Is Parking Reform Anti Car?

People keep claiming that parking reform and the Parking Reform Network are "anti car".

So I thought I should make an episode to try to answer the question, is parking reform anti-car? 

But, since that’s a loaded question not usually asked in good faith, I decided to instead look at a similar but more constructive question:

Can parking reform help cities avoid or escape having cars dominate their transport systems?

And the short answer is that parking reform can help do this as much or as little as you want it to.

Listen with the player below. Or scroll down for a lightly edited transcript. Or subscribe to the audio podcast. This is the official podcast of the Parking Reform Network.

It's a Choice [01:27]

Seattle - Capitol Hill paid parking extended to 10 pm
Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington. Photo by Joe Mabel

Parking reform can battle car domination as much or as little as your community wants it to.  

If you don’t like the idea of reducing the role of cars in cities I want to reassure you. Much of the parking reform toolkit is just common sense and is aimed at making parking work better for everyone, motorists included. It can bring a lot of benefits even if you don’t want to threaten the role of cars. 

Conversely, if you are like me and you WOULD like to see significant shifts away from cars in most cities, then parking reform can help. There ARE parking reforms that can be used to reduce driving and even car ownership. Examples include policies that strongly limit or reduce parking supply, such as tight parking maximums or caps.

Believe it or not, we will see that reforms like abolishing parking mandates and implementing on-street parking fees are in the mild category. These reforms are often portrayed as anti-car. But they are not actually a direct threat to the convenience of driving cars.  

Disappointing for mobility reformers? No! [2:49]

Should mobility reformers be disappointed with these mainstream parking reform agendas then? Is abolishing parking mandates and reforming the on-street parking fees useless if these key pillars of parking reform are no direct threat to the dominance of cars?

It might sound like I am contradicting myself. But I am going to argue that the answer is no!

Even these mild common-sense parking reforms that don’t challenge car dependence DIRECTLY, they DO make further change possible. 

Reforming parking mandates and implementing better street parking management are a necessary foundation for making more powerful parking reforms possible. 

And they also help to pave the way for wider urban trends that many of us would like to see more of, such as sensitive infill development and transit-oriented development. 

So even if these reforms don’t explicitly deter car use and cannot fairly be labelled anti-car, they CAN help loosen the grip of car dependence and help open our mobility systems to a wider range of future possibilities.

It’s time to explain in a little more detail. Let’s take a closer look at three major types of parking reform:

  1. First, on-street parking management improvements (including better design, paid parking, permits reform and enforcement).
  2. Then, we will look at abolishing parking mandates .
  3. And finally, I will talk about limiting parking supply with reforms such as parking maximums, caps on parking supply in an area, and efforts to redevelop surface parking in downtowns.

Does improving on-street parking management challenge car dominated urban transport? [4:36]

Let’s have a look. 

What is effective on-street parking management anyway? Well, it always requires good design, sufficient effective enforcement, and rationing. Let’s focus on the rationing, which is most relevant to our question.

On a mainly commercial street that is busy enough to need parking rationing, most parking reformers will say that the rationing is best achieved with paid parking and that the fees should be set with the aim of achieving one primary goal, which is to make sure that every section of street always has some vacancies, so that new motorists can find parking when they arrive.

What happens if a commercial street that has overburdened parking but no effective parking management suddenly gets the parking management treatment? What happens to the role of cars in getting people to and from that street if the city implements effective on-street parking fees so that every street section always has some vacant spaces?

Car use to and from this street would change less than many people expect. 

There should be a slight decrease in parking search traffic, which consists of motorists driving around looking for a parking space. But less search traffic is not a reduction in the role of cars. 

Think about people who work there. Some might shift to other ways of getting to work, since they can no longer park for free all day in the streets. But many will just change their parking location to a nearby street or to off-street. 

You might think priced on-street parking would deter visitors and shoppers from driving to the street and parking there. But, if we set the level of the prices correctly, we will make sure the parking is well used. Some people might be put off for sure, but some others may start visiting since they can now actually find a parking space. So the rationing might actually cause a slight increase in driving by shoppers and visitors to the street. But I think on balance, there would not be much change in the overall role of driving to the area because of basic on-street parking management. 

That’s in the short term. 

Parking management with paid parking was clearly NOT any kind of threat to car dominance. In fact, it made things a little easier for many motorists. Motorists arriving can easily find parking, albeit for a small price. Traffic delay also decreased, since there is now less double parking and less search traffic. 

That should be reassuring if you don’t want change, and maybe it’s disappointing if you do want change to the transport system. 

But now let’s think slightly longer term. 

Effective on-street parking management changes attitudes to off-street parking supply. Without good parking management, the off-street parking was probably under-utilized. But the horrible chaos in the street made people assume there must be a parking shortage and prompted many of them to scream for more parking. 

AFTER effective parking management with efficient parking fees, the existing off-street parking is better used. Now almost no-one is calling for new off-street parking. As a result, future buildings are more likely to be lite on parking, especially if there is ALSO reform of parking mandates, which we will get to in a few minutes. So, over the next decade or two, the role of driving to the area does probably drop relative to other ways of getting there. 

If the scenario I have painted for you is accurate, efficient on-street parking fees didn’t deter driving directly. It doesn’t attack car dominance. But it did open the possibility of wider changes that can help the area become less car dominated and less car dependent.

For residential streets there’s a slightly different story with a similar conclusion. 

Let’s think about a mainly residential street where the density is high enough or the street parking is scarce enough there is a need to ration the parking in the street. Most parking reformers like me say that any such rationing would be best achieved with best practice styles of parking permit system, along the lines of the systems in West End Vancouver or Stockholm. Ideally, casual visitor parking should also be allowed but it should be rationed too. 

Again, these reforms wouldn’t change driving or car ownership much in the short term. They initially mainly encourage more people to actually use more of the existing off-street parking. And, again, they may even make things a little more convenient for motorists who can now more easily find parking every when they get home (albeit for a fee). 

But, as we saw with the commercial street, this residential parking rationing should also make it easier for other beneficial changes to happen, such as infill housing, that gradually make the area less car-dependent. Effective rationing of residential street parking might even slowly change the trajectory of car ownership in dense areas, depending on how robust the rationing is. 

Is abolishing parking mandates "anti-car"? [10:19]

Now let’s talk about one of the most high-profile parking reform that is associated with the parking reform movement: Abolishing parking mandates. 

More and more cities are doing this. And more and more people understand that abolishing parking mandates doesn’t actually abolish parking or even limit the parking supply. What it does do is refrain from boosting parking supply over and above what the market signals are telling builders to provide. 

Nevertheless, abolishing minimum parking requirements does apparently sound radical and anti-car to people who like their car dependent metropolitan areas as they are.

But the fact is, the effects of this reform are usually very gradual and are often quite modest. 

Any change to the balance of parking supply and demand only happens if there is building activity. And builders typically do provide parking even when they have the option to provide none. In fact, in car dependent locations they tend to provide as much or almost as much as they were previously required to provide. Zero parking or parking lite buildings usually only appear in places that are very accessible by various modes of transport, or where there is already a glut of parking. In some areas, conservative lending practices also prevent builders from being bold about having a low parking provision with their buildings. 

So abolishing minimum parking requirements or parking mandates reduces parking supply relative to demand only rather slowly, especially if there is not much new real estate activity in the area.

But, again, this reform does open up the possibility of gradual but significant change away from car-dependence. And it does so especially in accessible locations where such change is most feasible. 

Most cities that abolish parking mandates don't have an "anti-car" agenda. Most do so because they want to remove a barrier to small business activity, to the reuse of old buildings and housing investment and to infill development in areas with small plots of land, among others. These are not remotely "anti-car" rationales for action. 

But all of these possibilities are ALSO consistent with a shift towards enabling more density in transit rich locations, towards more missing middle housing, and towards more walkable mixed-use neighbourhoods. These shifts can be part of easing away from car dependence if we want them to be.
If in some areas ending parking mandates does eventually reduce parking enough to cause some sense of scarcity and a need for rationing, then robust parking management is the likely response. And we have already heard about how good parking management also makes shifts away from car dependence more possible. 

So again we have a similar story. Abolishing parking mandates is really NOT a direct assault on car dominance or car dependence. But it does gradually provide an opening for trends that can ease our cities away from car dependence.

It is a similar story when cities decide to stop building or subsidizing off-street parking lots or garages that can’t cover their costs from user fees.

This is also NOT a policy of limiting parking supply. It just refrains from boosting parking supply beyond the levels that would meet a market test. 

It is a sensible thing to do for fiscal and efficiency reasons. And there is no short-term challenge to car use or car users. There is not even any short term change to parking supply. 

But, over years and decades, compared with a scenario in which the city builds and subsidizes a lot of parking, this more fiscally responsible approach should moderate parking supply and nudge prices upwards. It should therefore gradually help to shift things away from car, especially if complemented by improvements to other mobility options. 

Is that anti car? Not really. It is just refraining from being as outrageously car-boosting as before.  

But if you do want this reform to be more aggressive, it can be! 

For example, it would probably make an immediate difference if the city also decides to close any existing parking facilities that are loss-making. 

Now we are getting into policy steps that actively reduce or limit the supply of parking.
So let’s talk about more of those. 

Policies that limit parking supply CAN be powerful [15:20]

These are the parking reforms that really can reduce driving significantly! 

But let’s notice something first: these more powerful parking reforms rest on the foundation of the mild reforms I have already talked about. 

Obviously, we can’t limit parking supply if we are also mandating plentiful parking. And limiting parking will raise fears of even worse on-street chaos if we haven’t already demonstrated that we can manage on-street parking problems effectively. If your city wants to use parking reform to limit car use, then it needs to implement the basics of parking reform before it moves on to these more ambitious reforms.

The main tools that commonly limit parking supply are parking maximums but there are a few others as well, including caps on parking supply in an area, policies that discourage parking lots or parking garages in certain areas, and efforts to reduce the supply of city-owned parking from and area.

Let’s talk about parking maximums. 

Parking maximums are potentially a very powerful tool. And they are in fact used in a huge number of cities around the world. 

Despite their power, they are a surprisingly low profile reform usually. I guess that may be because it involves wonkish zoning or building code changes. Anyway, parking maximums often seem to get enacted without much fuss. 

Another slight oddity is that parking maximums have NOT been a prominent part of the mainstream parking reform agenda in recent years. They don’t feature in Donald Shoup’s main set of recommendations for example. 

In fact, the parking reform movement has mixed feelings about parking maximums, with detractors well as supporters. That’s unlike the near unanimous support for abolishing parking minimums, a.k.a. parking mandates. 

One reason is that imposing parking maximums sits poorly with the argument that on-site parking provision should be a choice, an open option, for builders.

On the other hand, part of the popularity of parking maximums seems to arise from the administrative culture in some places in which it is apparently easier to change a regulation than to abolish one. So it is common for cities that are abolishing their parking mandates to do so by replacing the minimums with maximums rather than deleting parking supply regulation altogether. 

By the way, such minimums-to-maximums flips are less of a bold move than they may sound. They do abolish the parking mandates, but I already argued that that’s a moderate thing to do. Furthermore, most such flipped maximums end up being very mild, so they don’t have a strong limiting effect on parking supply. They mainly reassure us that there is some limit on the wasteful overprovision of parking. 

City-centre parking maximums set at low levels are another story. 

These parking maximums usually ARE powerful. They usually DO restrict the parking supply, although again I should mention that their effects are gradual. They only make a difference as new buildings get built. 

A pioneer of strict city-centre parking maximums was central London in the UK in the 1970s. Since then, hundreds of other downtown areas across the western world have followed. Many times more cities around the world have tight downtown parking maximums than have ever even discussed de-congestion charging.

Seoul in Korea has imposed low parking maximums in 5 or 6 major business districts.
Tight downtown parking maximums are almost always focused on locations where the roles of other modes of transport, especially public transport, can keep the area highly accessible even as driving decreases. 

But tight city centre parking maximums can even be found in relatively car-dependent metropolitan areas if the city centre is well-served by public transport. Sydney and most of the other large Australian central business districts are good examples. 

Todd Litman’s estimates that parking maximums can reduce parking needs by 10 to 30% but it is difficult to isolate the traffic impact of this policy from the complementary efforts that go with it. 

Note that parking maximums don’t have any impact on through traffic or taxis and ride-hail or goods vehicles, so complementary policies are usually needed to handle these parts of the traffic stream.

There is a similar story for other reforms that limit parking supply in city centres, such as parking supply caps and efforts to repurpose parking in central areas. 

For example, removing on-street parking, surface off-street parking or even garages and replacing them with other more valued uses of that space, obviously has an impact on supply and tends to push prices up and demand down, like tight parking maximums do.

However, these reforms tend to be much more visible than parking maximums and are therefore usually more hotly debated. The value of the new uses of the space will be pitted against the usual arguments about “loss of precious parking”. 

By the way, I need to mention that paid parking is important for these parking limitation reforms. 

These bolder reforms work especially well if we ALSO let parking prices respond to the scarcity via demand-responsive prices for city owned parking, both on-street and off, and via market-based prices for all privately owned public parking. This allows limiting parking to gradually cause rises in downtown parking prices. 

Similarly, parking scarcity prompts owners of formerly free-of-charge or bundled parking to explicit price it. Areas with limited parking supply tend to be places where residential parking is routinely unbundled from the cost of housing, even if there is no law requiring this. And fewer employers tend to provide their employees with free parking in such areas.  

Policies to explicitly encourage residential parking unbundling, paid workplace parking or parking cash outs are also good ideas and they are part of the usual parking reform agenda. But please understand that it is difficult to gain traction for them when parking is overly abundant, which it often is in areas with marking mandates and without any reforms that limit parking supply.

Let’s wrap up. What have I been trying to say? [22:56]

Much of parking reform is not about ending car dependence. It is mostly about just doing parking more efficiently. 

However, a side-effect of sensible and moderate parking reforms, like good parking management, abolishing parking mandates, and refraining from subsidizing public parking, is that those reforms help make various other changes possible. 

They don’t prevent or end car dependence but they do open the door to choices that can do so. But these other choices are choices. They are optional. 

Ordinary parking reforms urged by the parking reform movement don’t radically change the transport system just because they help make such a choice possible. Cities that adopt moderate parking reforms are not forced to also go in for lots of dense urban infill or bolder parking reforms that actually limit parking supply. I hope they do but it is their choice.

You can support the basics of parking reform whether or not you want a car dependent city and whether or not you want a city that makes it easy to walk, bike and ride public transport. 

You can support parking reform for conservative efficiency type reasons. And you can also support it for the sake of a mobility revolution. You can support parking reform whether you like or dislike car-dominated transportation. 

The parking reform movement can be a big tent.

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