“Free Parking” Isn’t Green

web NREL Garage 3

But there’s one big environmental (and energy) problem with this shiny new structure: It’s an 1,800-space parking garage. Not only that, but (if you’re Donald Shoup, please don’t read this) they don’t charge employees anything to use the garage. The whole thing strikes us as utterly tone deaf and a flat contradiction to the organization’s mission statement. So, in addition to the lab being located in a suburban office park on the fringe of the Denver metro area, its employees are strongly incentivized—nay, subsidized—to drive their private cars to work. And that’s exactly what an overwhelming majority of them do.

A Giant, Free Garage Encourages Energy Consumption and Pollution

In 2017, we contacted the lab to learn more about commute patterns and parking policies. They shared with us the mode split from their latest (2014) commuting survey. Not surprisingly, about two-thirds of all workers drive alone to work daily, almost ten times the share that either carpool or vanpool. (The 2017 and 2021 data are included above).

Drive alone – 65%

Walk – 0%

Bicycle – 4%

Carpool – 5%

Vanpool – 2%

Transit – 14%

Motorcycle/Scooter – 1%

Telework – 9%

These figures represent typical commute patterns. As many as a quarter of lab employees telework at least some days, and the lab estimates that telework offsets about 9% of commute trips.

We asked about parking prices for commuters. In 2017, Lissa Myers, who is the lab’s sustainable transportation and climate change resiliency practice leader, told us:

Parking is free on our campus and we have an abundance of it.

That’s the problem, really. We have an abundance of proven technologies that are “high-performance, low-emission, energy-saving strategies”—they include dense cities, cycling, transit, walking and carpooling. But technologies don’t work, or don’t work well if we subsidize people to use energy-wasting alternatives and locate large concentrations of workers in places where they have few alternatives but to drive single-occupancy vehicles.

Location, Location, Location

And because the lab is located on the urban fringe, rather than in a central, transit-served location (like say, downtown Denver), its employees have few nearby housing options that would let them bike, walk, or take transit to work. The lab has a Walk Score of 30 (out of a possible 100), making it “car dependent”—the nearest coffee shops, restaurants, and grocery stores are more than half a mile away, and generally on the other side of the I-70 freeway, meaning that if employees leave the lab for errands or a meal, its most likely they’ll drive.

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