The Adaptive Parking approach to municipal parking policy

Adaptive Parking is a package of parking reform agendas which complement and reinforce each other, bringing together various ways that cities can do better on parking.

Adaptive Parking aims to be the answer to this question: How can my city defuse real parking problems without making car dependence worse, while fostering liveable cities, while reaping more value for the community from the space now used for parking and while gaining enough public support? 

You can either listen to the podcast episode (use a podcast app or the player below) or read the article.

Adaptive Parking in Brief

I like to use an acronym as a mnemonic – a memory aid. RESPOn(D) summarizes the policy reform thrusts to further Adaptive Parking.

R:            Relax about parking supply and stop boosting it.
E:            Engage with key stakeholders to ease their fears and offer value.
S:            Share parking more. In fact, aim to make most of it open to the public.
P:            Price parking in the right ways and with the right rates for each place and time.
On:         On-street control. On-street parking needs strong design and enforcement.
D:            Discourage (or Demand management). Limit parking supply in certain contexts.

Read on for much more detail about each of these agendas and how they work together.

The goals of Adaptive Parking

What are we trying to achieve with this set of agendas?

1. Adaptive Parking has to really succeed at defusing parking problems such as spillover and parking conflict. The other goals are not at the expense of failing on the parking basics.

2. Adaptive Parking aims to foster responsible, informed, active parking choice making by all relevant actors. The idea is to make parking supply, prices and demand more responsive to each other. And all should be responsive to changing conditions and to variations from place to place. In other words, Adaptive Parking tries to make market processes work better in local parking. This is the idea behind the name “Adaptive”.

3. Adaptive Parking aims to reap more value from urban space for locals, owners, and for society generally. In particular, reap more value from parking space (including the possibility that it might be more valuable as something else).

4. Adaptive Parking aims to avoid promoting gluts of parking, traffic growth or car dependence, while still delivering success on parking problems (as stated in goal 1). A more positive way to state this goal is that Adaptive Parking aims for parking success while also fostering diverse mobility options and liveable cities.

Adaptive Parking involves a shift in parking mindsets 

Like Donald Shoup’s parking ideas, Adaptive Parking seems wrong-headed if you are used to thinking about parking in the old ways.

The conventional approach sees on-street parking as a public good. It is assumed to somehow be natural that on-street parking be free of charge. Conventional parking thinking sees off-street parking as a necessary on-site service that every building site or destination is duty bound to provide. This is based on the idea that if motorists can’t park on-site at a destination it will cause negative impacts in the area, such as 'spillover parking', and that this is the fault of the building owners for not having enough parking.

To embrace Adaptive Parking you need to change to your parking mindset.

1. Treat on-street parking as part of a commons
Parking is part of an overburdened common property resource (street space). So it is perfectly natural to need to manage it, including rationing it, typically with fees, just like any other overburdened common property resource like an over-fished river.

2. Treat off-street parking as real-estate.
So it is natural for it to be priced with market-prices. It is natural for governments to not worry too much about the supply of parking, since private actors should mostly handle that.

3. Be aware that on-street and off-street parking interact with each other and that both are part of each local parking market.
Policies towards both on-street and off-street parking need to take account of the other. Furthermore, the primary focus of public-sector effort on parking should focus on managing what is within government control, the on-street parking.

Why propose Adaptive Parking? Where did it come from?

One key influence is Professor Donald Shoup’s parking policy research over many decades, which is now finally having a growing influence on parking policy thinking for local governments, especially in North America. Maybe you are reading this because you too are “Shoupista”!

If you are NOT yet familiar with Donald Shoup’s parking ideas, he has just published an article at CityLab entitled “Parking Reform Will Save the City”. It is an entertaining and concise introduction to Shoupista thinking on parking and I heartily recommend it to you.

But there is a slight problem for those of us outside North America. Shoup’s parking work mostly addresses his context in the United States. And it is not always obvious how to apply some of his thinking in other parts of the world.

About 10 years ago I took a detailed look at parking in 14 Asian cities. That’s another big influence on my parking thinking.

A question I asked in that project was how relevant are Shoup’s parking ideas in Asia. I think Shoup’s key parking ideas ARE broadly relevant to a very wide range of places. However, since local details are often very different from the United States, Shoupista parking ideas need to be ‘translated’ or ‘adapted’ to be useful.

Adaptive Parking is an attempt to do that. Basically, it started as an effort to try to find the logical international extensions and generalisations of Prof Donald Shoup’s ideas.

But I also think Adaptive Parking might be helpful in the West too, including North America.

How can I have any confidence in these suggestions? 

You might be wondering how I know these suggestions are useful. How do I know these ways of thinking about parking are useful?

Well I can’t be totally sure of course. I am certainly open to modifying these suggestions in light of new evidence.

But here are some reasons I am willing to stick my neck out and share these ideas.

One is that Donald Shoup and many other people inspired by him have been building a body of evidence that the conventional approach to parking is harmful and that the alternatives he proposes can work and that they increasingly are working.

Second, various real places already have parking arrangements that work more-or-less in the ways that Adaptive Parking points towards.

The most obvious examples include city centres in many countries. Many of them lack parking minimums and some even have parking maximums. They tend to be park-once-and-walk districts in which much of the parking is open to the public. And this public parking is usually priced with market prices. The on-street parking is tightly managed and often has demand-responsive pricing. These are all things that would be fostered by the Adaptive Parking agenda. 
A less obvious set of examples is in Japanese cities, where I found that many areas, not just their central areas, have parking that is remarkably “Adaptive”. In fact, parts of many cities across Asia have many of the same features and could easily shift further in the Adaptive Parking direction.

So Adaptive Parking is pushing towards a situation that does work well already in many places.


Here below are many more details about each of the policy thrusts in Adaptive Parking.

Each thrust helps on its own but the real power is in their synergy. They work together towards the goals mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Cities can take baby steps or ambitious steps on each thrust. But exactly how to proceed will often depend on your starting point.

Recall the mnemonic for Adaptive Parking:  RESPOn(D)

The On in RESPOn(D) = On-street control.

This is also the lamest part of the acronym … Oh well!

But it is important because it is a fundamental prerequisite for everything else (although it does not have to be perfect - just good enough).

This is about the need for effective on-street parking management and control. This is achieved via the basics of parking design, regulations, some institutional basics, and good enough enforcement capacity. It actually applies to all parking in public spaces, not just in streets, wherever parking pressure is causing consistent problems.

Donald Shoup doesn’t talk about this one much, perhaps because most Western cities take this part for granted.

But I think it is important to spell out the need for the basics of on-street parking management explicitly, especially in parts of the world where we can’t take them for granted yet.

Everything else is undermined unless cities get parking in the public realm under effective enough control, with clear expectations, backed by enforcement.

In combination with Price, this agenda makes sure that everyone knows that no-one will be able to habitually free-load on on-street parking. 
Effective pricing also makes good control easier. So the two thrusts are closely connected.

Which brings me to the next one.

The P in RESPOn(D) stands for Price

The general idea is we should price parking with rates just high enough, but no higher, for each place and time. The Price agenda here also means turning to pricing more often and in the most effective ways to efficiently ration parking.

But parking only needs prices wherever and whenever it is routinely too full or develops queues outside or has a waiting list.

The specific rationing-related goal that seems to work best is to aim to prevent local parking saturation. In other words, set the prices so that parking is never too full. This makes the price levels responsive to local demand.

You might think that covering costs is also an important goal. Well, yes, it is important to cover costs, especially for off-street parking. But that is NOT the goal you should use to set the price levels. Set the prices to keep a few spaces vacant. BUT if that price fails to cover costs then you have a problem. It means the area has too much parking. The response to that should often be to close some of the parking.

This idea of demand-based price setting for parking has been a focus of various Reinventing Parking episodes and articles.

You might recognise that this Price thrust in Adaptive Parking is similar to Donald Shoup’s call for demand-based pricing of on-street parking, which is one of his big three proposals. But the Price thrust in Adaptive Parking is a little broader than the Shoupista version
So the Price thrust includes right-priced casual on-street parking. But it ALSO prompts several other related pricing policy ideas.

For example, it includes the idea of adjusting the prices of residential parking permits until there is no waiting list or guided by nearby off-street market prices [and of course don’t sell more permits than there are parking spaces, as many cities do!].

Market-based pricing of private sector parking is also in line with this policy thrust. So, whatever you do, please do NOT try to cap private sector parking fees (as some cities in India, Indonesia, Colombia, Vietnam and China do). That robs the owners of a crucial parking management tool and politicises a set of prices that don’t ever need to be political. It also undermines the ability of the parking in each area to adapt to changing conditions. It makes the parking less Adaptive.

In fact, sometimes government may need to actually ENCOURAGE market-based pricing wherever such pricing is not happening.

For example, if a lack of competition is making private-sector parking prices unresponsive to changing conditions, then steps to ensure enough competition in local parking might be needed.

Another example: shopping centre parking lots sometimes fill up at busy periods, such as Saturday afternoons, and routinely end up with queues outside, getting in the way. Local governments could prod the owners of these parking lots to prevent such queues, including by charging slightly higher fees at these busy times.

The P thrust also includes efforts to encourage residential parking unbundling. Unbundling means giving people the option of NOT buying or renting parking with their home. It is NOT about covering the cost of parking. The cost was already covered! It was just hidden in the cost of housing. Unbundling just makes the cost of parking explicit so residents now have a choice of getting parking or not.

The Price thrust is not just about charging the right prices. It’s also about charging in ways that encourage motorists (and other actors) to be responsive to the prices.

For parking that is not home-based parking, a way to enable motorists to be more responsive to price signals is avoiding monthly or yearly permits. For work-based parking, for example, charge by the day, so that commuters have the option of saving money by not always driving.

Another promising idea often mentioned by Prof Donald Shoup is to have parking fees in proportion to vehicle length or size so that large vehicles pay appropriately for the space they take and small vehicles can pay less. For example, motorcycle parking fees should therefore be about 1/5 or less of car prices.

Let’s move to another of the Adaptive Parking thrusts.

R = Relax.

This means please stop worrying about parking shortage. Worry more about parking excess and bad design instead.

In practical terms, the Relax thrust means that authorities should refrain from promoting parking supply. Don’t promote parking supply by regulation. Don’t do so via subsidies or incentives. Don’t boost supply via direct municipal investments in parking.  As a city, just don’t try to get more parking.

Why not? Because excessive parking is a costly and ineffective path to parking success which has all sorts of negative side effects that I won’t go into in this article.

Note that this Relax agenda is not about forcing parking shortages. It is about refraining from imposing an oversupply.

Together with other parts of Adaptive Parking, this is about enabling parking supply decisions to adapt to local context. And that local context includes local costs, prices, and alternative uses of the space. This thrust offers cost and space savings and affordability and livability gains.

Specific policies that fit with Relax include:
  • Stop investing in subsidised parking construction.
  • Abolish parking mandates (aka minimum parking requirements or parking minimums) as many districts and cities are doing.
  • Or at least reduce parking mandates and make them much more flexible. For example, Japanese cities do have parking minimums. Yet, even in small and middle-sized Japanese cities that don't have good public transport, the minimums are very low and they exempt small buildings. They don’t do much harm. A reform in that direction would still be a victory.
  • If you do abolish parking mandates, also allow owners of existing buildings to remove parking space and redeploy it to other uses if they wish.
  • Also start counting the parking in buildings as part of the floor area calculation for the purpose of zoning. Retaining this exemption hides some of the opportunity cost of providing plentiful parking.

This Relax agenda might sound scary. But the whole Adaptive Parking package helps make Relaxing about parking supply much less frightening.

You might remember that abolishing parking minimums is also one of Donald Shoup’s three key recommendations. Again we have an Adaptive Parking thrust that is along the same lines as one of Shoup’s proposals but is broader.

The next one is another good example.

The S in RESPOn(D) is Share

This is actually the Walkable Parking agenda that I talk about a lot.

It’s about trying to make more of the existing parking open to the public, or at least shared by several sites via shared parking agreements.

It means planning and regulating parking on the assumption that parking spaces should serve the neighbourhood, not any specific site. It tries to get completely away from the mindset that a motorist’s parking belongs on site with their destination. It means planning for ‘park-once-and-walk’ districts. It means trying to make sure every locality has a pool of parking that is open to the public and well-managed.

This also means discouraging private customers-only or tenants-only parking. Instead encourage or nudge parking that is currently private to be made open to the public or at least to be shared. It means that residential parking permit systems should not exclude non permit holders completely. They should allow casual parking (regulated with pricing if needed), while giving permit holders special arrangements. It means allowing or even encouraging ‘rent-my-parking-space’ type app-based businesses.

This thrust, with its emphasis on having parking open to the public, enables parking spillover to evaporate as a problem. Spillover is defused rather than solved by Adaptive Parking. With this Share thrust, spillover is merely normal parking in a neighbourhood. There is no longer any reason to expect parking to always be on-site within a motorist’s destination.

This Adaptive Parking thrust is NOT in Donald Shoup’s three main proposals. But, as I have said before about Walkable Parking, I think this is an important complementary agenda. It helps enable Shoupista policies and it helps ease fears about what would happen when they are enacted.

E = Engage.

Engage here means engaging especially with stakeholders who feel a strong sense of ownership over local parking (even if this sense is not backed by law).

We all know that parking reform often faces resistance. We can’t expect parking fees or better parking enforcement to be popular in and of themselves. Some people see stepped up parking management as a loss. For example, Bakis, Inci and Senturk found in a study of parts of Istanbul that free unmanaged parking may be capitalised in home values. No wonder many residents tend to see local parking in the streets as, to some extent, theirs. We can’t ignore this reality.

But we can make parking reform part of a more attractive package. We can make sure that parking changes also offer key stakeholders enough value, enough likeable change. We can make sure we ease fears … the reasonable ones at least.

My recent episode/article with 30 ways to make parking fees more palatable was actually all about this Engage thrust.

A key idea is be willing to consider sharing some or all of the value unleashed by the parking reforms so that influential stakeholders don’t see unreasonable losses and don't get provoked into fighting to veto the changes.

One way to organise this sharing of value is “parking benefit districts” which Donald Shoup advocates. So notice again this Adaptive Parking thrust is a broader version of the relevant Donald Shoup proposal.

But the Engage thrust in Adaptive Parking also includes all efforts to help Adaptive Parking reforms through the political minefields, so long as they are legitimate and ethical and so long as they don’t undermine the wider Adaptive Parking agenda.

For example, Engage! also includes engaging to ensure enforcement is seen as fair, with priorities that are supported by local communities and stakeholders. Chicago for example has been struggling to find the right balance on this lately and to avoid harming vulnerable groups with enforcement.

Engage will often involve compromise. But it is important to keep the wider context of Adaptive Parking firmly in mind. By all means work hard to make reform more appealing but make sure any compromises are still consistent with the whole Adaptive Parking approach.

I also think most cities could probably be much more ambitious with this Engage agenda. Don’t just avoid resistance. Err towards generosity. The Adaptive Parking agenda should unleash a lot of value that is currently being wasted. That value can be shared generously with the key stakeholders and on spending that is popular and right. So, instead of vetoing change, they might even help create a snowball of parking reform.

(D) in RESPOn(D)  = Discourage. 

I used to call this Demand management but I think Discourage captures the idea better.

Remember R for Relax earlier? That was about refraining from excessive supply but it wasn’t about limiting parking supply.

This D thrust IS about actually limiting parking supply.

I often put the D in brackets because it is important but is only needed in certain contexts. These are situations in which the rest of the Adaptive Parking agenda would probably not be enough to avoid parking supply that is excessive.

One such context is transit-oriented city-centres, downtowns or business districts. These places are often plagued by traffic problems and need extra steps so that traffic does not exceed the local road capacity, result in under-used mass transit capacity and crowd out other alternatives like walking and cycling. Parking supply limitation is among the most effective and politically feasible ways to reduce such excessive traffic. This can be done by reducing city-owned parking, by taking various steps to discourage surface parking in downtowns, and via parking maximums to limit the parking provided with new buildings. For example, central London’s strict parking maximums have been quietly reducing car trips to central London for many decades. Many cities around the world have followed its example, mostly without any significant controversy.

Another dynamic that probably justifies actively discouraging parking supply is the case of large retailers and large retail centres. Donald Shoup devoted a chapter of his famous book to this issue. His analysis made the case that parking for big retail often has an 'arms race' dynamic in which each establishment feels the need to provide ample parking and to offer it free-of-charge or at very low prices. He argued that everyone, including the retailers, would be better off if we could defuse this parking arms race. Parking maximums would do that even without being really restrictive.

So those were the six policy thrusts of Adaptive Parking: Respond, Engage, Share, Price, On-street control, and Discourage.  All of them WORK TOGETHER TO ACHIEVE THE GOALS that I mentioned at the beginning.


If all of this sounds too radical or ambitious, let me end with some reassurance.

None of the policies here force change to proceed faster than is feasible.

Nothing here can fairly be portrayed as social engineering.
Adaptive Parking just aims at making parking more responsive to its context and more responsive to change. Having prices that respond to change and having shared or public parking helps reassure that Relaxing about parking supply won’t be a problem.

And we only Discourage parking supply in cases where doing so is very much appropriate.

Adaptive Parking is inherently incremental. Even a rapid adoption of Adaptive Parking will generally result in only incremental or gradual changes in local parking supply, prices, and behaviour. It doesn’t suddenly diminish parking supply or force prices soaring.

But any locality, including yours, can start on Adaptive Parking in ways that suit your current situation. No matter what your starting point is, there are steps to take in the general direction of more Adaptive Parking. 
It is not a rigid set of policies but a set of policy thrusts in a direction.

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This article by Paul Barter was first published on Reinventing Parking.