Can Walkable Parking help end parking minimums?

'Walkable Parking' is my name for the mindset about parking that goes with embracing park-once-and-walk districts and their benefits. (Don't worry I will explain these terms below.)

At first glance, parking minimums (also known as minimum parking requirements or parking norms or parking ratio standards) and Walkable Parking don't seem closely connected.

But I will argue that parking reformers have a huge opportunity here. Embracing Walkable Parking may be much more useful for ending parking minimums than most of us have realized.

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What is Walkable Parking? 

I need to explain what Walkable Parking is.

In brief, 'Walkable Parking' is a mindset in parking policy in which the ideal is 'park-once-and-walk' areas in which most parking is open to the public and serves the whole area.

However, that definition probably doesn't clear it up enough for most people.

To give you a more detailed picture, I will start by explaining the parking situation and approach that is the opposite extreme from Walkable Parking.

The opposite extreme to Walkable Parking

Think about non-residential parts of the outer suburbs of most cities, places full of large suburban shopping centers, campus style business parks, big box stores, expansive and isolated industrial areas.

North America has more than its share of such landscapes but even developing countries typically have some areas on their urban peripheries that are being planned like this.

These are not walkable places. Just about every building is set back from the road on a very large plot of land with a wide frontage along the road. So, from any particular building, you only have very few other buildings that are within an easy walk.

Each building needs its own onsite parking because no one willingly walks in these landscapes.

The planning code also usually has parking minimums that require plentiful parking with each building in these areas (although arguably developers would build a lot of parking even without the parking minimums, which is what we see in car-dependent 'out-of-town' developments in England where parking minimums were more-or-less abolished).

Nevertheless, parking minimums seem to make sense in car dependent areas like this. They seem a natural fit. This is their natural habitat.

Suburban-style parking policy is disastrous for city centers 

Things look very different in the dense mixed-use central areas of most cities, whether you're in Asia, the Americas, Europe, Africa or wherever.

Using parking minimums to force dedicated parking onto dense developments on modest-sized downtown plots causes much harm. This was sharply highlighted in a recent Strong Towns article about Sandpoint in the US state of Idaho:
"Arguably, no city ordinance is more underestimated for its long term impacts than off-street parking requirements. Many cities are now starting to recognize the negative effects parking minimums can have on housing affordability, historic preservation, the environment, small businesses, walkability and municipal budgets. In Sandpoint, some of these effects were not hypothetical but happening right before our eyes. The 2009 approval of a 60,000 square foot, 3-story bank headquarters in the heart of downtown ended up requiring 218 parking spaces. Because only 110 were provided (which was plenty), the bank was subjected to in-lieu parking fees totaling over $700,000. Well, being bankers, they soon realized the cheaper alternative was to buy up adjacent properties and demolish the buildings for surface lots.  Consequently, small businesses were evicted and the much-beloved downtown historic development pattern was diminished." 

Walkable Parking arises naturally in city centers

Many municipalities discover, like Sandpoint did, that downtown parking minimums are a mistake and subsequently abolish (or greatly reduce) them.

This does not mean an end to new parking spaces. Nor does having low parking minimums or no parking minimums necessarily mean the city center will eventually have much less parking. In fact, some downtowns have plentiful parking without any having been created by parking minimums.

In city centers all over the world, demand for parking prompts a business response. As vehicle ownership rose and parking demand increases in downtowns that lack much parking, an industry emerges: public parking. This term, public parking, means parking open to the public, not necessarily public-sector parking (although some public parking IS indeed public public parking, if that is not too confusing).

So it is common for much of the city-center parking to be open to the public. Some is in stand-alone parking facilities or vacant lots. Some is the on-site parking with buildings that nevertheless gets opened up for public parking (this is very common in Singapore, where I live).

The fact that much city center parking is open to the public forces us to have a very different parking mindset compared to the very suburban and very automobile dependent areas mentioned above.

Instead of making each site have 'enough' dedicated parking, the buildings in these areas have access to local pools of public parking. Any particular public parking spot in such a downtown serves the whole area within walking distance rather than just being for one site.

Another way to say all of this is that most downtowns all over the world are 'park-once-and-walk' areas.

And, if they embrace this fully, their mindset on parking becomes Walkable Parking. This offers various benefits:
  • With land-use mixing, public parking allows demand to be met with fewer parking spaces, even in the absence of any rationing/pricing. This is because parking serves multiple destinations, with varying times for their peak parking demand. 
  • Parking that is open to the public has to be managed and rationed. This also helps keep parking demand in line with supply and reduces the fears about shortages and problems in the streets. 
  • Walkable Parking promotes walking., which is good for street facing businesses. 
  • Jeffrey Tumlin and Patrick Siegman from Nelson Nygaard also argue that park-once-and-walk results in much less traffic. You are no longer expected to bring your car with you as you move between destinations. You can park once, then walk. 
  • Later I will also argue that Walkable Parking can help us campaign against parking minimums.  

Unfortunately, the authorities in charge of many downtowns do not embrace their status as park-once-and-walk areas. Sandpoint was one of those before it abolished its downtown parking minimums.

The important contrast between suburban-style parking policy and Walkable Parking is NOT about how much parking there should be

What are the key differences between parking arrangements and policy in car-dependent outer suburban areas and those in city centers?

The the diagram below can help. It has two dimensions based on two important questions about parking policy: 1. How much parking should there be? and 2. Should a parking space serve only its own site or its whole area?

The answers to Question 2 are the difference between the Site-Focused approaches (the left column) and the Park-Once (Walkable Parking) approaches (the right column).

The suburban areas discussed earlier have site-focused approaches (Boxes A or B) while the downtowns that have abolished (or de-emphasized) parking minimums have Park-Once (Walkable Parking) approaches (Boxes D, E or F).

Notice that Box A (a site-focused approach) and Box D (a Park-Once/Walkable Parking approach) BOTH seek plentiful parking! So attitudes to the amount of parking are NOT the key distinction between site-focused parking policy and Walkable Parking.

One example of a place with Walkable Parking AND plentiful parking is Downtown Santa Monica in the LA area. Decades ago, the city authorities noticed the same kinds of problems that we saw in Sandpoint earlier. So Downtown Santa Monica became very liberal in allowing developments to have no parking on site. There were still parking minimums but developers could pay an 'in lieu of parking' fee. These fees were set low enough that most developers paid the fee rather than build parking (this was Sandpoint's initial mistake maybe). Santa Monica then used the money to develop a lot of public parking. Voila! They now had a park-once-and-walk downtown with plentiful parking.

So the fact that parking minimums often require plentiful parking is NOT what makes the car-dependent suburban approach from earlier the opposite extreme from Walkable Parking.

Rather, it is the fact that parking minimums require each development site to have its own dedicated parking that makes the suburban parking approach the opposite of Walkable Parking.

Walkable Parking thinking can help in the parking minimums debate

Now I am ready to explain why Walkable Parking (or the park-once) approaches and mindset can help promote the abolition of parking minimums. I will list five reasons and number five may be the most important.

First, Walkable Parking makes clear that minimum parking requirements are not needed for parking success. And this is even true if your idea of parking success is to have plentiful parking (like in the Santa Monica example).

Second, parking minimums (especially excessive ones) are actively harmful to the health of a park-once-and-walk area because they encourage off-street parking to be kept private and not opened to the public. So embracing Walkable Parking thinking could encourage parking minimums reform.

Third, the practical successes of well-managed park-once-and-walk areas, where parking works fine without parking minimums, is also gradually emboldening other cities to follow suit.

Fourth, Walkable Parking thinking defuses parking spillover as a problem. Parking spillover is no longer regarded as something that needs to be prevented or mitigated. The whole concept of parking spillover disappears. Poof. In a park-once-and-walk district, it is not a problem if motorists park in parking that is not their destination's dedicated parking. It is just parking.

Fifth, now that we see the distinction between suburban-style Site-Focused parking policy and Walkable Parking approaches, we can also see TWO distinct reasons to abolish parking minimums.

This is important.

One reason to oppose minimum parking requirements is that they usually promote excessive parking supply.

A SECOND reason to oppose parking minimums is that they require dedicated parking for each specific development site.

The problem with the parking requirements imposed on that bank in Sandpoint earlier was not just that they required too much parking for the bank but that they required excessive DEDICATED parking for that bank, prompting the notorious decision to buy up and demolish neighboring buildings.

Most campaigns against parking minimums focus on the fact that they promote excessive parking supply. The amount of parking is the central issue. But this limits the success of these campaigns to just certain areas. This focus can only succeed in the parts of cities where lowered parking supply seems feasible, such as in city centers and along transit corridors.

Should campaigns against parking minimums make park-once planning and the Walkable Parking mindset a key objective? 

Such campaigns would focus on that second problem with parking minimums: the harm caused by requiring dedicated parking with buildings.

This style of anti-parking-minimums campaign could potentially attract a broader coalition. It could attract many people who are not yet convinced that their area needs less parking but who, like the Councillors in Santa Monica long ago, can see the damage caused by requiring dedicated parking with every building site.

This might also expand the geographical range of anti-parking minimums campaigning beyond the usual transit-rich areas. Even in communities where pushing for lower parking supply is currently politically impossible, it may be possible to push for a Walkable Parking/park-once approach that is against parking minimums but does not challenge the quantity of parking.

This raises an interesting question about where Walkable Parking is possible. Are park-once-and-walk districts only possible in highly walkable areas? I am not so sure. My guess is that the park-once/Walkable Parking agenda could also be adapted to moderately car dependent, moderately walkable and modestly mixed use areas (such as 'middle suburbs' in North America for example). I suspect Walkable Parking should be a useful approach anywhere where people can easily walk between more than just a handful of buildings. I would be curious to know of any relevant examples.

It should also help that the campaign would be for something positive (a healthy park-once-and-walk area) and not just against the parking minimums.

Would it be a problem if some places choose to have Walkable Parking AND plentiful parking supply?

Many campaigners against parking minimums might be disappointed if too many locations embraced park-once-and-walk planning and abolished their parking minimums but without trying to reign in their excessive parking supply.

Should we worry if too many places shift from Box A but only to Box D, which is Walkable Parking but still seeks plentiful supply? Indeed, some argue that Santa Monica still probably has too much parking.

This would be a valid concern. But consider the alternative for many such places where reducing parking supply is politically impossible for now. They would remain stuck with excessive parking minimums.

I think even just abolishing the parking minimums and embracing Walkable Parking would probably be a big step in the right direction, even if excessive parking supply remains for some time afterwards.

It should be easier for Walkable Parking jurisdictions to notice their excessive parking than in places with site-focused parking approaches. The costs of parking tend to be more out in the open when parking is public. Price signals, or the lack of them, matter more. An area with a Walkable Parking mindset is also an easier place for parking reformers to campaign for improved parking management and against oversupply of parking. Santa Monica, for example, seems to be gradually easing away from parking excess.

Conclusion: Is this a foolish idea or does it have potential?

This seems like an opportunity. But I have not seen or heard it mentioned in parking debates. Promoting park-once-and-walk planning seems to be a relatively neglected agenda. And no-one seems to be talking about promoting it as part of the effort to abolish parking minimums. Did I miss something?

I would like to see more discussion of the potential of park-once-and-walk districts as and Walkable Parking thinking as an important step in parking reform.

Am I right to suggest that pushing for park-once planning/Walkable Parking could become a key part of the strategy to end parking minimums?

And since ending parking minimums via this strategy would often fall short of eliminating parking excess, how useful is it? Does it at least open the possibility of further change?

Finally, could this strategy really work beyond the inner-city and transit-oriented areas where parking minimum abolition efforts usually have a chance of success? Could it reach locations where other first steps away from excessive parking supply usually seem unlikely?

What do you think?

By the way, how can cities foster Walkable Parking?

I wrote about that here.


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