLA Urban Planning when he was first appointed as an associate professor, and his focus on efficiency and equity stood in contrast to the left-wing mindset the faculty had nurtured through the department’s formative years. Wachs, who served as department chair when Shoup was hired in 1974, remembers a period of adjustment as the Yale-educated economist’s worldview was incorporated into an existing orientation toward social change through activism. “At first I think the students were a little disappointed that traditional economics would play a role in urban planning,” Wachs recalls.
When Shoup and another faculty veteran, Robin Liggett, took on the job of teaching the core curriculum, they established a rigorous focus on mathematics and economic analysis. The methodology took some time to catch on. “Many people were intimidated by economics and math, and students got it in their first two terms at UCLA,” Wachs says. “We thought it was a necessary foundation stone.” Eventually, quantitative analysis became a point of pride within the department, and the foundation was set. Shoup stepped down only last year from teaching the core urban planning course to first-year students, having taught it continually for 36 years.
Martin Wachs, School of Public Affairs benefactor Meyer Luskin and Donald Shoup
A Partner and a Mentor
Shoup’s influence as a teacher runs nearly as deeply as his influence on planning practice. Because he has taught the core curriculum at UCLA for so long, and because UCLA’s department has been one of the largest in the country for so many years, Taylor estimates that he is possibly the best-known professor among practitioners and academics in the field of urban planning. His style in the classroom made a lasting impression — Taylor recalls being “literally in stitches” at Shoup’s dry sense of humor at the head of the class, and Shoupistas of all stripes can quote his risqué quip that parking is important because, after all, some of us were probably conceived in a parked car.
Among his former students, Shoup’s personality and approachability have made him a valued mentor. Richard Willson, a doctoral student of Shoup’s who is now chair of urban planning at Cal Poly Pomona, recalls being treated as an equal. “Although I had come from planning practice and he’s not a practitioner, I appreciated that instead of dismissing that knowledge he was always very appreciative of it,” Willson says. “He gave you the feeling of him learning from you as well as you learning from him.”
Those who have studied with Shoup speak of his meticulousness as an author and editor. “Of all our faculty, he’s the one who worries most about writing,” Wachs says. As he honed his own writing skills, Willson recalls learning from Shoup the importance of keeping his audience in mind. “Instead of discovering a truth and then sticking to it, he really took seriously the notion that you have to communicate with different audiences in different ways,” he says. “You have to search for simple ways for different people to understand an argument.”
Taylor sees this quality as key to what makes Shoup’s ideas take hold among a nonacademic audience. “He edits a magazine” — ACCESS, published by the University of California — “whose whole goal is to take arcane journal articles and make them clear and compelling to the average reader,” Taylor says. “He is devoted to editing his work to make it absolutely crystal clear to any reasonably intelligent person.
“What is unique about Donald’s writing is he makes you feel smart as you read it.”
Shoup often encountered situations where professional courtesy could have tempered the intensity of his belief in the economic truth of his ideas, but he would not compromise. His battles with UCLA administrators over parking policies are legendary, but Wachs recalls Shoup’s perseverance under pressure. “He would welcome it when he was critical of UCLA parking policy and various chancellors would fly into a rage,” he says. “And then he would take notes and respond, and immediately go to the weakest points of their arguments.” Truth would carry the day.
Jose Gomez-Ibanez, a Harvard professor who teaches in the Graduate School of Design and the Kennedy School of Government, has great respect for Shoup’s years spent in the planning wilderness. “Before his work, parking policy was an afterthought in planning,” he says, “and he alone convinced the planning academy and profession that the under-pricing of parking was not a trivial problem, but one which resulted in a substantial waste of resources.”
Wachs draws inspiration from Shoup’s decades-long journey from the fringes of planning academia to the mainstream. “I have to say with quite some confidence that his style of research and his meticulousness have strongly influenced me,” he says. “I don’t know that people recognize from afar how his polished projects are arrived at, but to me, his process of getting there has had tremendous impact on my own work.
“I have imitated him in my attention to detail and alacrity very clearly. I owe him a great deal in that regard,” Wachs added.
Ideas That Spread
A habit of seeing problems in approachable ways, a deep impact as an educator and a finely tuned skill as an editor have combined to make Shoup an extraordinarily influential thinker on planning and policy. His ideas address issues that, Taylor says, matter immensely to everyday people who face the day-to-day effects of these problems.
For example, to help spur improvements in low-income areas, Shoup proposed that sidewalk repairs and tree plantings be paid for through charges at the time a property is sold and not in advance, so lower income property owners can pay out of realized capital gains and not when they face unaffordable special assessment fees. Today, states from Michigan to California allow “deferred special assessments” to help finance these types of improvements.
When he realized that companies that offer free parking to their employees are in fact providing a valuable service tax-free, Shoup began making the case that the IRS should change their regulations. Following a modification to the Internal Revenue Code in 1997 — estimated to increase federal government revenues by $118 million over the subsequent decade — “parking cash-out” now allows employees who choose not to drive to receive this benefit as a cash payment instead.
Wachs credits Shoup’s effectiveness to his belief in the power of a well-reasoned argument. “He would never lose his temper,” Wachs says. “He understood that incorporating responses to criticism would strengthen his case. It’s fair and appropriate to say that he refocused a lot of building codes and zoning ordinances, which had grown by accretion and which were not intellectually supportable, by sheer persistence and deeper and more careful analysis.”
Shoup’s most notable contribution to America’s planning landscape is in highlighting the consequences of underpricing parking. In The High Cost of Free Parking, he demonstrated that minimum parking requirements artificially inflate building costs by adding the costs of accommodating parked cars to new development and then giving away those benefits to drivers who park for free. These costs can be substantial: As Shoup has pointed out repeatedly, free parking at work is often worth more than if employers filled up their workers’ gas tanks. Shoup highlighted the true price of this invisible subsidy and unveiled new ways for city planners to encourage public transit use and address environmental concerns.
As technology evolved, Shoup folded new innovations into his ideas. In April 2011 San Francisco launched SFpark, a system based on Shoup’s work that adapts the price of street parking spaces to match demand. Adjustments according to time of day, location and day of the week allow smart parking meters to change their prices, with a target of keeping 15% of spaces vacant on any block. Drivers searching for parking can use their smartphones to find a space at a distance from their destination at a price they’re willing to pay. By more closely matching the price of a space with demand, drivers waste less time and fuel circling the block looking for a spot to park. The system has helped the city manage meter occupancy effectively and has reduced circling for parking by 50%, according to a 2014 study, and “smart parking” programs are appearing in Los Angeles and other cities. “His ideas have largely defined what is considered best practice for much of the field of parking management, ideas that increasingly are being put in place in cities around the world,” SFpark program director Jay Primus says.
A Movement Emerges
As Shoup’s work has caught on, his students and fans have taken pride in aligning themselves with his revolutionary approach to thinking about cities. In the insular world of urban planning, Shoupistas are known as well-informed, sharp-minded individuals who aren’t afraid to think for themselves and make intelligent challenges to bad policies. And thanks to Shoup’s tenacity, their numbers are growing. A recent count of the official Shoupista Facebook group shows more than 2,400 members, both UCLA alumni and non-alumni alike, who post daily news updates and opinion on parking and land-use policy from around the world.
Patrick Siegman, a principal at the transportation consultancy Nelson\Nygaard, is considered the first Shoupista, and his involvement in the group as a person who never attended UCLA testifies to the strength of Shoup’s ideas. Siegman was an economics student at Stanford when he learned that a newly built parking structure on the university’s campus offered permits for the unbelievably low price of $6 per month. In his drive to learn the true cost of parking on campus, Siegman found himself “devouring” Shoup’s articles in the library. “I vividly remember sitting down in the stacks, reading his research papers on parking and laughing aloud at the insanity of it all,” Siegman says. “Don Shoup made it clear that the way we as a society handle parking is unfair, inequitable, economically damaging and environmentally destructive, and it results in some truly ugly places.”
Shoup’s approach to the topic inspired Siegman to focus on parking and transportation for his undergraduate honors thesis, which served as the foundation for a career as a transportation planner. “I have now been a practicing transportation planner for more than 20 years, and my colleagues and I still use the lessons we learned from Professor Shoup just about every day, in cities all over the world,” he says.
Even with a growing fan base, Shoup has been able to rely on one person remaining at his side — his wife Pat. Often seen riding her bicycle near UCLA, Pat Shoup is a fitting partner for Donald’s life as an urban economist with a singular focus. “They are a wonderful couple — sweet, delightful people,” Wachs says, “and she is just charming.” Those who know them reflect on how much Pat serves as an inspiration and companion to her husband. “I assume a big part of what he has done is due to her,” Willson says.
As the UCLA community prepares to welcome Donald Shoup to the emeritus phase of his academic career, it can count on a contribution of a different sort. The Shoups have generously endowed a fellowship fund at UCLA Luskin’s Department of Urban Planning, designed to defray the costs of graduate study for a student in transportation. “This is a fantastic avenue for Donald’s legacy to continue,” Blumenberg says. “There could not be a more fitting way to ensure that his ideas live on than through the next generation of transportation planners and planning scholars.”
Shoup himself echoes this sentiment, seeing the transition as a chance to give the next generation of planners room to grow. “At some stage it’s time to leave the theatre so other people can watch the movie,” he says.
Donald Shoup celebrated his retirement on May 30, at a fitting location: on top of UCLA’s Parking Structure 32 in Westwood. To make a contribution to the Donald & Pat Shoup Endowed Fellowship in Urban Planning, please visit UCLA’s giving site.