Why Some Beaches Have Free Parking and Others Don't

There are still places where beach parking is free. But not many. Photo: Nick Baker//Unsplash

The Inertia

Nothing irks a surfer like searching for parking when the waves are firing. All the while the wind is picking up as you circle the parking lot over and over.

Even worse, is not being prepared when you finally score a spot — got coins for the meter? Is your pricey permit up to date? 

The beach-parking struggle is real. 

“No one wants to pay for parking, including most voters and me,” said Dr. Donald Shoup, parking guru and professor from UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning. 

Then why do some beaches charge for it while others don’t? The answer is money, and it’s determined by city councils and local voters.

We’ve loathed parking meters since 1935 when Oklahoma installed the world’s first one, called Park-O-Meter No. 1. However, Shoup has found that paying for parking is for the greater good. It eases traffic by increasing turnover, therefore reducing carbon emissions from relentless searching. The revenue contributes to public services including parking space construction and maintenance.

I grew up on Hawaii’s Big Island, where my home break was the now lava-covered Shacks at Isaac Hale Beach Park, aka Pohoiki. Pohoiki’s parking was easy peasy — unmarked, unpaved, not a meter in sight. 

Later I lived on Oahu’s North Shore where beach parking is harder to find, but still free.

Actually, most Hawaian beaches offer free parking, minus a few places like monuments and nature preserves. Even beach parks nestled among Honolulu’s city streets still designate some free spots for the public. 

“The movements to charge for beach parking in Hawaiʻi are less about making money, and more about managing the capacity of the beaches,” explained Ilihia Gionson of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. “We know that too many people in a natural space can have negative impacts on the health of that ecosystem.”

Hermosa Beach, California made headlines this month when the city council proposed moving paid meter enforcement from 10 to 8 a.m. Surfers weren’t stoked, but it could be worse. Some breaks are nearly impossible to surf thanks to private beach accesses in high-end neighborhoods, like Malibu’s Little Dume.

“Parking fees can be a barrier of entry to the coasts for many communities, impeding their ability to enjoy and steward the coast and ocean,” said Zach Plopper, the Surfrider Foundation’s Senior Environmental Director.

That’s exactly what’s happening in New York, where I live now. 

Where I grew up, the ocean was a place everyone could afford to enjoy. Whether catching a fish for dinner or a wave for fun, we were all equal on the beach.

“Open access to the ocean is very much tied in with the cultural values of Hawaii’s residents and host culture,” said Nathan Serota of Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

Not here.

To surf Long Island’s South Fork town beaches in the summer, you need a resident parking permit and a multi-million dollar home. Or, a seasonal or monthly non-resident permit with price tags of $300 to $500. County beaches require a $30 Green Key Card and still charge more every time you go, unless you bought an annual outer beach permit too for $110 to $250.

But us surfers are still gonna go — no matter what. 

Like the super pregnant woman at Ditch Plains last year who asked me for a ride back to her car in Montauk Village where she taxied from so her son could surf. She wins “Mom of the Year.”

Meters don’t sound so bad now, do they?

Paid parking is here to stay. But to ease the pain, enjoy every wave. And when you pay your dues, remember it’s doing good for your community, and your beach. 


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