The Opportunity Cost of Free Parking in San Antonio

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The new home of Pig Liquors at 519 South Presa.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Cars park along South Presa Street in Southtown.

Our community pays untold sums of money to build it, have it, and maintain it, regularly compromising and sacrificing material well-being and our core values to ensure we have enough of it.

Day after day, year after year, we continue borrowing from future generations to ensure its abundance in the present. Many of us seek it out and spend our valuable time looking for it. We pay for it every time we make a purchase, and with every mortgage, rent, and tax bill.

I’m talking about free parking and parking the City of San Antonio mandates with new development. Parking is a money pit for cities that devote so much land to it when it could be put to better use.

Michael Kodransky, director of global and U.S. initiatives for the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy, once said, “nobody goes to a city because it has great parking,” Research shows parking incentivizes driving and leads to congestion, more vehicle miles traveled, and heightened air pollution.

Many cities, including, Houston, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville, Florida, are changing zoning and parking requirements to reduce and/or eliminate minimum parking requirements for new development and are adequately pricing parking to reduce the number of drivers in the urban core. Some international cities, such as Mexico City, are taking it a step further and getting rid of minimum parking requirements and only allowing a maximum number of parking spots to be built.

I’ve recently observed two public decisions in San Antonio that illustrate how the City is going in the opposite direction of most other cities, and how much we are willing to give up in order to maintain the free parking status quo.

The first is the North St. Mary’s Street bond project, where the City is proposing to use precious public space and public money to perpetuate the inclusion of free parking.

To understand what the broader community sacrifices for a public street construction project to include free street parking, consider any of the following alternatives:

  • Put in place demand-based pricing for on-street parking in neighborhoods and use the revenue from metered parking to pay for other neighborhood projects.
  • Install dedicated bike/scooter lanes with barriers to reduce air and water pollution, lessen traffic congestion, and improve health and safety.
  • Add functional landscaping that cleans polluted stormwater before it enters the river, improves the appearance of the street, and reduces flooding.

The second is City Council’s adoption of the reformed Infill Development Zoning (IDZ) categories that require homebuilders and new small businesses using two of the three new IDZ zones to build parking. Consider what the City could require of private housing developers or new small businesses instead of making them build parking:

  • Build more homes and apartments that are more affordable to more people.
  • Build more homes and apartments that are accessible to people with disabilities or designed for aging in place.
  • Place large canopy street trees and landscaping next to the development.
  • Invest in wider, decorative, or improved sidewalks or bike lanes.
  • Nothing – let developers decide how much parking they want to include in their project as some might want to market their product to people who don’t want or need parking.

I have a 3-month-old. By the time she is 16, there will be no need for drivers licenses or parking. The wave of the future is autonomous vehicles, mass transit, walking, and biking. San Antonio needs to jump onto the wave or it will drown in useless parking.

Our values and goals as a city include making our transit system better for all people and modes of transportation, so everyone can get around town conveniently, safely, reliably, and with a variety of choices; ensuring that everyone has an affordable place to live; leaving the next generation with a healthy, sustainable environment; and not leaving the next generation with obsolete infrastructure and a bunch of debt incurred to build it.

27 thoughts on “The Opportunity Cost of Free Parking in San Antonio

  1. This commenter is delusional. The world isn’t magically going to all-autonomous cars in 15 years. While I do think that ‘free’ parking can be costly in terms of development, it makes San Antonio’s downtown, which is honestly pretty forgettable if you’ve been anywhere else, affordable for citizens of the entire city to visit.

    You start charging exorbitant parking (looking at you, Austin) downtown will become a gentrified island that most of the city avoids like the plague. Great for the hypocritical urban liberal ‘elites’, who want to push out minorities without being honest about it, but not so great for increasing connectivity of the entire city.

      • Those who can’t afford a car pay for a lot more than just parking. They also pay for roads, street signs, bike lanes (even if they don’t own a bike), traffic signals. They also pay for a lot of other things that they don’t use that have nothing to do with a car. We all pay taxes! Some of that money goes towards things that you may use and some of it goes to things you’ll never use or even know about. Parking is a very small part of that budget.

    • At least part of her argument is that the government shouldn’t mandate how many parking spots I would put on my own property. Nor should the government artificially suppress parking prices by using tax dollars to subsidize them.

      While the tone of the article may feel liberal, the meat of these policies really isn’t.

      If you’d like strong government interference in what you do with your property and subsidized parking spots for the poor, I’m not certain you’re on the side of this argument you think you are.

  2. Dawn – I agree with you. The challenge is convincing folks the trade off is worth any added inconvenience in driving their own car (and cheaply and easily parking it) everywhere they go.

    The cars first attitude is prevalent, and it’ll take time to change. Just look at Jeff B. He came unglued and resorted to name calling at the mere suggestion of more expensive parking.

    Shame on the City for prioritizing parking on St. Mary’s. People shouldn’t be driving to the bars anyway!

  3. At least part of her argument is that the government shouldn’t mandate how many parking spots I would put on my own property. Nor should the government artificially suppress parking prices by using tax dollars to subsidize them.

    While the tone of the article may feel liberal, the meat of these policies really isn’t.

    If you’d like strong government interference in what you do with your property and subsidized parking spots for the poor, I’m not certain you’re on the side of this argument you think you are.

  4. “Government Mandate,” “Liberal Elites,” “Tax Dollar Subsidies,” “Gentrification,” “Don’t Be Like Austin”

    Hey, that’s a BINGO!

  5. Mass transit isn’t even a future wave as it’s been around in this city and all over the world in some manner or another for over a century. So far, bus lines in every city have done nothing to stem the tide of traffic. They do help those who can’t afford personal vehicles though so they are not a bad thing at all.

    This city is way too spread out. Just getting to the closest bus stop can be a journey for me because it is very far away. So most people would drive to the mass transit station and then you need a ton of parking at the station. We’re not like east coast cities where everything is walking distance from a subway station. But then again, because everything is so close to everything else, it means everything has been paved over to create that proximity. Limited green space to create the density needed to make rail transit viable (subway, trolley, etc)

    Autonomous vehicles need to be stored somewhere when you’re not driving them. They may be autonomous but the majority will still be privately owned so it won’t be like a huge fleet of rental vehicles.

    Walking? Really? I loved walking in NYC this past summer but again, everything was so close. My HEB is a good 2 miles away. Not far at all for some exercise. Lugging around groceries though does not make for a pleasant experience unless just a couple of days worth of groceries. I do not want to make several weekly visits to the grocery store. You could do curbside pick up.
    People complain about the wait for drive through lanes at Chick-fil-a. Can you imagine the mess if everyone did HEB Curbside?

    And I’m a cyclist. It’s only 5 miles to work, extremely short but through hill country that is an exhausting workout on roads packed with road warrior, over-sized trucks going double digit speeds over the speed limit who care less about the safety of the car in the lane next to them, much less the bike on the bike lane next to them.

    And there are plenty of poor families who go downtown to enjoy what this city has to offer. They use their cars to get there. No direct bus route from their home to downtown. Bus service ending before they’d head back home. And now you want to price them out of enjoying these downtown events with surge pricing.

    Hey, I’m all for metered parking instead of free parking. I’m used to having to pay for parking downtown. I’m for saving the environment. But the solutions presented are weak and not thought out enough to even want to see the other side of the coin.

  6. At the end of the day, developers have to prove to lenders, buyers, tenants and customers that they have adequate parking and codifying any number in the UDC will always have too much emphasis on what has worked or hasn’t in the past. The Pearl is a great example of finding this balance without any mandated parking requirement. I would bet if it had not been zoned IDZ, the traditional parking requirement would have been a major issue to making the project work.

    Its clear the speed at which this space is changing is breakneck. Uber isn’t even 10 years old and those who knew with certainty the impact it would have had could have made a mint shorting NYC Taxi Medallions. Regardless of whether or not you believe self-driving cars are 10 or 20 years away, the trend is clearly away from needing to drive your own car in all instances. Why then shouldn’t we acknowledge that the and let market forces steer the demand for parking, especially downtown?

    I, for one, am with Dawn. Our children will look at all this asphalt as kids today look at landline phones and wonder what kind of world existed 30 years ago.

    • ” Our children will look at all this asphalt as kids today look at landline phones and wonder what kind of world existed 30 years ago.”

      this is a delusion, John. The world is never going back to 1960, you better get on board and wake up to the reality.

    • Mr. Cooley, Pearl has the area underneath the highway for their parking. With all the other surrounding surface parking lots, they have thousands of parking spaces at their disposal. I wonder what they would have done without all that parking.

  7. The research on this subject has already been done, and the article is correct. Minimum parking zoning requirements add to blight, increase traffic, and do NOT increase generated revenue. Not for the attached business, and not for the city collecting taxes.

    There’s a lot more ink spilled on the subject, and more in-depth analysis, here:

  8. I am a 75-year old native San Antonian who loves downtown San Antonio, but not enough to pay $5 to $25 or more to park to go to dinner or to most events at the Tobin or Majestic. I took advantage of Downtown Tuesday to dine at Mi Tierra last night. I live north of the airport and Via busses even if available would add an hour or more to my time to go downtown and back not to mention having to contend with the weather getting to and from and waiting for the bus. I enjoy walking and regularly walk 10k but not when I am dressed to attend an event or go dine.

    • I so agree. I managed to get downtown today on the bus. But I need a rollator and it’s a hassle. Some areas are just impossible to get a bus or car to. Either no parking or way expensive parking.
      I grew up in a downtown and there was always a mix of parking and public transportation.

  9. For over a century, Popular Mechanics magazine has been featuring articles about aerocars — hybrid vehicles that could be used both as cars and airplanes. Hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps never will. The same could be true for autonomous cars. Ain’t happened yet, at least not on a widespread commerical level. When it actually happens, we can adapt quickly and repurpose our parking lots. Until then, it remains a futurist’s dream…

  10. Thank you Dawn. You wrote a great article on the high cost of parking spaces and the need to manage this cost.

    As quality of life deteriorates due to car congestion and car pollution, I and other people will seek other transportation options. It is a matter of when.

    Transportation options will include walking, biking, and other transit options.

    Managing the costs of parking spaces will include converting some parking spaces and parking plans to walking, biking, and other transit options.

    Please see my website,, for ideas on facilitating the use of walking, biking, VIA buses, and other transit. currently facilitates the use of trails and VIA Bus transit for tourists visiting the Spanish Missions. Future enhancements will facilitate the use of VIA buses and other transit for San Antonio residents. Success with tourists will help succeed with transit options for San Antonio residents.

    Provide me some feedback.

  11. To focus on “free parking” as the pit of despair is a little silly. Especially when we don’t have the beginnings of positive transit options such as state-wide light rail or even good commuter bus service to nearby small cities on the table.

    Dogma seldom yields good public policy. If ever. Discussing and aiming at long term goals is one of the core responsibilities of every city. We are doing that here in San Antonio. Sometimes visioning is on the mark, oftentimes it isn’t. A fifteen year horizon for transitioning entirely to self-driving vehicles? Highly unlikely, and this assertion muddies the more realistic notions put forth.

    For example, trimming back the number of parking spaces and square footage scale that some of these development behemoths such as IKEA demand might be a good starting place. Perhaps some of these big guys should be encouraged to design smarter before bestowing our urban corporate welfare upon them. However, we do not need to diminish downtown parking to achieve these goals. We can walk and chew gum.

    For now, San Antonio is still a car city and will continue to need parking spaces for awhile. To advocate for destroying what we do have and need in the short term (5-10 years) at the service of abstract futurist goals would be irresponsible. Humans change when we are forced into untenable positions. I don’t see a whole bunch of folk giving up their F-150s or Suburbans any time soon. There is little motivation to do so, and people do love to drive their cars.

    Trust me that the changes will come, but in their own good time.

  12. OMG you really lured out the trolls. Great article. Great ideas. Thank you! I especially appreciate your mentioning the need for protected bike lanes.

  13. Other than landing on it when playing Monopoly I’ve never used, heard of or seen free parking in any major metro. NYC, LA, Boston, Dallas etc.

    Parking is an incurable nightmare of urban life. Uber is the best solution to date.

  14. The price of parking varies with the distance from things in the downtown. Across the street, up to $15. A quarter mile away 5 quarters in a meter. The master plan for the “river North” included a series of garages, the city erased most of them on it’s edit. Free? A rare discovery.

  15. Managing parking in the historic King William and Lavaca neighborhoods has been a nightmare, in part because residents have been unwilling to experiment, businesses have been unwilling to experiment, and the City has been unwilling to spend the money to experiment. Many of the Southtown businesses have no parking requirements thanks to grandfathering and IDZ zoning. Likewise, many residential lots do not have parking because they predate general ownership of automobiles. The City’s parking spot survey revealed there were enough parking spots, but not in front of the door people want to walk to. Attitudes across the board need to change. And let’s hope the residential parking permit system piloting in Lavaca works.

  16. When we did the inter-agency (AACOG, City of San Antonio, San Antonio River Authority, San Antonio Development Agency) design for the River Corridor through the downtown area in 1973, one of the struggles we faced was how to get people to live and work downtown.

    This effort resulted in two “pilot” affordable housing developments on the “fringe”, on Martin and San Saba. Since the market was not there at the time, the financing was done by a consortium of local banks so that they could share the risk. Although they filled up, no one except for the Mexican American Unity Council (MAUC) and the Development Agency built anything else that was affordable until the City of San Antonio incentives were rolled out. These incentives were an afterthought to counteract criticism about doling out free tax money for high priced, no design urban “boxes” around the Pearl! The design reminds me of multifamily public housing projects in Mexico and to a smaller extent Moscow! I don’t know where the Design Standards played a role in these facilities.

    At that time, we wanted to create a vital downtown area just like we do today. We also faced the problem of how to get people who live outside the downtown area to patronize the businesses and cultural event locations in the downtown area. We faced this problem by deciding to get the City of San Antonio into the parking reservoir business. The idea was developed as a twofold approach. The first was to provide “centralized higher density parking facilities” to make it easier for people to park within a short distance from their destinations in the downtown area. The second was to provide “affordable” parking by keeping rates as low as possible and thereby influence the cost of other low density private parking facilities in the downtown area. The City actually built the facilities, but in the search for additional revenues, they failed to look at the second goal. Thus we have City facilities which charge as much as the private sector parking lots.

    The Pearl is becoming a victim of its own success even with the use of parking under the expressway and their parking reservoirs. This is also impacting the same people who would use it as a public space by attending the may great functions, free concerts, and other attractions in the area.

    But back to parking. While the concepts in the article are great, we have to remember that it has taken more than 45 years to even approach the critical mass of downtown or near downtown dwellers to begin the process of making downtown livable again. Sure the Ubers and Lyfts, Bike Sharing, scooters, etc, have provided increased downtown mobility, but Texas is a big state, and people are loath to abandon the flexibility provided by their cars.

    This flexibility is being negatively impacted by the congestion caused by a growing population and of course, more cars. Even the trend towards smaller cars is gone because of low gas prices. This fact has been recognized by the car manufacturers who are selling SUV’s and larger cars and abandoning the smaller and less polluting hybrids.

    It is a long litany of “happenings” to get to the point, but I think that sometimes people forget what has been done in the past to try to solve multiple problems which we face in our great city.

    The answer lies in one word—“demand”! There was no demand for central city housing until it became “fashionable”. I doubt that even these people have given up their cars.

    The demand for fewer streets and parking is not there now. It is something which has to be created and which people have to accept at the new trend. Until we find ways to create this demand, we will continue to design and build infrastructure for the 20th century. I wonder what would happen if the media (Rivard Report?) would do a series of articles on the cost of maintaining our streets and sidewalks in our never ending quest to be like Houston or LA? How do these costs compare to other budget items, and how could we begin to transition from the 20 to the 21st century in urban design. We have to start somewhere, why not here!

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