Walkable Parking: Why Most Parking Should Be Public

If  you want parking success without excess, you probably know something about Donald Shoup’s book, The High Cost of Free Parking, and its three main parking policy proposals:
  1. Eliminate minimum parking requirements
  2. Price on-street parking with fees set just high enough to keep about 1 in 8 spaces open
  3. Spend at least part of any parking fee surplus on locally popular things. 
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These proposals point to a vision for local parking in which:
  • parking revenue improves neighborhoods;
  • there is no free-riding on on-street parking (since if it is often full it will be priced);
  • developers decide how much parking to provide (and usually provide less than now);
  • the cost of development is reduced and space is freed for other uses;
  • the cost of parking slowly gets unbundled (so most parking is priced); 
  • market prices for parking improve our transportation choices. 
I like these proposals and this vision. They are a key inspiration for Adaptive Parking which includes versions of each of Shoup’s three proposals.

But an extra parking reform would bring about Shoup's vision faster and in more places.

Encourage most parking to be open to the public 

I will make the case for this policy thrust below. But first, what does it mean?

It means cities encouraging more of the existing parking, including on-site parking, to be open to the public. It usually doesn’t mean creating more stand-alone public parking.

It means pushing for many more places to become park-once-and-walk districts. You could call this a “Walkable Parking” policy. It both needs and feeds walkability.

It means that local governments should stop trying to force plentiful parking into every development site. Instead, foster “pools” of parking for each neighborhood.

It is the S (for 'share') in the Adaptive Parking memory aid, RESPOnD.

And it is the most important difference between Shoup’s agenda and the Adaptive Parking agenda.

In this park-once area in central Buenos Aires, most buildings lack on-site parking. 
There is a pool of public parking in the streets and in off-street parking facilities.

To be fair, park-once-and-walk districts are often a part of parking plans by Shoup-influenced consultants, especially Nelson/Nygaard, and these have been part of my inspiration. ITDP also has a nice little policy brief on ‘Shared Parking’.

But Adaptive Parking calls for more ambitious public parking efforts. Park-once districts should be standard practice almost everywhere, not just in dense urban neighborhoods.

Why push for public parking not private?

Here are some of the main reasons for Shoupistas and other supporters of parking success without parking excess to push for public parking and park-once planning.

It promotes, and is promoted by, walkability

The name “park-once-and-walk districts” says it.

Motorists need to be able to walk comfortably to and from the park-once public parking options in such areas. Such areas also have much more walking, which promotes local street-oriented businesses. So park-once planning puts pressure on the local government to improve walking conditions.

We will see below that park-once areas also work best with mixed land use, which is also crucial for walkability.

Reduced traffic 

Reduced traffic is a key benefit of park-once-and-walk planning and a public-parking-not-private policy.

Park-once areas generate many fewer short driving trips within the vicinity. Someone arriving in such an area by car can park once in public parking then walk to a series of destinations and errands.

By contrast, if private parking dominates an area, each new destination and errand involves another short car trip and parking event in another customer-only, employee-only or clients-only parking lot.

Conventional suburban development versus a mixed-use, park-once district, as illustrated by Patrick Siegman of Nelson/Nygaard at the Kinder Institute speaker's series on Thursday, February 19, 2015 (pdf here).

Less parking is needed

In mixed-use areas, if parking is mostly public rather than on-site private parking. the times of peak parking demand for the various activities are complementary to some extent. It is like the shared tables in food courts which are more efficient than dedicated tables for each outlet. This is also a reason to support planning reforms to allow mixed use.

Public parking spaces can serve several land uses across the day and week. Source: ITDP, Shared Parking, 2015.  

Politically easier to lower or eliminate parking minimums 

Park-once planning with a pool of public parking eases opposition to this reform as it becomes apparent that less parking is needed and for several other reasons discussed in the paragraphs below.

Being a park-once-and-walk area is arguably more important for enabling abolition of parking minimums than having good public transport service.

Spillover parking becomes less scary 

Having parking spill beyond any particular site is not a problem in an area with a public pool of parking. Such park-once-and-walk areas have various alternative public parking options nearby over and above any on-street parking (which is also public of course).

In fact, the whole notion of spillover becomes meaningless in park-once-and-walk districts! We simply no longer expect parking to be contained on site. By defusing fear of spillover, public parking and a park-once mindset make the whole Shoupista vision much less scary.

Park-once planning changes mindsets about on-site parking

Faith in parking minimums is not just backed by a fear of parking shortage and a desire to keep parking plentiful.

Something more powerful is at work: a moral assertion that each site should provide its own on-site parking. People feel that it is irresponsible or even crazy to do otherwise.

But park-once planning offers an alternative mindset in which it is perfectly normal and completely ethical for some sites to have little or no parking, so long as the neighbourhood ‘pool of parking’ is working well.

With small and medium-sized buildings exempted from parking minimums in Japan, many buildings have zero on-site parking. Yet, spillover parking is not a problem in park-once-and-walk districts like this one in Tokyo.

Public parking speeds the transition to efficient supply

Car-dependent areas often have enormously excessive parking supply. In Shoup’s vision, his three policies are enough to reduce this problem.

But it seems likely that if most off-street parking in an area is private then oversupply will ease only very slowly, even without parking minimums. Any parking lot owner proposing to close an under-used parking lot will still provoke objections from tenants who see few alternatives to on-site parking.

Such objections will be eased if a decent proportion of parking in such an area can be converted to public parking. So park-once areas with public parking open up new opportunities to convert low-return parking to other uses.

This is one reason why park-once-districts without minimum parking requirements are much more welcoming of infill developments and of adaptive reuse of existing buildings than areas with mostly private parking.

Might park-once planning reduce the need for so many parking spaces here in Noarlunga Centre, South Australia?

Public parking is more likely to be managed and priced than private parking

Owners of public parking still need to ration access. Many may want to give priority to customers and serve employees. Being public, they don’t simply exclude outsiders, but they don’t want free riding from those outsiders either. Various management and pricing strategies enable parking to be open for casual public parking but still serve other priorities.

Why is this good? Management and/or pricing further ease the fear of spillover. And, of course, pricing can reduce parking demand, especially for employee parking, further reducing the supply needed and reducing traffic in the region.

This mixed-use retail/residential development in the walkable retail area of Maroubra in Sydney offers 2 hours free parking then an escalating fee structure, starting at $5 per hour. 

Public parking is more responsive to local market signals

Private parking resists being affected by changes to surrounding parking conditions. But park-once planning copes with changes in demand or supply through resilience instead.

As mentioned just now, responses from parking suppliers and managers tend to focus on management and pricing, not exclusion. These responses help reduce, cushion and disperse the impacts of changes, including feared changes such as a sudden drop in supply or increase in demand.

Public parking reaps more value from less parking space

With less oversupply, public parking in park-once-districts tends to be well-used, with shorter periods of very low occupancy, and is more likely to be priced.

All of this means that each parking space in such an area provides more value for owners and for local communities than the under-used and under-priced parking in areas with mostly private parking.

Can you think of more reasons to like park-once planning and a preference for public parking over private?

Or maybe you dislike this approach?

Please share your reactions in the comments.

This post has focused on the why question, with little mention of how municipalities can promote park-once-and-walk districts. Stay tuned for more on how to promote public parking and park-once-and-walk districts.

Was this post helpful for your efforts to get parking success without parking excess? If so, please share it.

[UPDATE 1: I have created a Local Parking Assessment kit focused on Walkable Parking.

The kit allows you to assess any small study area and its potential for embracing the Walkable Parking mindset. The kit is available to all of my Patreon patrons.]

[Update 2:  Another post discusses HOW to create Walkable Parking areas.] 

[Reinventing Parking is now ALSO a podcast. Find out how to SUBSCRIBE (it's totally free).]


  1. I love the idea of 'adaptive parking' and 'park-once-and-walk districts' but why must the parking be managed by the public sector? The way I see it, our streets are some of the most valuable public spaces in our cities. Permitting parked vehicles (which are usually privately owned) to occupy that space severely limits other uses such as dedicated bus rapid transit lanes and proper cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

    I agree that we need to find off-street alternatives which permit the adaptive use of parking resources, but why is the public sector most qualified to manage these facilities? Why not create some form of 'parking cooperatives' which would be developed and managed at the local level by economic (and perhaps home-owner) interests in the relevant districts? For example, permit residents and other frequent parking occupants to rent space on a monthly basis, whereas visitors could be charged at other rates which could be adapted to achieve desired outcomes....

    1. Thanks Zvi. Glad you like Adaptive Parking!

      When I say 'public parking' in this post, it is short hand for "parking that is OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. In many real life park-once-and-walk districts most of the public parking is off-street and owned and run by the private sector. Does that clarify?

    2. Perfectly. And that makes perfect sense. Is this a concept and term that you have 'adapted'? I plan to make good use of the concept!

  2. Agree, though the issue I see is "security", especially with parking for apartments. Such parking is typically underground (in Australia) and could be experienced as a scary place with strangers hiding in the shadows if those garages were open to the public. It would undermine the strong psychological sense of comfort some people get by driving "into" their home.

    1. I believe that this is precisely the reason why we need to decouple parking from other activities. People can seamlessly travel from home to work without ever passing through the 'public domain' and this has huge implications for how people perceive that space. In my opinion, cars are seriously undermining social relations. Everyone is in their own personal bubble, afraid of everything outside, yet impatient with any obstacles which may get in their way. We really need to take back our cities for people. 'Fear mongering' is a counter-productive attitude.

    2. Good point. Yes, security is one reason why not all parking will be made public, especially residential. However, I have seen residential parking opened to the public. For example, most of Singapore's public housing parking is open to the public.

      Milder sharing options can also suit some residential parking. Again in Singapore, some downtown condos have shared parking arrangements with nearby offices (so not totally public but at least shared and giving some of the benefits). And around the world, new parking-sharing apps are now rendering some residential parking as almost public in ways that offer reassurance about strangers.


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