Why so little progress on eliminating parking minimums?

One of Donald Shoup's two big suggestions, performance parking pricing, is slowly but surely taking off. But his other major policy thrust, eliminating minimum parking requirements, is being widely ignored.

Here is Don Shoup in an interview with John Van Horn of the Parking Today magazine (It is quite a good read. Take a look!):
... I wanted to show that minimum parking requirements damage cities, the economy and the environment. The first 272 pages of the book are essentially an attack on minimum parking requirements, and no one has risen to defend them. Nevertheless, most city planners continue to set minimum parking requirements as though nothing had happened.

... Although the planning profession’s lack of interest in reforming off-street parking requirements has been disappointing, I was surprised and delighted by the interest in charging market prices for curb parking.
So, despite widespread attacks on parking minimums there are very few takers for eliminating them (or even reducing them!).

There seems to be next to no interest in such reform in auto-oriented suburbs where the parking minimums are at their most extreme. Even worse, various rapidly motorising countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Latin America are keener than ever on minimum parking requirements, despite all the warnings about them from people like ITDP and GIZ's SUTP programme.

What are we doing wrong? Why is it so hard to shift this bad policy?

Without getting too much into the public policy theories on why some policy proposals take off and some don't, here (below the fold) are a few possibilities.

The idea of minimum parking requirements is very simple: just require every site to have enough parking. People get it. They don't care (or know) that in actual practice there is enormous complexity. They are not aware of the foolishness of parking minimums that are determined with great precision but little accuracy. It is tough to shake people's faith in the simple mantra that development sites must be made responsible for their own parking demand.

The problems caused by parking minimums are 'chronic' (long-term and relatively intangible) not 'acute' (painful here and now... 'ouch'). They are not very salient to most people and they are hard to explain. The resulting inefficiencies don't stand up and wave big signs saying 'parking minimums caused me!' It takes some analysis and explaining to see them. How many people know that parking minimums make the rejuvenation and re-use of inner city buildings very difficult? How many people know that parking minimums make housing less affordable?

So if your idea of a parking problem is when you can't easily find a free space, you may be happy with parking in car-oriented suburbs. And no-one blames parking minimums for their parking search frustrations in inner cities. 

Wait a minute! The oceans of parking in automobile dependent landscapes are not invisible! But for people who have lived all their lives in such places, all that parking just seems normal. It doesn't register as a problem, except when it is full. I certainly didn't question it as I grew up in the Australian suburbs.

Even worse, eliminating parking minimums provokes fears of spillover. I think spillover is a bogey monster, which would cease to be a problem if we did parking policy right. But it is a bogey that most people find much easier to visualise than the problems caused by the minimums. And without smarter parking policies, I guess they have reason to worry.

Shoupistas are obviously having a hard time persuading people that performance pricing means never having to worry about spillover. The connection is not obvious enough perhaps.

And the prospect of new pricing then gets portrayed as a problem in itself. It seems to provoke horror for many suburbanites who are used to free parking everywhere they go.

Pricing shouldn't be so frightening in inner cities of course. But I guess it doesn't help that many of the new trials of performance pricing are not also implementing the sweetener policy that Shoup says should always go with it: returning on-street parking revenue to the area that generates it via parking benefit districts. 

Do YOU have a good explanation for the surprising resilience of parking minimums in the face of all the attacks on them? How could parking reformers do better on this one?

Photo by Flickr user Zach Bonnell


  1. Overflow is the big issue-- but the overflow is often based on free or very cheap on-street parking.

    For example in my neighborhood (a very urban city near Boston), people often use on-street parking even when they have a driveway-- this is because a parking permit is only $30 a year. The market rate for parking off street is between $60 and $120 per month depending on neighborhood.

    In order to prevent spill-over a developer has to offer free parking and even then parking on street is very tempting because it's often more convenient then using a garage. The easy answer (not counting the politics) is to manage on street parking with higher prices.

    When on-street parking is high enough, there will be more available on street parking (basic Shoup 101). With more on-street parking available there will be less pressure to require developers to provide lots of off-street parking.

    Long winded way of saying: Towns have to get the price of on-street right before they can reduce or eliminate off-street parking minimums.

  2. It is obvious if you analyze who owns a commercial property over time.

    The people, who should do long-term decision making (let's say a builder erects a property with a life span 50 years), typically don't stay there for that long. Investment into properly sized parking means deminished short term returns. Office footage is more profitable than parking spaces. 1. Properties are bought for offices not for parking. 2. In the beginning of a commercial project the place is new, not known and enjoyes little infrastructure skirt. There are not enougth big-name restaurants, entertainment centers and well-ridden meeting places. The demand for parking in the beginning is less than at the end of property life. The builder can save on investments building for the immediate demand. The builder gets on her margins by selling a future knowing that nobody has the expertise to prove if the product will live up to the expectations. It's similar to selling you a chair that holds you, when you are young and slim, but breaks under your weight later.

    Whoever comes after that isn't a changer but a squeezer. The mind set is different. Those people are maintainers. Their management mantra is past experience, cash flow and discounts. You can kill them but they will not overcome fear of the words investment, significant upgrade, etc. They are very skilled though in informing city officials that city's properties (streets) and service vendors have to step up, provide cheap parking, othervise the business property will underperform, bring less taxes, embody a balck eye of the city. The maintainer gets on her margins by shifting expenses to whoever is weak and willing to take them on. It is similar to throwing other people's bodies under the chair is the legs are crambling.

    Parking limits is a simple solution that doesn't require complex policy or subject matter expertiese to manage the situation properly.


  3. This post got me thinking when you wrote it, and I have finally gotten around to responding with something on my own blog (which links to this post...)

    I work with downtowns and Main Street environments to improve their economic performance. And always, in underperforming commercial districts, there is this laser focus on lack of parking as the cause for all business woes. (I have yet to find a district where that is the ACTUAL problem, however.)

    It is quite difficult for planners, with no background in commerce, to talk to these districts about how to function optimally, and the role parking plays in that. So instead, they try to be responsive to the vehement concerns of their business constituents...causing minimums to linger on.

    Please see the post below for more info!



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