Who pays for parking?


parkingThere’s more than one row going on in Westminster. Over the weekend, Westminster Council announced changes to its parking policy that would charge for spots on evenings and weekends (you can read the details here). Churchgoers plan to protest the Sunday parking fee, the effect of which would surely be nothing less than mass apostasy. The Council is due to weigh such grievous harms and decide in August whether to implement the proposal.

I doubt that the Council will make its decision on the basis of Church objections, or I at least hope that it will not. A secular government has no business subsidising access to religious services. The bigger question, though, is whether the government has any business subsiding parking at all.

Free parking is something of a misnomer. Automobiles are unique among modes of transport for the enormous terminal capacity they require. Unlike trains, airplanes, and ships, which require their respective – ports, cars demand several parking spaces each. The high cost of this parking is not borne by the motorist but is subsidised by local governments, business owners, and employers. Donald Shoup, the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, claims that the annual invisible subsidy for free parking in the United States may approximate that country’s yearly national defence budget. The UK does not have the same “car culture” as the U.S., but it is still subsidising parking space. The free parking Westminsterites currently enjoy comes directly out of their own pockets, regardless of whether they use it.

This is unfair. The government does not have a responsibility to facilitate car ownership. There is no right to own a car. Many of the people whose taxes pay for parking never use the service. The subsidy makes car ownership artificially cheap, and is distortional. Westminster Council should not only charge on evenings and weekends, but should charge market rates at these and all other times. (As with all new government charges, this should be offset by a general council tax cut.) Or, better yet, sell off parking spaces to the private sector. Now there’s a heretical idea.