Challenging cultural expectations towards parking

[This is a guest post by Stuart Donovan from Auckland, New Zealand]

In my work as a consultant transport planner I quickly realised that the topic of parking falls into the same category as sex, money, and religion – it’s just one of those topics you should avoid bringing up in the course of polite conversation, lest you wish to offend your hosts.

The reason being is that while many cities tend to have an over-supply of under-priced parking, most inhabitants of those cities believe exactly the opposite, i.e. that there is never enough parking. 

Challenging this belief is tough work because it runs up against some deep-seated cultural expectations for abundant free parking to be available whenever and wherever you go. A large part of this cultural expectation stems from the assumption that as cities grow they will be able to continue to provide similar levels of parking as they have had in the past. Deeper analysis suggests this assumption is invalid because both economic and geometric realities are likely to prevent cities from expanding their parking at the same rate as they grow.

First consider off-street parking. Here we find that as cities grow their land values tend to increase and thereby squeeze out space-intensive activities, as is most evident in cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, and New York. The economic reality is that as cities grow they can provide less parking because of the increasing scarcity, and hence value, of land. 

Now consider on-street parking. Here we find that beyond a certain initial level of development the street network on which on-street parking relies is unable to be expanded, even as the city intensifies and grows vertically. Moreover, a range of competing uses for that kerb space emerge, such as bus stops, which limit the degree to which more on-street parking can be provided.

For these two reasons, the supply of off- and on-street parking will always struggle to keep pace with the rate that cities grow. And of course combining constrained supply with growing demand will lead almost inexorably to higher prices. This relationship is the main reason why larger cities tend to command higher parking prices, other factors remaining equal. 

What this means is that the future is not like the past, insofar as the availability of parking is concerned. Of course, people can find lots of clever ways to squeeze parking – such as underground parking and car-stackers. But these responses are more expensive than more traditional forms of parking. 

But nor do these alternatives change the underlying economic and geometric drivers of increased parking scarcity. Residents and business need to understand that it’s unlikely that as their city grows that it will provide the same level of parking that it has in the past. The times they are changing.

But change can be tough. And it’s for this reason that during the 1950s many cities around the world tried to subvert the underlying economic and geometric drivers of increased parking scarcity. 

They did this by implementing regulations that required new developments to provide large amounts of off-street parking. The goal was to link the provision of parking to individual developments, so that residents could almost always drive somewhere and park for free.

Research by the likes of Donald Shoup and Todd Litman, amongst others, has catalogued the numerous unintended negative impacts of minimum parking requirements. Put simply, minimum parking requirements mean that the direct cost of parking is covered by developers, instead of drivers. In this way the costs of providing parking are subsumed elsewhere in the economy and simply become a tax on development. The primary impact of minimum parking requirements was to increase the supply of parking and lower the direct cost of parking for drivers. In this way, minimum parking requirements actually made a difficult problem even more challenging, because – over several decades – they have reinforced people’s cultural expectation for cheap parking whenever and wherever they drive.

In recent decades transport planners have increasingly recognised that parking is a key influence on the travel decisions that people make. Indeed, aside from access to a vehicle, the price and availability of parking is probably the single most important determinant of whether people choose to drive. So if your city suffers from congestion, then the first issue you should tackle is parking policy. 

But what should you do to address parking issues?

The most obvious thing to do is look at your off-street parking policies: Do you really need minimum parking requirements? Why can’t developers determine for themselves how much off-street parking they need to provide? While it will usually be less than what minimum parking requirements stipulate, in most cases it won’t be zero – because many people and businesses (i.e. the market) will continue to demand parking. Many cities around the world are currently progressing plans to remove or reduce (if they’re timid) minimum parking requirements. In London, this recent study found that the removal of minimum parking requirements caused around a 40% drop in the amount of parking provided with new developments.

Fewer cities, however, have made much progress with how they manage on-street parking. Until recently San Francisco was the only city that had really forged ahead with major on-street parking reforms, under the measured encouragement of Donald Shoup and aided by a federal transport research grant. San Francisco’s approach to on-street parking reforms is brilliant in its simplicity: They recognised that time-limits were a relatively inefficient way of managing demand, especially in areas where pay parking also applied. Instead, San Francisco removed time-limits in most places that were covered by pay parking. In these areas prices are now the primary demand management tool: If demand goes up then rates go up, and vice versa.[1]

My home city of Auckland has recently followed a similar line to San Francisco, by removing all time-limits from on-streetcar-parks the city centre and instead relying on prices to manage demand. One of Auckland’s interesting tweaks is the implementation of a free 10 minute grace period, which is intended to replace the need for dedicated taxi and loading zones (drop off/pick up). Basically, the grace period means that every space in the city becomes a potential drop off / pick up space, so long as you don’t park for longer than 10 minutes.

One of the less obvious benefits of the approach taken by Auckland and San Francisco is that they’ve set out an agreed policy process for setting parking prices. That is, they have developed a transparent way to set prices in response to demand. 

Not only is this fair, but it also reduces opportunities for interference in the setting of parking prices. Now it’s not so easy for individual residents or businesses to demand lower prices on their particular street. While people can seek to change the policy itself (indeed that is their democratic right) in doing so they are at least required to engage with broader questions such as: How would this change in policy impact on my ability to park across the entire city centre?

Through targeted changes to parking policies, namely removing minimum parking prices and relying on prices (set by policy) to manage demand, cities worldwide can start to unwind some of the unhealthy cultural expectations that have built up around parking over the last few decades.

[1] If you’re interested in learning more about San Francisco’s trail-blazing approach to on-street parking policy try visiting the SFpark website. 

*** Stuart Donovan is a Transport Engineer and Economist and is Regional Manager, New Zealand for MRCagney, which provides transport and planning consulting services to public and private sector clients throughout the Asia-Pacific region.  The views expressed in this article are his alone; they do not necessarily represent the views of MRCagney, its employees, and/or its clients. ***


  1. Modern parking technology and methodologies allow for the micro-management of parking these days. This means you now have the ability to divide the city up into smaller zones, so the price signals can more effectively focus on the 'load' or activity causing the parking demand. This allows you to apply your pricing recommendations much more finely, resulting in a better occupancy level, higher than industry standard 85%. Auckland should be able to do this but it will require a lot more work as the equipment is limited in its ability to provide good occupancy data. In the meantime, Auckland is stuck with its large zones and semi-abstract pricing scheme. Its a good interim step on the way to its solution.


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