Walkable Parking in City Cores

Have you heard of the Walkable Parking mindset on urban parking? Maybe not, but you have almost certainly experienced it in the Downtown of your own city or town.

It's the antidote to the belief that every building should have on-site parking. And it's the parking philosophy that supports park-once-and-walk districts. 

But these ideas are not yet getting much attention in parking reform circles. So, I decided to prepare a series of short Reinventing Parking episodes on park-once-and-walk districts and Walkable Parking. This is the first in the series. 

This one looks at park-once-and-walk in city centres (aka Downtowns). That is an appropriate starting point, since these places are the heartland of the approach.

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4th Street Downtown Des Moines 
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the episode which includes insights from myself and the following three people. 

Patrick Siegman is a transportation planner & economist and is a principal at Siegman & Associates. He was formerly a principal and shareholder at Nelson\Nygaard. He also featured in the August 2020 and the March 2021 editions of Reinventing Parking.

 ​Liz Taylor is a senior lecturer in Urban Planning and Design at Monash University in Melbourne. She was featured in the December 2022 edition of Reinventing Parking.

Rutul Joshi is an architect and urban planner teaching at CEPT University in Ahmedabad, India, where his current research focuses parking policies in Indian cities, TOD principles to retrofit areas around transit in African cities and urban challenges during/after the pandemic.
In other episodes in the series, we will ask various questions about this phenomenon, such as would promoting park ones and walk districts help us fulfil other important parking and urban mobility goals? How can we make existing park-once-and-walk areas work better? What are the connections between park once thinking and the parking reform agenda of abolishing parking mandates.  Can we extend the idea to areas that are not yet park once areas? And should we do that?

Highlights include:

  • What is a park-once-and-walk district?
  • Very old city centres are almost always park-once areas
  • Another pathway to park-once-and-walk
  • Which is better public sector, public parking or private sector, public parking?
  • Newly emerging park-once districts in urban core areas in India
  • Park-once-and-walk in USA Downtowns
  • Park-once-and-walk planning to the rescue of Downtowns blighted by parking mandates?
  • Repurposing parking becomes more thinkable with a Walkable Parking mindset and by thinking about parking in the area as a whole
  • On-street parking in downtown park-once districts
  • Downtown park-once politics

What is a park-once-and-walk district?

[02:43] Paul Barter: We are talking about the mindset that it should be normal to expect motorists to park in public parking somewhere near their destination and not necessarily on site. We are talking about the view that the parking in an area should mostly be open to the public and serve the whole area, not just one building or site.
Unfortunately, most parking planning has the onsite parking mindset, under which most parking is expected to be for a particular building and most motorists are expected to park on site at their destinations.
You can also find out more about this idea of park-once-and-walk districts or walkable parking on the reinventing parking website.

I asked Patrick to explain a little
Patrick Siegman: you can think of it as in many ways a traditional mixed-use neighbourhood in a traditional city of the kind we've built for thousands of years.
Parking is often operated as a shared resource. Sometimes it's publicly owned, sometimes it's privately owned, but it's very often. used and shared by many people, and it's often used by several different vehicles throughout the day. It's often shared by several different users. So the concept of a park-once district often refers to just the kind of city neighbourhoods, that we used to build routinely all the time, that were compact and walkable and mixed use and happen to have some space for vehicles with wheels.

Very old city centres are almost always park-once areas

[04:22] Paul Barter: Liz Taylor pointed out that in cities with a really old historic centre, that area usually has almost no parking or is completely pedestrianized or difficult to access by cars. Such places are necessarily park-once-and-walk areas.
Liz Taylor: I would point there to German cities as well. Something quite distinct about them is that they were nearly all pedestrianized in the post-war period, particularly in the seventies.
Paul Barter: the city centres …
Liz Taylor: Yeah. So almost making their city centres like a mall, not always enclosed, but the same kind of idea. They went to a municipal parking garage system.
They're really well signed, posted and communicated. I remember in Freiburg for example, the signage, electronic signage, is everywhere. You've got three “park houses”. If you want to go to the city centre, you're going to park at one of these and then you'll walk the rest. That also helps underscore the similar expectation to when you go to a shopping mall is that you're going to park and then you're going to go and do a bunch of other stuff on foot.
So they seem to have done that quite well. It doesn't mean that they solved parking issues outside of that immediate central city, but they seem to have, without much incident, taken on that idea that you park in a park-once place when you go to the city centre.

Paul Barter: Rutul Joshi made a similar point about the oldest parts of cities in India.
Rutul Joshi: I mean, if you know the structure of Indian cities, there are a lot of historical sites, uh, where people actually avoid taking bigger vehicles. They park in one place and they try to do shopping and then come back and pick up their vehicle.
Paul Barter: So the historical sites you are referring to are the very old town neighbourhoods where the streets are extremely narrow or maybe even alleyways. Places like Old Delhi or the Walled City of Ahmedabad, right?
Rutul Joshi: Yes, absolutely. Areas like that were never designed for cars to begin with. So I don't think that it would be a completely alien concept for a lot of Indian cities. And actually, it'll be much more functional and efficient if you plan some of our areas as park-once districts.
Paul Barter: So we see that one way that park-once-and-walk or walkable parking emerges in city centres is because old areas had almost no parking. Such areas had no chance of getting much parking by requiring parking with new buildings, via parking mandates. So the cities often had no choice but to emphasize public city owned parking, rather than onsite private parking.

Another pathway to park-once-and-walk

[07:12] Paul Barter: But now let's consider a slightly different genesis. In busy mixed use areas as found in most city cores, just having some parking scarcity seems very often to cause a park-once-and-walk environment to emerge, even if the city does nothing to help.
I put this point to Patrick Siegman.
If the owner of a building has some parking, say, an office building, in the conventional approach the city would expect them to have their own parking for their own purposes - for their own tenants, customers and so on.
Patrick Siegman: Under a typical minimum parking requirement, that's what's expected and required.
Paul Barter: But, in various Asian cities where I've got some experience, in rapidly developing, rapidly growing cities, there are lots of old buildings in the core without much parking and there are new buildings going up with parking. But the parking minimums are typically not quite as high as the US yet.
That parking was originally expected to be private parking. But the owners of these buildings quickly find that in a mixed use, very dense, very intense, busy area, it's an enormous bother to enforce against free riding – against people parking there and going to other buildings. So they quickly realize, well, it's just much, much simpler to price that parking.
Maybe they cordon off some for their own employees. For their customers they'll have a validation system or something. So they can still have free or cheap parking for their employees, customers, tenants, etc. But, instead of having a security guard, they just price it. So people who are visitors will park and pay and people who are tenants or customers will park and not pay or validate.
And then you end up with this park once area. But a lot of the public parking is actually privately owned. It’s privately owned but open to the public.
Does that happen in the US?
Patrick Siegman: It does in the places where either we never had minimum parking requirements applied to begin with, or in the places where we removed them. And occasionally it happens in the places where we have ordinances that encourage it.
Paul Barter: So in that first city-centre pathway towards park-once planning and walkable parking, most public parking tends to be city owned.
But notice that in this pathway towards walkable parking, just now, it is private owners of parking who start to price their parking to prevent free riding. Most of the public parking ends up being owned and run by the private sector.

Which is better public sector, public parking or private sector, public parking?

[09:58] Patrick Siegman: What I've found is that having the private sector own the parking is often a good thing. It's not always. The private sector isn't perfect. It makes mistakes.
But one of the good things about the private sector is the private sector will usually say, yes, we would like to make some money from this parking that we built at very high cost.
We would like the person who comes and uses this parking to help pay for it. So that then serves the public interest in terms of creating incentive for both efficient use of the parking and reducing traffic and the associated pollution and traffic congestion.
The problem with having the public sector own the parking is that elected officials are often then making the decisions about what the prices should be and about what the rules should be.
And unfortunately, they often come under political pressure to keep prices low or to give away parking for free to whoever is politically organized.

Newly emerging park-once districts in urban core areas in India

[10:59] Paul Barter: In India, where mass motorization is a recent and ongoing phenomenon, even some relatively new commercial districts are becoming park-once-and-walk areas without city help.
Rutul Joshi offered an interesting example from his home city of Ahmedabad. The CG road area is a commercial area that emerged in the era when parking mandates already applied, although they were often ignored in practice.
Even though the resulting parking scarcity was mild, it has fostered a nascent park-once-and-walk district, which would probably not have happened if every building really provided all the onsite parking that had been expected under the parking mandates.
Rutul Joshi: By early nineties you have emergence of CG Road as a new area. Some buildings were supposed to build parking as part of that basement, but the demand for commercial properties was so high that lot of that basement parking was converted informally into shopping. A lot of those buildings were later penalized for their failure to provide parking. However, their status quo was generally regularized. So many of the buildings in the area continue to have a “parking deficit”. So the on-street parking was really helpful.
As an aside, CG Road has had two interesting rounds of street redesign. The first included angle parking. Vehicles would take a service lane to get into the parking while pedestrians are also shared the same very low-speed lane. It's only 24 to 30 meter wide road. This was designed by the famous Allan Jacobs and Dr Bimal Patel, who is an architect in the city, in around 1994 or 95.
Then the same set of people, Dr Patel and his team, redesigned the street again in 2020 or so. This has taken away the angled parking and widened the footpath to 10 to 15 feet. Now there's only parallel parking and no service lane.
So CG Road, I would think is a park-once district. It's only a matter of expanding it to the larger area.
Paul Barter: I remember the city government was trying to provide some city owned public parking in that area. Has that proceeded?
Rutul Joshi: They were forced by the courts to provide a little more parking. People have also started parking on side alleys nearby.
At the same time, the pricing of the on-street parking has shaped people’s behaviour and attitudes here. People who are going there for shopping understand that there'll be limited parking here. So they either change their travel behaviour or their driver behaviour. They mostly park away from CG Road and then walk to that commercial district for shopping. I think it's an interesting example of what pricing of parking and a limited amount of parking does to people's behaviour.

Park-once-and-walk in USA Downtowns

[14:30] Paul Barter: Now let's take a look at the park-once phenomenon in downtown areas in American cities. I asked Patrick Siegman about the damage done to such areas due to the rise of parking mandates.
Patrick Siegman: I've had a successful career working on rescuing those districts. It has been surprising to me. It's such a problem that is stymieing so many districts in the United States and there's room for a lot of people to work on fixing this.
The usual problem is that most American cities have a traditional downtown that was built before cars. Oftentimes they have numerous neighbourhoods with Main Street retail districts that were also built before cars really took over and dominated everything.
And more specifically, they were built before the invention of minimum parking requirements.
So those districts are often mixed use because it wasn't illegal to mix uses yet. They often have the amount of parking that was useful before the invention of motor vehicles or back in the 1920s and 1930s when cars were around, but they weren't owned by every family yet.
And those districts then often suffered a common fate, which was that cities adopted minimum parking ordinances. Suddenly it became very difficult to do anything new in those districts.
For example, I grew up in Palo Alto, California. It's a university town next to Stanford University. The city adopted minimum parking requirements in 1951, if I remember correctly. So suddenly all of these buildings in downtown Palo Alto that were built before this ordinance existed … in order to change land uses … this new ordinance said they had to meet this new parking ordinance.
And the only way to do that was to tear down a building next door and put in some parking or else to give up and not change the new use or to somehow attempt to rebuild the building with parking, which was usually impossible.
So the result often was that these districts just became sort of frozen in time. You couldn't take a furniture store and remodel it and turn it into a restaurant because the ordinance said that a furniture store requires one parking space per thousand square feet of floor space and a restaurant requires 20 spaces.

Park-once-and-walk planning to the rescue of Downtowns blighted by parking mandates?

[17:12] Paul Barter: I asked Patrick about the role of the park-once-and-walk idea in rescuing downtown areas from the problems created by minimum parking requirements.
Patrick Siegman: Yes, park-once is part of that story.
Oftentimes, we'll show up to work with the downtown, and we often find that their current parking system and their current parking policies and ordinances are hindering all of their larger goals for their town. They'll say, we want more affordable housing. We want a more vibrant economy. We want better public services for lower taxes. We would like less environmental damage.
But their current minimum parking requirements applied to their city are undermining all those things.
And we'll measure how many parking spaces there are, both public and private, both on street and off. And we'll measure how full they are or how empty, at different times of day.
Typically, we find that the on-street parking spaces are under-priced and overcrowded. The off-street parking spaces are underused.
The customer experience is often that when somebody shows up, the street parking in front of the most popular destinations is all full. People perceive a parking shortage.
And if a visitor drives around looking for a spot, they'll find that there are these mostly empty parking lots. But they are signed with big signs that say customer parking only. The message is, if you park here and visit the store next door, you'll be towed away.
When we add up all the numbers we find that, as a whole perhaps 45% of the parking supply in that town will be completely underused. Even at the busiest hour of the busiest day of the week, 45% of the parking spaces sit empty.
So the diagnosis often is you have a perceived parking shortage. What you really have is not a parking supply problem, but a parking management problem.
We can often then move to solutions. And proposing a park-once district or proposing improving the character of the place as a park-once district is often part of the solution.
So we can say, look let's find ways, or let's pick ways really, to take a lot of your existing parking that is underused and get it to be well used.

Repurposing parking becomes more thinkable with a Walkable Parking mindset and by thinking about parking in the area as a whole

[20:04] Patrick Siegman: In fact, oftentimes you should find a higher and better use for a lot, of that underused parking. You know, a lot of times it shouldn't be parking. If you want to be economically successful, some of that surface parking should actually be a thriving hotel or restaurant that generates tax revenues and adds to the liveliness of the place.
Paul Barter: Could you have proposed such a change without the park-once-and-walk sort of mindset shift? You encouraged them to shift their mindset from worrying about whether there's enough parking right there with the building towards thinking of the downtown as one place, and thinking about parking demand and accessibility more generally for that whole place. And thinking of the parking as just part of that accessibility.
Is that mindset shift [to a park-once mindset] part of alleviating their anxiety about taking away some parking or redeveloping some parking?
Patrick Siegman: It often is.
And it's often getting people to step back and look at the parking in the downtown as a whole and, and to see the big picture. Oftentimes when people are thinking about parking, they may simply be thinking about what they see when they look out the window of their shop. And when they look out the window of their shop, they see that the parking space in front of their shop is full and the parking across the street is full.
And maybe if they're a city council member, they feel the same way. They are not looking at the fact that they spent 10 million in city funds to build a garage and they actually don't maintain data on when it's empty and when it's full. They don't think about the private garage that's underused because they never go into it because it has a sign that says it's for employees only.

On-street parking in downtown park-once districts

[21:56] Paul Barter: This brought us to the topic of on-street parking.
In a park-once-and-walk area, the city can stop micro-managing the supply and prices of all the privately owned, but public parking, which can manage their own parking.
But cities do need to pay attention to the parking that they do own, especially the on-street parking.
Paul Barter: It is an important part of that pool of parking, the public parking. Numerically, it's not a huge number usually, at least in the American context, but it's a very prominent and important part of it to help the rest of the system be healthy, isn't it?
Patrick Siegman: Yes. Oftentimes in a big city, downtown, the curb parking might be less than 10% of the overall supply. In some very small downtowns with a lot of street parking, like for example Chico, California, I think it was about a third of the downtown parking supply. Very wide streets, lots of room for parking.
So generally it's a small share, but it's the most obvious share. It's the most visible and the easiest to get to oftentimes. So it's important to manage it well. And that becomes the new skill that city planners need to learn. Cities need to develop that capacity.

Downtown park-once politics

[23:20] Paul Barter: To finish up this episode about city centre park-once-and-walk districts, I asked Patrick about the politics a little bit.
Are business associations usually opposed or supportive of a park-once-and-walk philosophy for their business district or downtown?
Patrick Siegman: They can be either way. It's quite unpredictable. Sometimes you get downtown associations that say, yes, we love having a park one district. Often the public parking systems and existing downtowns were organized by merchants and property owners who realized that they needed to compete with the new shopping mall on the edge of town.
Or sometimes they were just a historic downtown that realized that public parking was an efficient way to provide parking and helped to organize that.
And today those groups will say, yes, we realize that minimum parking requirements are a problem. We recognize they're doing a lot of harm. We realize they are inhibiting reuse of our own buildings. We realize it's not good to use them to block new buildings from coming in. And so they'll say, let's get rid of the minimum parking requirements. They'll also realize that subsidizing new parking isn't a good idea. So they'll support a park once system and they'll support. a park once system that's paid for by user fees. 
The bad side can be when you get the kind of district that's dominated by property owners and merchants who are short sighted and think of new arrivals as a problem. If you're only thinking of the new arrivals as competition for the existing parking supply, then you're motivated to do whatever you can to impose requirements on them or charge fees that they have to pay. 

Paul Barter: I hope you found this episode about downtown park-once-and-walk districts helpful and interesting. Look out for the other episodes in this walkable parking series, which should appear over the next month or two. Thanks for listening.  
Listen to the audio episode here: 


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