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Parking: What's Wrong and How to Fix It

We should stop planning parking the way we plan toilets.

I began with that odd (but true) statement to get your attention, obviously. But I am also serious.

Many people think parking policy is boring, which is unfortunate, because boring or not, parking is important.

If you care about cities and urban mobility, you really need to pay some attention to parking.

Most local governments really do plan parking the same way they plan toilets (using minimum parking/toilet requirements) and it is disastrous. More on that below.

Municipalities do this because of another mistake - treating on-street parking as a public good (and therefore failing to manage it properly). Please take note: parking in cities is generally NOT a public good.

These two mistakes cause huge problems:
1. on-street parking problems, which worsen many other mobility and street problems, and 
2. a slow-motion disaster of increasingly excessive (but under-used) off-street parking supply which fuels car dependence.

It's sad. We deserve better. We deserve urban success. We even deserve parking-policy success. But we certainly don't need parking excess.

This article and episode explains these problems and one possible path to doing better: Adaptive Parking.

It's a close cousin of Donald Shoup's parking ideas and it should be of interest to urbanists and advocates of sustainable transport, of cycling for all, of public transport, of walkability, housing affordability, transit-oriented infill development and of fiscally resilient cities and towns.

Read more below.

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This Reinventing Transport article/episode draws on material from my other website and podcast, Reinventing Parking. Take a look and consider subscribing there as well.

Parking eats up space and is expensive

Many cities devote a huge amount of real estate for storing vehicles.

And all that floor space is expensive. "A good rule of thumb is it costs more than the car that it's going to serve. Generally a car costs less than a structured parking space," said Todd Litman in Episode 3 of the Reinventing Parking podcast.

Most cities plan parking the same way they plan toilets. And it's a bad idea.

What I mean is that most jurisdictions have minimum parking requirements, which are just like their restroom requirements.

Every development is required to provide enough parking to meet its own demands, just like every development is required to provide enough restrooms.

The rationale is the same in both cases. We don't want people to do it in the streets. Ahem.

But parking is NOT like restrooms in crucial ways.
This parking is under a private building but is
open to the public and priced. Pereira, Colombia. 
  • People are generally happy to park in the streets and do so without embarrassment. Providing off-street parking is no guarantee of preventing a parking mess in the streets.
  • Restrooms are for all but parking is for motorists. And in many cities around the world, motorists are a small and privileged minority. 
  • Vehicles occupy parking for widely varying periods of time. Unlike restrooms.
  • We can predict a building's need for restrooms. It is difficult to predict how much parking is needed.
  • It is not costly to provide more than enough restrooms and we don't have to devote more floor space to restrooms than to the main purpose of the building to be confident of having enough. In car-dependent societies, most buildings have more parking space than their main use of floor space. 
  • An accidental oversupply of restrooms doesn't do any harm or promote excessive use of restrooms. But an oversupply of parking does promote car use, car ownership and excessive traffic generation.
  • Finally, a toilet shortage is a serious problem but parking shortages are often self-correcting (if we allow market responses to kick in). In areas with a shortage of toilets, buildings with restrooms often try to keep outsiders from using them. By contrast, in areas with tight parking supply (such as most city centres), building owners often respond by making some of their parking open to the public and by pricing it. Temporarily vacant land often also gets used for parking. Valet parking businesses often emerge and the taxi and ride-hailing industries rise to the occasion. Cities can help too by improving walking, bicycle and public transport to the area. 
So, requiring developers to provide restrooms is a good thing. Requiring them to provide on-site parking is harmful and pointless.

It is much more helpful to think of off-street parking as more like restaurants or meeting rooms. Think of parking as a real estate service for each area and make parking policy accordingly.

Let the real-estate industry handle most of the supply of off-street parking. They do this well enough, without being forced to, so long as free-riding on the on-street parking is kept under control.

Which brings me to the next topic.

On-street parking is an over-burdened commons NOT a public good. 

Thinking of on-street parking as a public good is a trap. It is understandable but outdated.

It may once have been accurate to think of parking as a public good (which, in economics, means that your use does not affect my use and that it would be too much trouble to bother rationing or excluding anybody). Describing on-street parking as a public good is only accurate in places with few motor vehicles and plenty of vacant kerbside space.

But most parts of most cities are no longer like that. So thinking of parking as a public good is now a mistake. My parking usually DOES affect your use of it. Without rationing, the parking fills up, causing problems like illegal parking and double parking and parking search traffic (not to mention pleas for the city to do something about the 'shortage').

It's much better to think of on-street parking as a Commons. In particular, think of it as an overused common property resource, like an over-fished river or an over-grazed pasture. And just like those examples, parking needs to be managed to avoid problems.

Urban parking problems: an acute problem and a chronic one

Unfortunately, we often fail to manage on-street parking properly even after it ceases to be a public good and becomes an overburdened common property resource.

This causes acute problems in the streets. Whenever on-street parking fills up, many resort to illegal parking or double parking. Many spend time circling around in search of parking, worsening traffic problems in the process.

Just as bad, the usual 'cure' prescribed for these acute on-street parking problems is to require off street parking. It is the planning parking like we plan toilets thing again. And some cities also try to provide a lot of off street parking themselves.

Trying to solve on-street parking problems by boosting off-street parking supply just doesn't work very well. The real solution to on street parking problems is, surprise surprise, managing on street parking.  If you don't manage the on-street parking, much of the off street parking will remain underused. It happens time and again all around the world.

I said above that parking shortages are often self-correcting. But on-street parking problems are not self-correcting. They require municipal action in the form of parking management.

Although boosting off-street parking supply doesn't solve on-street problems, it can and often does massively overshoot and cause an excess of parking. This drives down the price of parking (often to zero) and fuels car-dependence. Forcing an excess of parking into real-estate developments also drives up their costs. Just as importantly, it drives down the supply of real estate, including housing. This sends prices upwards, harming housing affordability.

It is a very expensive and destructive way to not really address the actual problem.

An alternative: the Adaptive Parking agenda

So what's the alternative?  I have put together a package of municipal parking policies that I think can help. They're inspired by Donald Shoup, Japanese parking policies, Todd Litman and several other people with excellent ideas about parking. I call this package "Adaptive Parking".

Adaptive Parking has six policy thrusts summarised by the memory aid: RESPOnD. Each is explained briefly below.

I try not to be dogmatic about this and I have tried to make Aaptive Parking easy to modify to suit widely varying contexts. Feedback is welcome of course.

Think of Adaptive Parking as a set of useful parking policy thrusts that work together towards a more urban-compatible and multi-modal-friendly approach to parking. 

It aims for parking success without excess. It tries to make parking more responsive to local conditions. Even in the most car-dependent areas, small steps in these directions would be helpful.

Relax about parking ‘shortage’

The R in RESPOnD stands for "relax" about parking supply. In other words, stop fretting about parking supply. Stop boosting parking supply.

Especially it means abolish parking minimums - abolish minimum parking requirements. This is also a central part of Donald Shoup's agenda.

This is not as radical as it may sound. A recent episode of Reinventing Parking podcast talked about how Berlin has abolished its car parking minimums. So have London, São Paulo and Mexico City.

Your city can too!

Engage with the community

The E in RESPOnD is "engage".

This involves being realistic that there are important segments of each community who feel a sense of ‘ownership’ over local parking (despite no legal basis for those feelings).

Success with the Adaptive Parking agenda requires finding ways to ease the fears of local residents and local business owners, without undermining the rest of the agenda. We need to offer them some value.

Donald Shoup's 'Parking Benefit Districts' suggestion is one way to do this. But each context is different. We will need many locally appropriate ways to engage with the community to make change possible.

Share: make more of the existing parking open to the public or shared

The S in RESPOnD is "share". By that I mean open more of the parking that already exists in each area to the public. Make parking more of a public thing and therefore shared.

On the Reinventing Parking website I talk a lot about Walkable Parking.

This involves abandoning the old idea that parking has to be provided on-site with every building, with every development site. It means instead thinking of parking as something for the whole neighbourhood.

We need significantly less parking if parking is shared and public than if we require every single building to have enough parking for its own peak times. This works best if the neighbourhood is mixed-use because different land-uses have different peak parking times. It goes very well with walkable urbanism in mixed-use, relatively dense neighbourhoods where people can park, or come by some other method of course, and walk around.

So this idea of "share", emphasizing public parking, emphasizing Walkable Parking is compatible with walkability.

Price: ration parking with the aim of always having a few vacancies

The P in RESPOnD is "price". It is about rationing.

The general idea is simple. Let parking prices rise if the relevant parking is consistently too full. Let the prices fall if the parking is too empty. Leave prices alone if the parking occupancy is just right.

For on-street parking and city-owned off-street parking this means establishing a demand-responsive price-setting approach with regular reviews for each pricing zone (and, often, several periods in the day).

Many cities now do this.

For private-sector parking, this agenda means refraining from controlling the prices (as unfortunately, too many planes in India, China, Indonesia, Colombia and Vietnam do).

Also relevant to the 'price' agenda is encouraging employers and residential developers to give parking an explicit price instead of hiding the cost by bundling it with other things.

On-street parking needs strong control

The "On" in RESPOnD is about on street parking. In particular, on street parking needs strong control.

Getting firm and effective on street parking management is a key foundation for the whole thing. We can't relax about parking supply unless we have on street parking under better control.

The crux of it is we need to get the Design of on-street parking better. We need to improve the Enforcement of on street parking, and we need to ration on street parking more effectively - in many cases usually that means pricing.

Parking as a Demand Management Tool

And finally the D in RESPOnD is "Demand Management".

Did you notice that the previous Adaptive Parking thrusts were not about restricting parking or about deliberately using it to shape travel behavior? They were merely about managing it well and refraining from boosting its supply.

But this last thrust does involve parking policy as a travel demand management tool for locations that need it. This involves imposing restrictive parking maximums.

This is probably only a good idea for locations with rich travel options, such as transit-oriented business districts.

This also only works well in contexts that have avoided creating excessive parking.

It will be scary if the the on-street parking is not already under good control. So it is a good idea to get the Adaptive Parking basics right first.

Parking supply limitation is powerful. It is also surprisingly politically feasible and has been applied in hundreds of city centres in many countries.

London was a pioneer in restricting its central city parking supply and gradually driving the price of parking upwards. Seoul is another example. Its main business districts restrict the supply of parking quite intensely and allow the commercial parking prices to increase.

The Prize

The prize that Adaptive Parking is seeking is more freedom, more choices, more options. It helps ease the ways that excessive and poorly-managed parking now cuts of options for citizens and cities.

If we can do better, without parking excess, we'll reduce traffic, we'll improve housing affordability, we'll unleash a land bank that's currently in parking in many places, and we'll give transit oriented development and urban infill a boost - without creating horrendous traffic.

I think many places around the world could benefit from even small steps on each of these Adaptive Parking policy thrusts. Do you? Could something like this work for you? Is this relevant to your efforts?

If you made it this far, I think that makes you a bona fide Parking Nerd. You should definitely check out my Reinventing Parking site and podcast!

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  1. What you haven't mentioned is removing parking minimums, and even parking completely, from residential developments. Just as with commercial developments, parking minima for residential increases costs, creates unpleasant urban environments and is often under-used. Many cities require parking for 3 cars + for 4 bedroom dwellings. In inner-city areas and in locations close to transit this isn't necessary. In many parts of inner London, new housing developments are now car-free: no residential parking is provided and purchasers must agree that they will not get an on-street parking permit, either. If they need to use a car for particular journeys then car share, taxis or Uber are available. And these developments are popular. We are now at the point where parking policy must start to address car ownership as well as use

    1. Thanks Nick. Certainly! The "Relax" agenda includes abolishing parking minimums and I mean all of them, not just certain land uses. I guess I wasn't clear enough about that above or in the podcast. The cities mentioned (Berlin, London, Mexico City, etc) have abolished residential parking minimums as well as the others.

  2. Very insightful. The need to treat them as restaurants and not toilets is a nice analogy that we can use even in India.

    We make similar arguments to manage on-street parking and not to build more off-street parking that encourages car-use. However, the one question traffic management groups come up with is 'without on-street or off-street parking what do we do with all the vehicles being added to the city?'. Since our cities don't have restrictions on the total number of vehicles registered, how would you respond to this question?

    Thank you

    1. Thanks Ravi. Tell them that abolishing parking minimums is NOT the same as abolishing parking!

      If on-street parking is well managed, we can trust developers to think carefully about how much parking each building needs. Most will still provide some.

      In cities like Berlin or London, that don't have parking minimums anymore, most new buildings still do have parking provided on-site. But some buildings in transit-oriented locations now get built with no parking or nearly no parking. In such locations this is not a problem.

    2. That's other words, Government should stick to managing the public asset i.e. the road space efficiently and let developers manage their own asset i.e. space allocation within the building/ development, thereby making it market responsive. Current process of preempting parking demand isn't very efficient.


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