Saw this comment on a Youtube video about biking in Japan.
“Why does it cost to park? In Sweden there’s places to park your bike all over the place, and if there aren’t any places where you are, you just put it wherever.”
Because nothing in life is free. Bicycle parking economics work exactly the same as those for car parking. That is, it costs money to create and maintain the parking facilities, and the space they physically occupy could be used for something else if the parking lot wasn’t there. This is as true in some provincial town in Sweden as it is in Tokyo. The two main differences are in terms of land cost and crowdedness (which obviously will go hand-in-hand), but I’ll come to those in a moment.
When you drive to the store do you park for free? Now normally you don’t pay for parking directly, but then who paid for the land that parking lot sits on, who pays the taxes on that land, who paid to build a parking lot there, and who pays to maintain it? The store of course, but from the money they make from their customers. So it is the store’s customers who actually pay for everyone who parks there. So if you park at a store but don’t shop there, your parking is being paid for by those who do. And if you walk to that store, you’re subsidizing the cost of parking for everyone who drove. Similarly, if you drive downtown and park for free on the street, all the taxpayers of the city are paying for your parking. So maybe there is a meter to put coins into.
This concept works exactly the same for bikes. The main difference is that bikes are smaller and so each bike requires less space, or, in other words, costs less per bike to provide parking. If “in Sweden there’s places to park your bike all over,” who is paying for them? Probably they are provided by the city at the taxpayers’ expense. Hardly free, you’re just paying for it indirectly (which is not necessarily a bad thing). And if “you just put it wherever, forever”, then what insures your bike won’t become a menace or hazard to others?
As mentioned above, if you live in a relatively low-density place with relatively low land prices, the economics will often work out so that you never see a paid parking lot of any kind (bike or car). There is so much excess land that the loss of large tracks of it to parking isn’t very noticeable (i.e. expensive), and if you just leave your bike wherever there is a near zero chance that it will ever get in anyone’s way.
But Tokyo is the largest city the planet has ever seen. Land is super expensive. Any bit of land being used for parking could easily have profitable residential or commercial units built on it instead. You either need to charge for parking or carefully restrict parking to your paying customers in order for having built a parking lot (or more realistically, huge parking garage) to make sense economically. Similarly, Tokyo is very crowded. If people are allowed to leave bikes anywhere they feel like, sidewalks, entryways, etc. will soon become obstructed. Under normal circumstances this slows down the movement of people, impacting everyone’s ability to get to where they are going, and in an emergency this can cost lives.
Now sometimes you might want a city to pay for “free” bike parking in order to encourage bike use, but at the end of the day, parking is always costing someone something.