Learn from Japan!

You won't be surprised to hear that Japan, as with so many other things, does urban parking differently from other countries.

You might be surprised that the Japanese approach to parking, despite its uniqueness, has much to teach the rest of us.

I discussed parking in Japan with Rebecca Clements, who is investigating the topic as she works towards a PhD at the University of Melbourne. Scroll to the end to learn more about Rebecca. I hope you will agree that it's a surprising and fascinating topic.

Scroll down for more or listen with the player below.  

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Learn and be inspired ... but maybe don't copy

Rebecca is not urging others around the world to directly adopt the "Japanese model" of parking policy. Many of the details would be difficult to transfer to other contexts.

But she does make a strong case that we can all be inspired by how Japan does parking. Japanese parking can open our minds, showing us that urban parking can be handled very very differently from how we in other countries usually do it.

The Japanese approach to parking is worth a close look because it seems very much a success, not least by helping to enable and maintain the intimate and walkable urban fabric that is such a wonderful feature of the country's cities.

We set the scene with a concise summary from Rebecca of what is most special and unusual about Japanese parking:

  • Japan has its 'proof of parking' law, meaning that to register a car you need to prove you own or have leased a parking space nearby.
  • This policy has a 'twin' policy, the total ban on overnight on-street parking, which makes the proof-of-parking law work more easily without corrupting the police. 
  • Japan's small streets are pleasant community spaces and one of the key reasons for this is that they are more-or-less free of parking, even in the daytime. 
  • There are minimum parking requirements in Japan but they are set low and they exempt small and medium sized buildings. Since free-riding on the on-street parking is not an option for anyone, the authorities have felt no need to increase the parking minimums for many decades. 
  • It is common for car owners in Japan to have no parking on-site at their homes. Instead, many store a their car in small community monthly parking lots which are common in almost every neighbourhood.
  • A lot of public parking near destinations is done in small commercial parking facilities, especially 'coin parking lots'.
  • A result of the features above is that much (perhaps most) of the parking in Japanese cities is delivered via the private market via market mechanisms. Although there is some government regulation, there is  but minimal active involvement by public authorities in actually providing parking.
  • Large buildings often do have non-market on-site parking for customers, tenants or employees but this mode of parking provision is much less dominant than it is in most countries. 
  • Most parking in Japanese cities, even in outer areas far from city cores, seems to be priced parking rather than free-of-charge. 

Here are some key highlights from our conversation. 

If these prick your curiosity then please do dive into the recorded interview with the player at the top or by subscribing and listening with your favourite podcast listening app. Here's how

Rebecca was led to Japanese parking after noticing the lack of engagement with Japan in courses in her Masters in Urban Planning. Having lived and worked in Japan for five or six years, she knew things are different there and that they should be interest. [4:32]

The fact that most streets have very little, if any, parking is a major factor in making Japan's small low-traffic local streets such a pleasant and community-oriented set of spaces. [6:42]

On-street parking spaces with parking meters do exist but they are really only a tiny part of Japan's parking story. [10:23]

Officially, on-street parking is considered a temporary expedient and not a long-term fixture of any street. In line with this, parking-meter spaces are sometimes added temporarily when construction reduces local off-street parking supply. [11:20]

The experience of moving around and running errands with a car in Japanese cities legally includes brief (5 minute) on-street stops for drop-offs, brief errands and deliveries. This seems not to cause problems in these small streets that have little traffic and very low speeds.

But for longer periods of parking, most car users head to small, paid commercial lots scattered through the urban fabric, including tiny automated 'coin parking lots'. Motorists don't often find free-of-charge on-site parking at their destinations. The mixed-use urban fabric, low-traffic narrow streets, and the lack of free parking all contribute to making walking and cycling a more convenient choice than car for so many trips in Japan. [12:40]

For many decades, overnight parking in the streets has been totally banned. This policy complements the famous 'proof of parking' law. With overnight street parking not allowed, there is no point trying to obtain a fake proof-of-parking certificate. [14:50]

We then discussed the unusual features of Japan's minimum parking requirements. Having them at all is rather conventional but they are set at extremely low levels compared with most other countries.

Perhaps more importantly, small buildings are totally exempt (usually below 1500 square metres of floor space). The parking mandates then phase in only gradually as the floor area of the proposed building increases. They typically only reach full strength at about 6000 square metres of floor space.

This small-building exemption means Japan's parking minimums (in contrast with those elsewhere) are no obstacle to sensitive urban infill even on small sites. [16:37]

In Australian or USA cities (for example), city centres, old inner urban areas and car-dependent suburban areas all usually have very different parking policy settings and parking outcomes.

Rebecca explained that things are different in Japan. The fundamentals of parking policy, how parking markets work, the regulations, and even the narrow mixed-use streets, remain the same throughout Japan's cities. However,  variations between different contexts, such as differences in property prices, parking demand and mobility mixes, mean that parking market outcomes do vary, reflecting their inherent market responsiveness. For example, areas that are more car-dependent tend to have more public parking at lower prices (and some areas also have more on-site parking too). [19:45]

We discussed a paradox. Japanese parking policy can appear, on paper, to be rather conventional, seeming to have adequate supply as a key goal, just like elsewhere. Yet, in actual practice parking outcomes are market-oriented with most parking unbundled from the land-uses around it. [23:11]

Furthermore, the overall outcomes of this market-oriented parking system are generally walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods and streets that are valuable community spaces. This is in contrast with the car-dependent outcomes with little market responsiveness under highly regulated parking supply conditions of much of the rest of the world (often contradicting 'free market' rhetoric about parking in the same jurisdictions). [31:25]

Large shopping centres in Japan are typically transit-oriented, in mixed-use areas. They generally have priced parking to deter free-riding and park-and-ride misuse. However, there are exceptions, such as huge malls near the more car-dependent city of Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo, which have plentiful free parking. [26:10]

The public parking industry in Japan seems highly competitive at every scale. It even includes at least some cases of cooperatively-owned monthly parking lots in residential communities. [28:34]

If you are interested in more detail, please take a listen to our conversation!

About Rebecca Clements 

Rebecca Clements is a PhD Candidate in urban planning at the University of Melbourne, looking at car parking policy in Japanese cities.

Her work broadly focuses on transport justice and accessibility, as well as urban governance and social equity, and is particularly interested in the conflicts between urban transitions and car dominance, the role of planning in inequality, and post-capital futures.


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