Parking Mindsets via Four Questions

This week, I ran a short training session about parking policy, as I often do. 

I challenged the participants with four questions to help them examine their parking assumptions. 

Let me share the questions with you and discuss some lessons we can learn from them.

As you read or listen, think about your own answers. You might get some insight into your own parking mindsets.

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

Four questions to get at your parking mindsets

Below are the four questions. 

After presenting them, I will then circle back and discuss the significance of each. 

If you ever run trainings or give presentations on parking reform and you want to make use of any of these questions, then feel free, especially if you mention where you got them of course.

Where should motorists park?

Question 1 is about where you think motorists should park.

Someone arrives by car in an area for a meeting. In your ideal parking policy world, where should they park? You have two options to choose from. 

A.        The motorist should park in the parking lot or garage on the site that includes their destination. Parking anywhere else creates the nuisance called “spillover” parking.


B.        It is fine for the motorist to park in public-use parking or well-managed street parking somewhere near their destination. That’s not “spillover” or a nuisance, it is just normal parking in a walkable “park-once-and-walk” urban district.

So to summarize the question, is it best if people park on-site in their destination (option A) or is it OK if people just park legally in well-managed parking nearby?

What should motorists pay for parking?

Question 2 is about parking fees and paying for parking.

For off-street public car parking, which of the following parking fee options best matches your thinking on fees?

  1. Parking should be free-of-charge for the user.
  2. There should be a user fee but it should be capped to ensure the cost is reasonable. “Reasonable” would need to be defined, of course.
  3. The parking fee should be whatever the market decides.
  4. The fee should be set at whatever works to ration the parking use and prevent the parking from becoming over-full. 
  5. The parking fees should be set high enough to recover the full internal costs of the parking facility, including operations, construction, and land.
  6. Is the same as 5 except that in addition to recovering full costs the fee should also include an additional impost that is justified by the external social/environmental costs of driving, such as congestion costs. 

Image by Schwede66, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

That was a lot so let me summarize the options: 1. is free-of-charge parking, 2 is a "reasonable" fee. 3 is a market-based fee. 4 is a fee that is whatever it takes to prevent full parking. 5 is a cost-recovery fee. And 6 is a cost recovery fee PLUS an extra payment because of external costs of driving. 

That’s two questions down, two to go.

How much parking should there be?

The next question, question 3, is about your views on the right quantity of parking. 

In your ideal parking policy world, how much car parking is the right amount for each location? Again, there are six options.

  1. It’s better to overdo parking supply than to have a shortage of parking.
  2. Supply should match actual demand (with parking free of charge)
  3. Supply should match actual demand but this time WITH fees. Of course, much depends on how fees are set (which as in the previous question).
  4. The right supply is whatever the real-estate market provides (open option for developers/builders) like in a city that has abolished parking mandates.
  5. Parking supply should be consistent with the mobility plans for the whole area
  6. Limit parking supply to the amount that would not overburden the roads with generated traffic.

Who should have a say over on-street parking?

The last question is about on-street parking stakeholders. 

Question 4. Who should have the most say about how each section of on-street parking should be managed? This time there are four options. 

  1. Only established owners of homes or businesses close to each space should have a say. No one else should have any input, not even owners/tenants of NEW buildings. Hmm.
  2. Is similar. Only residents or business owners close to each space should have a say but without making a distinction between incumbents and newcomers.
  3. The whole community should have a say, but owners, residents or businesses close to each space should have somewhat more say.
  4. The streets belong to everyone! No-one should have any more rights or say over the parking than anyone else.

So that was four questions aimed at helping people understand their mindsets about parking. Each question sheds light on common assumptions about parking. 

We will see that some of these assumptions are helpful and healthy for our cities. Others … not so much.

What struck you about the questions and their possible answers?

To me, an especially striking thing is that the range of answers to each question is huge. It is amazing that the possible answers to these questions vary so much.

And despite the huge contrasts between answers, all of them are realistic. We can pick ANY of the answers and someone, somewhere really does answer that way. 

This wide range of realistic answers helps us to see that the world of car parking has a wide range of different mindsets. 

That’s one reason we so often see parking debates at cross-purposes with participants baffled or appalled by the claims of opponents. 

The answers to these four parking questions are also realistic in another way. 

Policies and practices based on almost all of these answers have been tried in actual practice somewhere in the world. In fact, in many cities, several different answers to each question are being applied simultaneously to different kinds of parking or in different areas of the city. 

An obvious example is that many cities have downtown areas that are park-once-and-walk areas, where parking fees are market-based or demand-based or both, and where parking supply is lower than the market-based level because of parking maximums. 

Yet almost all of the same cities ALSO have more suburban areas where most parking is on-site private-use parking, free-of-charge for motorists, and provided in huge quantities in part as a result of high parking mandates.

Lessons and Implications of Each Question and Its Range of Answers

Let’s take a closer look at the thinking behind the answers to each question. As we do that, you will want to have YOUR answers handy or at least have them in mind.

A closer look at Question 1: On-site versus park-once mindsets

Question 1 was about where parking should be: on-site in their destination or in well-managed parking anywhere in the neighborhood. 

That’s a much more important issue than it seems. 

The contrast between the two answers is central to what I think is the most pivotal mindset difference in parking policy. 

The first answer reflects the mindset that justifies parking mandates (aka minimum parking requirements). It’s the mindset that worries that parking outside a destination is a nuisance called spillover parking. It’s the mindset that wants plentiful on-site parking and is happy that such parking usually becomes private-use parking, open to employees only, customers only, tenants only. 

And the other answer is based in what I call the Walkable Parking mindset. It’s the approach that welcomes park-once-and-walk areas. In this view, it is normal to park in public-use parking somewhere in the area, not necessarily at one of your destinations, and to walk to where you want to go, or to various places you want to go. 

This mindset contrast is neglected even by parking reformers

I am emphasizing this because I find that even many parking reformers tend to underestimate the importance of this particular mindset contrast. 

When arguing against parking mandates, many of us mount arguments focused on the amount of parking. We point out that the parking requirements over-estimate how much parking is needed. 

But the quest to reform parking mandates is NOT just about changing people’s assumptions about how much parking there should be. And we will get to that in Question 3 of course. 

Fighting parking mandates is ALSO about this issue of WHERE motorists should park. It is just as crucial as the quantity. 

Being aware of this issue lets us push to abolish parking mandates EVEN in places where the parking standards are moderate. We can argue against parking mandates even in areas where they don’t over-estimate the amount of parking needed. Just the fact that they mandate ON-SITE parking is problematic. That promotes private-use parking. It harms the prospects for making parking more compatible with walkable urbanism. Promoting on-site private-use parking makes park-once-and-walk areas difficult to create. It is not just mandating parking that is wrong. Mandating on-site parking is also a problem. 

Cities will do so much better on parking policy if we can escape the mindset that expects motorists to park on-site at their destinations. Let’s embrace the idea that parking can and should serve its neighborhood, not just the site that it is on. 

A closer look at Question 2: Mindsets revealed by attitudes to fees

Question 2 was about parking fees for off-street public car parking and the possible answers were free parking, reasonable fees, market prices, trial-and-error or demand-based fees, cost-recovery fees, and finally fees for cost recovery plus external costs of driving. 

There were some very different ideas about fees there!

Most of us know that there is often a large gap between the fee options that feel right to ordinary motorists who haven’t thought about this much, and what seems right to most parking reformers. 

Too many people think subsidizing parking is fine

Many people seem to see no problem with free parking or so-called reasonable fees, even if it obviously means that someone must be subsidizing the parking. 

This question was focused on off-street public-use parking. It is the kind of parking that we expect to be common in park-once-and-walk areas that were mentioned with Question 1. And this is the kind of parking where subsidies are especially difficult to justify. But that doesn’t stop some cities. Many cities do provide off-street public-use parking for free or at prices below the nearby market rates. 

This tendency to expect free or cheap parking is usually worse for private-use off-street parking where it is assumed that the property owners benefit from making their parking free. It is also worse for on-street parking where the reason for parking fees is rationing not costs, and many cities fail to explain that very well (or at all). And on-street parking used by residents seems to be the category of parking where the belief in free or cheap parking is most widespread and difficult to challenge. Sigh. 

Many want abundant parking, some want limited parking, few are keen on leaving it to the market

It is also interesting to notice something about the fees answers at both ends of the spectrum – free parking at one end and expensive parking at the other. They are highly interventionist. They have very different purposes but both answers involve a great willingness to impose a different outcome from the market-based and demand-based outcomes in between. 

By the way, the answers to this question don’t necessarily just run from cheapest to most expensive. It might seem that the “fees for full-cost recovery plus external costs” answer would result in the most expensive parking. But not necessarily. It depends on demand and on supply. Remember the supply-restricting answers to Question 3? If policy is based on those answers in part of a city, such as the city center, then fees that are demand-based or market-based can end up very high – maybe even higher than a cost-based price or even a cost plus externalities price. And in locations with a glut of parking supply, the demand-responsive price will be very low or zero. 

These demand-responsive price options in the middle of my list of answers don’t determine the price levels but they do mean that high prices or low prices tell us something about parking demand and supply. They provide useful information.

A closer look at Question 3 on parking supply attitudes

That brings us to Question 3, which probed attitudes on the proper amount of parking that should be provided. 

Possible answers here were: have more than enough parking; match demand (which was various options, depending on the approach to parking fees); open option parking which means letting real-estate actors decide for themselves on supply; and two planning-based approaches - make sure the amount of parking matches the transportation plan or limit parking to keep traffic manageable.

The answers to this question interact with the fees question.

Certain answers to this question limit your options on the fee question and vice versa. If you want plentiful parking, you are unlikely to also want high parking prices for motorists. And if you do, you are going to be disappointed. 

Answers to this supply question also interact with the first issue of an on-site parking mindset versus a park-once-and-walk mindset. 

The notion that parking really belongs on-site at destinations leads people into supporting and defending excessive parking mandates because that seem like the only way to achieve that ideal. Even reforms to right-size the parking mandates to match demand are a tough sell in a city where everyone holds the on-site parking mindset. And assuming that every site needs to meet its own parking demand makes it very difficult to even think of restricting parking supply. 

Conversely, if park-once-and-walk thinking is common, then a wide range of attitudes to supply are possible. In park-once-and-walk areas, much of the parking typically comes to be actively managed. The owners of parking will tend to price their parking. They will learn quickly about the actual demand for parking. We can trust them, and we can trust future builders to pay attention to these signals and get the supply about right. Limiting supply also becomes thinkable. Even boosting supply is not necessarily anathema in park-once areas but the costs of doing so are more obvious if the only way to boost supply beyond what the market wants is to explicitly subsidize parking. And boosting on-site supply via parking mandates is definitely OFF the agenda in park-once-and-walk thinking.

I have two more comments about this question before we move on. 

Most of these answers seem radical to many people

First, it is again a little shocking, if you think about it, that most of these answers strike many people as radical. In car-dependent places the first two answers dominate people’s thinking with the belief that the authorities should make sure there is either enough parking (with parking free of charge) or MORE than enough parking, just to be safe. The cost of all that parking is somehow forgotten or overwhelmed by the fear that any hint of parking shortage is a disaster. 

It is understandable in some ways, since the various harms to society from an oversupply of parking, such as high housing costs, car dependence, and cross-subsidies for drivers, are long-term chronic problems that are not immediately visible. Whereas even mild parking shortage results in immediate effects and management efforts that a easily noticed by motorists and keenly felt, even if they are effective and good for society overall. 

Parking policy turns many people into central planning fans

Second, again it is interesting that, as for the fees question, answers at both ends of the spectrum here – the answers seeking abundant parking and the answers seeking to restrict parking - are all highly interventionist. Many people are willing to impose a totally non-market outcome on parking supply compared with the demand-responsive answers in the middle. 

I guess it is understandable that many people don’t trust private actors motivated by profits to behave well. But it is still striking that, even many people who support the idea of market economies, are highly skeptical when market mechanisms are extended to something like parking that is usually immune from the laws of supply and demand.

A closer look at Question 4 about on-street parking stakeholders

Now let's examine the last question, which is about who should have the power over on-street parking. 

This one is a change of pace because it is asking a very explicitly political question. A huge number of controversies over on-street parking hinge on attitudes revealed by this question. 

Recall that the options ranged from the first rather extreme answer, which was to limit power over on-street parking to only long-standing owners of nearby property. The next few answers expanded the circle of who should have a say. And the other extreme was that the whole community be empowered over on-street parking, with no-one having more say than anyone else.

Legally speaking, in most places that last one is the most defensible answer. Streets are legally public spaces belonging to the whole community to be managed for the good of all. 

But in practice, almost every local government everywhere, does pay more attention to nearby stakeholders. Especially if those stakeholders have the power to assert themselves and wield influence if they feel ignored.

Let’s take a closer look at the most extreme answer to this question the first option that privileged long-standing incumbent property owners. It sounds feudal and you might be thinking that it’s unrealistic. Sadly, no, it is not. 

In fact, this option is interesting because despite being awfully unfair, something along these lines is sometimes the least bad way to make some progress on parking reform in residential areas. Some cities make the judgement that the only way to make abolishing parking mandates and parking-lite or zero-parking buildings through the local political process is to set a date and say that after that date new buildings in the area will not be eligible for street parking permits. This is common in Australia and much discussed in various parts of North America. This recognizes that these local incumbents have such a strong power of veto in some areas that this is the best we can do. The alternative would often mean keeping parking mandates or seeing them reinstated. This compromise is annoying and unfair, but it does at least let us make progress. 

More generally, most of the answers to this question recognize that, in the real world, we can’t just ignore nearby stakeholders. Donald Shoup’s parking reform ideas address this via Parking Benefit Districts. I like to talk about sweetening the deal for stakeholders. 

But cities need to be very careful. We need to make sure that any compromises with local stakeholders retain the essentials of effective parking management and avoid undermining its wider goals. 

For example, don’t mandate parking to appease anyone. And don’t ease back on enforcement or pricing for the sake of such people. Consider offering them something that they like, but only if parking management will still work well.

And that’s where I am going to stop. 

Thanks to everyone who is still with me after a rather wonkish episode and post.

I think each of these questions and their ranges of possible answers help bring to the surface the various hidden assumptions that people hold about parking. Not just people, but we ourselves as parking reformers. 

I hope it was helpful.

Listen to the audio episode here: 


Please do recommend Reinventing Parking or SHARE this article and episode with any of your friends or colleagues who might be interested. Please share on social media too!

Subscribe, if you haven't already (it's free):



  1. Hello there
    I was wondering what the audience mix was for this session. We might expect the broad population to have a wide range of views, but (hopefully) policy makers, academics, campaigners, elected politicians and transport planners, even developers, to have more of a consensus?
    Best wishes
    Chris P

    PS. Did anyone say: make them go home and park and use a sustainable mode to arrive instead?


Post a Comment