The Surprising Power of Parking Management

Todd Litman and I discussed the surprising power of parking management to ease seemingly difficult problems (and not just parking problems).

You may know Todd Litman as an expert on Travel Demand Management or on multimodal transportation planning. But he also has profound insight and expertise on parking.

It was Todd (along with Donald Shoup) who inspired my own interest in parking. If your main acquaintance with parking reform is through Donald Shoup's ideas, then I think you will also relate well to Todd's approaches. They may even broaden your horizons a little.

Our discussion turned into a Parking 101 class. It's a primer on navigating contemporary urban parking policy debates.

Most of the specifics mentioned in our discussion are from North America. But the key ideas apply around the world.

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Highlights of our discussion included:
  • Old versus new parking policy paradigms
  • The high cost of parking, although we usually make the cost invisible. 
  • Huge benefits when cities or developers can refrain from over-providing parking.
  • Neighborhood pubs and restaurants as an indicator for sustainable communities and how 'old paradigm' parking policies make them impossible and encourage drinking and driving.
  • Contingency-based planning of parking as a way to ease fears over limited parking supply. 
  • Many ways to ease demand for parking and make do with fewer spaces. 
  • The almost magical power of parking management to make a difference, especially as part of a wider integrated strategy of complementary steps.
  • Downtowns are relatively easy. The front line in parking management is inner or middle-ring areas undergoing transitions and infill. 
  • The broad benefits of better parking management and ways to increase awareness of them. 
Seattle's International District has intensive on-street parking management.
(Image source: Google Streetview)

A New Parking Paradigm to replace the old one

I have a slightly different take on paradigms in parking.

But I still like Todd's easy-to-understand contrast between the conventional old ways of handling parking and the much better and wiser, new approach that he advocates.

The Old Paradigm assumed that parking problem refers to a shortage of parking at a particular time and location. That is a narrow definition of the problem!

And it assumed that the best solution is always to provide as much parking as possible and that parking should be as cheap as possible. It assumed that it was perfectly acceptable to subsidize parking - that the cost of parking should be born indirectly - through taxes or the cost of developing a building.

This might make some kind of sense in areas that are sprawled and automobile dependent, where land is cheap and most travel is by car. But it makes little sense wherever land values are high or wherever transport is multimodal.

So, by contrast, the New Paradigm emphasizes sharing of parking and efficient regulations and pricing of parking together with a number of other strategies to avoid devoting so many resources to subsidizing parking.

Expensive holes in the ground [4:14]

Talk of subsidies took us on to the cost of providing parking.

Todd reminds us that parking is a very expensive resource, especially in the most urban locations. In such places, a good rule of thumb is that a structured parking space costs more than the car it is going to serve. We often give away parking. We generally don't give away cars!

But most people are unaware of this cost.

One reason for this is that most people have never bought parking space as a separate item. We mostly pay for parking as part of buying a house or leasing office space and such like.

So part of Todd's New Paradigm is simply recognizing that parking in dense areas is very expensive and that subsidizing it is both economically inefficient and unfair. Inefficient because it encourages people to own more vehicles and to drive more than they would if they paid directly. And unfair because it forces people who don't drive to subsidize the parking costs of their neighbors.

Why you actually need less parking than you think [7:49]

Many people assume that plentiful parking is just good business and that it would keep being built even if cities abandoned parking requirements.

But Todd is more optimistic and pointed to various trends away from excessive parking provision.

Under many circumstances developers do provide far fewer parking spaces than zoning codes have required. Lenders have sometimes been cautious, but only until they become familiar with successful buildings with lower parking provision.

Todd argued that, in attractive and economically successful North American cities, the number of vehicles per capita is declining, particularly in walkable urban neighborhoods. In such places, even higher end apartments and townhouses tend to have just one vehicle per dwelling. And lower priced housing in such areas typically has between 0.2 and 0.4 vehicles per housing unit.

Parking demand can also be dampened significantly by various parking management strategies, such as unbundling the cost of parking, so that motorist pay directly, rather than indirectly, for the parking. Parking-lite apartment buildings are increasingly offering on-site car-sharing or public transport passes.

Dampening parking needs also makes infill more financially feasible and less threatening for existing community members. Avoiding having to dig extremely expensive deep holes for 2 or 3 levels of underground parking is a huge saving, says Todd. A saving that will often rescue the business case for a building which would have been infeasible with excessive parking mandated.

And, of course, any success at easing parking demand helps to support many community's other strategic goals, such as reducing traffic congestion, accident risk and air pollution.

Is the city afraid to allow less parking? Try Contingency-Based parking planning. [13:47]

Despite all these benefits and promising trends, many cities still fear allowing less parking. They still worry about getting a parking mess in the streets and maybe spillover parking into neighboring parking lots.

One of Todd's favorite ways to ease such fears is called contingency-based planning, which means being ready with additional parking management strategies that can be deployed if a lack of parking really does turn out to cause problems.

Such strategies can include measures such as: sharing deals with a nearby place of worship; on-site car-sharing; starting to charge for the parking; or giving residents a free transit pass.

On-street Parking Management. Just get on with it! [16:25]

Of course, none of this will work well if the on-street parking remains poorly managed.

Todd sees this as the easy part! It is nothing new to clearly define the parking rules, set appropriate fees, and enforce both the rules and the fees. There is no need to fear spill over parking problems.

And good parking management usually reveals that, in most locations, there is really no overall parking shortage. The conflict is usually over just the most convenient parking spaces right in the commercial district or nearby. And solving that conflict is often just a matter of nudging the lower value parking, which is typically the commuters who want to park all day, to park somewhere that has fewer conflicts. That’s often 2 or 3 blocks away or in an off street parking facility.

Big dividends from parking management [22:30 or so]

Todd says that the potential savings and benefits from parking management are huge in most situations.

In a typical urban area, cost-effective and reasonable parking management strategies can reduce the number of parking spaces needed by 30 to 50%. And if it is integrated with improvements to alternative modes, such as bus or train, you’ll often get a 40 to 60% reduction. These are huge savings and they leverage reductions in traffic congestion and air pollution and accidents and consumer costs.

Several layers of wrongness with old-paradigm parking minimums for bars 

Todd reminds us that the highest parking requirements I typically imposed on restaurants and bars and pubs and taverns.

Here is an extreme example from Southern California:

Buffalo Wild Wings - Designed for drunk driving.
Joshua McCarty took this issue on in an article at Strong Towns
Of course, it is odd to be planning so much parking when we are also telling people not to drink and drive.

But Todd adds another twist by pointing to what this is doing to the location and style of development. Not only are we encouraging people to drink and drive, but we're making it almost impossible to create nice neighborhood pubs or restaurants within convenient walking distance of homes.

So Todd says neighborhood pubs are a good indicator of sustainability!

Downtowns are (relatively) easy. The real action is in inner areas in transition [29:14]

We discussed the question of where parking management and parking change is most contentious in North American cities.

Not city centers mostly. There is a well-established model for downtowns to do better. In fact, many downtown's never really embraced the old parking paradigm anyway. So many already have good parking regulations and efficient pricing and flexibility on how many parking spaces are going to be built in new buildings.

It's in the transitioning communities where the challenges are greatest and where it can be difficult to communicate that effective parking management and the New Paradigm can help.

More tips on helping people embrace parking change [32:14]

We ended by discussing more ideas for making New Paradigm parking change more attractive, easily grasped and less prone to rejection.

Todd emphasized that there is no rigid cookbook or manual here. It's not a technical challenge so much as a social challenge and about working with people.

Pilots and trials can help ease fears and give new initiatives the chance to prove themselves.

Also promising was engaging with community leaders of all kinds about their long-term goals and how parking approaches can be made more consistent with those goals.

About Todd Litman

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. He has produced a huge volume of analysis on a wide range of transport and urban planning problems and solutions, including parking. Todd is author of the extremely useful 2006 book, Parking Management Best Practices.

Todd has a talent for making specialized and technical ideas accessible to a larger audience. He is a regular blogger at Planetizen and he also generously shares much of his work via the VTPI website, where you will find a wealth of parking policy information.


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  1. Very good discussion. Parking is gonna change. Parking Efficiency will be the ultimate goal. Off-Street Parkings are utilized by ave 60%. So Cities could abolish on-street parking (improving environment by less park search traffic) and need to improve Signage and Routing to carparks. Autonomous cars will reduce the need for parking spaces by over 60%. So we need to prepare now. Frank Beckmann, Germany,

  2. I like the discussion on car parking. Cities have gone far from the old parking system. Hopefully, street parking will be gone in a few years. I have yet to watch your video interview and would watch in a while.


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