From private parking to public parking: part of the Adaptive Parking agenda

Alvin drives to a shopping district. First he needs some pliers, so he parks his car in the parking lot of the hardware store. Next he needs the bank, some stamps and a haircut. All are available nearby so he leaves the car where it is and heads off on foot. When he returns to the car, the owner of the hardware shop is angry that he parked there for an hour while running other errands.
Who is right?

The hardware shop parking is private and intended for customers. So maybe its owner has a point. But Alvin did buy something and it would have been ridiculous to get in the car to drive 50 metres for fruit, then again for banking, and again for the haircut. It seemed natural, once he was parked, to treat the hardware shop parking lot as public parking.

We have a conflict and a dilemma. The free private parking that is encouraged by conventional parking policy becomes a source of conflict in mixed-use neighbourhoods. By contrast, both parking management and market-oriented approaches to parking (such as Adaptive Parking), encourage public parking which is well-suited to such areas.

Don't be confused by the word 'public' here. I am not talking about government-owned parking. I am talking about parking that is open to the general public. So public parking is often privately owned.

The conventional suburban approach to parking policy assumes that most parking will be associated with just one premises. In fact, it asserts this as the norm by requiring parking with every development. In extremely automobile-oriented locations, such parking is private simply because many parking lots and buildings are isolated.

This Jeff Tumlin graphic illustrates how parking arrangements in car-oriented suburbia inflate both parking demand and traffic.

Destinations like those portrayed above have nowhere else to walk to easily. So they don't worry too much about spillover and they usually don't need signs like this one below.


However, we have a problem when suburban-style parking policy is imposed on places that are even slightly more dense and urban. Ample parking requirements often keep parking prices at zero. But parking once and then walking seems the natural thing to do. The assumption that each parking lot serves its own premises clashes with the reality of walkable neighbourhoods with multiple destinations. So we see disputes like Alvin's with the hardware store owner.

The Oregonian's commuting columnist and blogger, Joseph Rose, grappled with a similar real-life example in April (although in that case, the on-street parking is priced). And here is a follow-up.

Adaptive Parking prefers public parking over private. 

In fact, this is one of the five central reform principles for Adaptive Parking, which aims to get more of the benefits of market responsiveness into our parking systems.

Why does Adaptive Parking call for more parking to be open to the public (or at least shared) and for less of it to be private? Primarily because Adaptive Parking seeks market responsiveness in parking. This requires park-once districts. And, for various reasons, park-once districts work best with most of their parking open to the public.

Here is the park-once district alternative in another Jeff Tumlin diagram. By the way, the Atlantic Cities profiled Jeff's parking work recently.

If your community decides that it likes the idea of Adaptive Parking, you will need to promote park-once districts with mostly public parking and discourage the practice of keeping parking private.

But how would that solve the conflict between Alvin and the hardware store owner? Adaptive Parking would encourage all of the businesses in the area to make their parking public and open to each other's customers and clients. If demand is high enough, it would also encourage them to price their parking using performance pricing. This would ensure parking availability in the area and allow retailers to stop worrying about free riders, like Alvin, parking in their lots.


  1. John Van Horn at the Parking Today blog has linked to this post with some interesting comments (

    The pertinent bit: "Great idea, but I think it could be don’t without government intervention. What if a private operator proposed the solution to the merchants. The operator would take care of the paperwork, collect the money, and distribute the profits. The “downtown merchants” could validate if they liked, or share in the rewards. Parkers could park anywhere but would, by means of a rate structure, not overstay the limits set by the merchants."


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