Parking reform around the world: a new report from ITDP

I spoke with Dana Yanocha about an encouraging, readable and helpful new report from ITDP that focuses on off-street parking reform. 

"Breaking the Code, Off Street Parking Reform Lessons Learned" is aimed at parking reformers and potential parking reformers all over the world.

Dana, who is research manager for ITDP Global, led the team that prepared the report and was co-author of the report along with Mackenzie Allen.

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.

ITDP is a nonprofit organization headquartered in New York City with offices in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, and the United States. ITDP’s programs focus on public transport, non-motorized transport, travel demand management, parking, transport policy, and urban development.

Summary of my conversation with Dana Yanocha of ITDP Global (scroll down for a lightly edited transcript)

  • The report in a nutshell
  • Was it difficult to motivate ITDP or funders to work on parking?
  • Was there anything that surprised you?
  • Change comes slowly but small wins often lead to big wins
  • Make data powerful!
  • Link parking reform with other popular goals!
  • Push at any level of government that works!
  • Which should come first, on street parking management improvements, or off street parking reforms?
  • Maximums dilemmas and complications
  • Dana is not yet sick of parking reform

The report in a nutshell [3:00]

Paul: Dana, do you have an elevator pitch version of the report?

Dana: This new report is focused on off street parking in cities and how to think about this lever that cities may not always think about as a lever to pull to improve urban planning and how our cities are functioning.

First, we take a look at different options for addressing off street parking. Abolishing parking minimums is one, but there are a whole host of other policies to address oversupply of parking or a mismatch between the use of on -street versus off-street parking.

Then the meat of the report is focused on global case studies. We interviewed six cities and one country, New Zealand. And we put these case studies together to provide a narrative around their experience in moving forward with parking reform and addressing some of the challenges that we know other cities and countries are facing. 

Paul: I like that image of interviewing a city and interviewing a country. But, it almost was like that. There's a long list of people that you interviewed in each of these places.

Dana: That's right. It almost did feel like we covered the whole city or country. But it was great to have so many different perspectives contributing to these case studies. 

And just to wrap it up, the goal really is to provide some evidence, some proof, that these types of reforms can be done and that they really do work. They yield numerous benefits and we can document those in the case studies in the report and hopefully provide some cover or help to reduce some risk when other cities are thinking about similar reforms. 

Paul: In other words, it's a perfect fit for this podcast. I imagine my listeners are wrestling with these exact issues that you've been talking about. So it's great to have you. 

At some point we'll mention the actual list of cities. They were all over the world almost. But including two US cities and New Zealand, so car dependent places. And then several mostly middle income cities where parking is a big issue.

Was it difficult to motivate ITDP decision-makers or funders to work on parking? [6:23]

Paul: You and your team have been working more or less nonstop for two years on parking and various bits of ITDP are working on parking. Has it been difficult over the years to motivate the decision makers, the board or the funders of ITDP to take an interest in parking? Or is it something that seems to be clear to everyone that it's important and needs work?

Dana: Well, it's clear to a lot of our staff. But it can be challenging to really communicate the connection between parking and some of these big goals that we're trying to achieve through transport policy. 

There are certainly climate implications coming from parking. There's certainly equity and space and efficiency implications when we think about the space we have available in cities. 

But it's not always clear that parking is an area that can generate those benefits. Obviously, it's more clear to address things like vehicle emissions and replacing car trips with transit trips and cycling and walking. Those things feel a lot more direct. 

Parking for whatever reason feels a little bit more of an indirect approach. And so it can be challenging to communicate that to funders and even to city government and local officials who also don't always have a great understanding of parking policy making and maybe haven't even really addressed parking policy themselves.

Was there anything that surprised you? [8:06] 

Paul: The report tackles some of these difficult persuasion issues, so we'll get to them shortly. 

But let's dive into the detail by asking you, was there anything that shocked you or surprised you? 

Dana: One of the, the things that comes to mind initially, is that these parking reform journeys that we were documenting have taken a lot of time. 

In each of the case studies, we include a timeline of milestones where you can see where the city started out, when major policy interventions were happening, or when those were overturned. And it's over decades. It could be 10 years, 15 years. It was just really surprising to see that so starkly. 

It's one of the things that we dig into a little bit in the report, this balance between making incremental change and having that take quite a long time versus now where we're seeing a lot more momentum around especially removing parking minimums, and whether there are opportunities to shorten that timeline so that we see change happen a lot more quickly.

Change comes slowly but small wins often lead to big wins [9:25] 

Paul: Yeah, one of the things I felt was a strength of the report was the many ways in which various cases had lessons about political feasibility, some of them encouraging, some of them more sobering.

One example which is both encouraging and sobering at the same time, is that in a city where you can't abolish parking mandates, parking minimums, right away, accept a smaller win and accept a reduction or maybe an abolition in a certain district or an abolition for a certain land use.

Even though that might be disappointing, several of the case study cities demonstrate that that's very often a step towards a more ambitious reform a few years later. Could you reflect on that maybe?  

Dana: Absolutely. It's a great takeaway. And we do talk about this idea of phasing in the report. 

So maybe even just starting out removing parking minimums around transit stations, which is a really common popular approach, but try to have a tie to eventually removing those minimums more broadly than the initial focus area.

For example, there were a couple of cities in the report that started with either a neighborhood approach or that transit-shed approach and then had plans to expand to citywide or to larger neighborhoods. 

And when removing parking minimums, you're not going to see change immediately. That's just how this type of policy works. It's not removing every single off street parking space in a city once, parking minimum policy is removed. Inherently it's incremental, in that, as new buildings are being built, there's just less parking that's being provided on site at those developments.

Paul: That's my frustration. Even what seems like this radical reform is actually inherently incremental. And so it feels like a defeat to accept these even more incremental reforms. 

But I guess the message for advocates is don't negotiate with ourselves. Don't push for the mild reforms. Push for the maximum reform. But when we only get partway there in a particular round, at least pat ourselves on the back and say we won something. Don't think we lost just because we didn't get the whole kit and caboodle.

Dana: Right. And know you can still get to that more ambitious place, over time, because other cities have also done it.

Paul: I guess Minneapolis was an example and there were other examples too. Almost all of the cases.

But Mexico City seemed to be an exception. Did they jump straight to abolishing minimums altogether? 

Dana: Mexico City is an interesting case because they really did have quite a bit of support in terms of addressing parking broadly. There was quite a significant campaign around on street parking that ITDP's Mexico team was quite involved with, implementing the ecoParq system for pricing on-street parking.

And so off-street parking was the next thing to tackle once that on-street system proved to be quite successful. There was a little bit of momentum there already for moving forward with ambitious off-street reforms.

Make data powerful [13:06] 

Paul: The topic can be quite dry for some people, right? And some of the successful cities in the report used data, right? Mexico City was also an example of this but there were others. 

It might sound like a dry thing, but ITDP was quite successful in making the data rather dramatic and highlighting the drama around just the sheer volume of parking that was being built.

Were there other examples besides Mexico City of that?

Dana: Yeah, for sure Mexico City is a great example of that, and we do include some of those, some might categorize as dramatic, graphs in this report as well. 

New Zealand also comes to mind thinking about data. There were a number of reports and at one point a cost benefit analysis really helped to provide the hard evidence that an oversupply of off street parking was actually one of the contributors to unaffordable housing. In New Zealand, that was the big issue that the reforms were being tied to. And they were able to pull together data and evidence to really make that link. And I think that helps to generate a lot more support in government and also from the public to move forward.

Paul: Yes, that came up in our New Zealand podcast episode. But at the time, I didn't appreciate how important that cost benefit analysis study was. 

As you highlight in the report, the language of cost benefit analysis may not excite the general public, but decision makers are the kind of people who will be asking what's the ratio of the costs or the benefits of doing this. Having them a really serious study by a really serious transport economists and real estate economists was incredibly powerful. 

Dana: Absolutely. 

It can be challenging to communicate things like cost benefit analysis, things that feel very wonky and, you know, 'I don't have an economics degree', 'I don't really quite understand how this fits in with my day to day life' ... 

But something that's been really useful that the Parking Reform Network manages are these visualizations for different cities of the footprint of off street parking. So it's a map of the off-street parking shaded in in red and you can really just see right away the sheer amount of land that's being dedicated to storing vehicles.  

Paul: Yeah, if I'm not mistaken, there are examples in your report, certainly Atlanta, the dramatic map from Atlanta is there.

Link parking reform with other popular goals [16:00]

Paul: Still on politics and political feasibility ... I guess, as much as I'm fascinated by parking, I need to accept that, uh, most people are not especially interested in parking.

And one of the ways that many of the reforms in the case study cities proceeded was that the headline wasn't, "this is a parking reform". The headline was, "this is a something else reform" and parking was part of achieving that reform.

Dana: Yes, exactly. I think that's so important, again, tying the more wonky pieces of policy-making to things that really are impacting people's lives. 

Parking minimums aren't something that regular people tend to think about, and they shouldn't. That's the job of policy makers and transport analysts and all of us who are listening to this podcast.

So in the case studies, we were really keen to note what those bigger goals cities were trying to achieve  and really linking how parking reforms could really help to lead to those goals. 

I mentioned New Zealand before. They really tied this process to housing unaffordability. That's also come up in several of the other case studies as well.

But also things like addressing, climate emissions, shifting demand away from driving... We have evidence that the more parking you build, the more driving you get.

And on the flip side, reducing the amount of parking that's available can really help to shift people's decision making away from driving to more sustainable modes like walking and cycling and transit.

Paul: Beijing comes to mind as one of those very dramatic turnarounds from almost the most appallingly chaotic situation you could possibly imagine a few years ago, to one where still not perfect, but really dramatic progress and alignment of the parking strategies and policies and outcomes with many other things that they're trying to do.

Push at any level of government that works [18:10]

Paul: I guess one final lesson on political feasibility that jumps out from the report, and you highlighted, it push at various levels of government.

Just give it a try and see which one is most responsive. 

Because it seems that context matters a lot and in some places you can get some movement at a very local level. And there are examples of that in the report. A fairly small municipality in northern Mexico, part of the Monterey region, San Pedro Garza Garcia, is an interesting place, a very high income car dependent place in the Mexico context, but achieving very bold movement.

That was a small municipality and several of the other cases are enormous municipalities such as São Paulo or Mexico City, places with a special status. And everything in between. And New Zealand is a case of a national level reform.

I guess it's opportunism or is there some theme that we should be drawing out? 

Dana: I think initially it's a city level issue. It's city land for the most part. It's a really hyper local issue. 

But addressing this at higher levels of government - states, even nationally - does provide a level of cover almost, of each individual city not really having to create their own policy from scratch. That can be really beneficial. Some cities may not have the capacity to do that. They may not have the resources to do that. 

And if it's coming down from a higher level of government that provides a little bit of cover for the local politicians to say, 'Oh, you know, we don't really have a choice to implement this. It's coming from the higher level. We just have to do it.' 

And then once it's in place, people see that it's not this grand change that's really life altering. 

It's hard to be the first. So now we have a lot of these different examples of how cities are implementing parking reform. But also you could go about it at these higher levels of government. 

So if you have political will or if you have a real champion for parking in these higher levels, pursuing it there is feasible as well. 

It's going to look different for different places but it's all about reducing the risk and making sure that cities understand that other cities like them have done this and the impacts have been beneficial.

Which should come first, on street parking management improvements, or off street parking reforms? [21:08]

Paul: That was a theme that came right through in the report, just the trying to constantly reassure. There's so many reasons to not be so scared. Just don't be so scared. Here's another example of a way that you shouldn't be so scared by this. It is possible you can do it. It's not going to be the end of the world. 

And speaking of which, your report tackles this question of which should come first, on-street parking management improvements or off-street parking reforms. 

And the answer is ... the cases tell you ...  Yes, both!

There are examples of either one, as well as simultaneous. What does that tell us?

Dana: Well, it tells us that if you have a city that's willing to work on both on and off street parking, they're probably miles ahead of a city that's just trying to maybe do one. 

We do see efficiencies around thinking about on and off street parking together. But we found that it can be hard to do because of institutional legacies, such as the way departments are set up and who has responsibility for on and off street parking. It's not always the same department and there's often not a lot of alignment in the goals for both types of parking, how they're being managed, and who's managing them. 

So sometimes addressing the institutional piece is the first step. 

Paul: Many of us have been saying for many years, perhaps without very much evidence, that, okay if you get your on street parking management in order, then you will find that what you thought was a parking shortage, wasn't really a parking shortage. And that will then encourage you to perhaps consider off street reform. 

And conversely, we say that cities that boldly launch into off street parking reform without managing their streets first will find themselves forced to focus their minds on on street parking management as soon as some spillover effects and problems start to emerge. Then, perhaps to their surprise, they'll find it's actually not so hard to manage the on street parking. 

And those who do it simultaneously, well that's fine too. 

I used to feel quite strongly that it should be on-street parking management first. But I no longer think that because so many cities just do the off street reforms and then muddle through. 

It seems you only really need on street parking management in places where you get parking problems. And I guess when car dependent cities do off street parking reforms ... Buffalo comes to mind and, in your report Atlanta, they've got such a huge glut of parking in their business districts that on street parking management can wait, right? Maybe it's not going to be a problem for another 10 years, even, even if hundreds of new buildings go up with zero parking, there's still just so much parking. But time will tell if that theory is correct. 

Dana: Well, just a little teaser as well, we're starting to think about this a little bit more at ITDP and we'll be coming out with a much, much shorter brief on this topic in early next year. It looks at this on and off street parking management question, how some cities have done it together, how some cities have done it not together, and what some of the takeaways from that are.

So we're starting to think about helping to reduce some of the uncertainty around this question.

Maximums dilemmas and complications [24:50]

Paul: The last substantive topic I want to briefly talk about before we finish is the issue of limiting parking. 

The central reform in the report is abolishing the mandates, abolishing the minimum parking requirements. But many of the cities in the study also implemented some kind of parking limitation strategy, such as the kind of parking maximums that are familiar to North American listeners. 

And there were two others that would have been less familiar, such as Mexico City's variation on the idea of maximums and São Paulo's interesting approach to limiting parking.

The report mentions that this is an area that there isn't a consensus among the parking reform movement. 

Dana: That's right. And we as ITDP don't necessarily advocate so strongly for parking maximums, though in some cases they have been useful. 

Mexico City has a fee fund set up where developers who want to build beyond 50% of the maximum have to contribute to this fund. The idea was that that money would go to support sustainable transport projects. In reality, that hasn't quite played out yet. It's unclear whether or how that fund has been set up and whether developers are actually contributing to it. And it has introduced a level of complexity that's not really resulted in a lot of impact in terms of limiting parking.

Paul: Strong arguments against the mandates are that they're arbitrary, they're too rigid, they don't give a lot of choice. 

And they encourage pretextual planning, where cities using parking minimums as a pretext to get something else. In your report, you mentioned Atlanta trying to discourage bars and restaurants by abolishing parking minimums in the downtown, EXCEPT for bars and restaurants, as a way to discourage bars and restaurants. It's a classic case of pretextual planning.

But our arguments against minimums are slightly undermined if we then advocate for maximums, which are also prone to the same kind of problems. 

But the Mexico city case and the São Paulo case were appealing in that they were more flexible and set up a sort of a fee or a cost and gave developers some choice. Tony Jordan from Parking Reform Network has been saying, we should just charge developers for providing parking because it has a negative impact.  

Dana: Another thing to think about in these cases, Mexico City, and even São Paulo, as you introduce these more complex kind of calculations that need to be done, that just requires more capacity from the city. And in some places, that's just really not going to be feasible. 

So you don't have to do these super complicated maximum type things for a parking reform to be successful. That's why the focus on removing minimums has been popular. It is quite simple to do. 

Paul: Thank you for bringing me back on target. Yes, the bottom line, and a key message from the report, was that when minimums are abolished, when parking mandates are abolished or lowered dramatically, parking still gets built. Less than before in transit oriented places and walkable places. A little less than before in car dependent places. So yeah, just abolish your parking minimums now! 

Dana: That's the takeaway. 

Paul: And for simplicity's sake, if one of the key arguments for abolishing the minimums is that currently many cities are tying up huge amounts of their staff time and dealing with all these appeals and variances and just assessing parking requirements. They can save all of that. And if they're going to then tie them up with maximums and details of maximums and fees and all sorts of things, then they're not going to get that benefit. 

Dana is not YET sick of parking reform [29:00]

Paul: I wanted to ask one slightly lighthearted question right at the end. 

You've had two years where parking has been almost an everyday part of your work day. Are you sick of parking reform yet?

Dana: I wouldn't say I'm sick of parking yet. I think there is a lot to be explored with parking. 

We've talked a little bit about addressing parking reform in really car centric places. But ITDP really primarily works in low and middle income countries and there's really an opportunity there for parking to serve a different purpose and to really think about parking as a way to curb some of the demand that's growing around car ownership and reliance on driving.

So we're coming at this from two sides, which is great. And there's a lot still to do in the parking space. ... ah, 'the parking space' ... 

Paul: No pun intended!  

Dana: Exactly.

Paul: Do go get hold of this report. It's on the ITDP website.

Dana: That's right.

Paul: Thank you very much, Dana, for talking with us on Reinventing Parking. 

Dana: Thanks for having me. 

You can download the "Breaking the Code, Off Street Parking Reform Lessons Learned" from the ITDP website.

Listen to the audio episode here: 


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