“I’m a protestant when it comes to parking requirements — and I believe city planning needs a reformation.” — Donald Shoup
I’ve saved my favorite policy recommendations for last.
Parking is by far the most controversial topic, so I wanted to look to America’s foremost expert on parking reform: UCLA Professor Donald Shoup
He recently published a piece on CityLab talking about his big 3 reforms.
For some quick context on how America got to its current car-centric urban form, consider the urban planning approaches used by former generations:
- Divide the city into separate zones (housing here, jobs there, shopping somewhere else) to create travel between the zones.
- Limit density to spread everything apart and further increase travel.
- Require ample off-street parking everywhere so cars will be the easiest and cheapest way to travel.
Separated land uses, low density, and ample free parking create drivable cities and prevent walkable neighborhoods.
According to Professor Shoup, “parking requirements [are] poisoning our cities, increasing traffic congestion, polluting the air, encouraging sprawl, raising housing costs, degrading urban design, preventing walkability, damaging the economy, and penalizing everyone who cannot afford a car…
Without a theory or data to support them, planners set parking requirements for hundreds of land uses in hundreds of cities — the ten thousand commandments of planning for parking.”
Did you know that in Los Angeles, more land is dedicated to parking than the area of the entire island of Manhattan? Across the US, communities force developers and public entities to build minimum amounts of parking, amounts that frequently do not reflect market demands — in other words, most of that costly parking goes unused.
We’ve honestly distorted the free market when it comes to parking policy.
By pricing parking as FREE, we’re inducing demand for driving.
People often use the lack of available parking spaces in high demand areas as evidence of the need for parking minimums, but the truth is that when an in-demand (though socially harmful) thing is free, there will never be enough supply to satisfy the demand. Whenever more free parking is built, some degree of latent demand (people who earlier wouldn’t think to drive there, but now will because of availability) will make parking scarce once again.
A parking space costs tens of thousands of dollars in terms of land value and construction. In San Diego, a surface parking space is ~$30,000 and an underground parking space is roughly $90,000.
It’s important to recognize that THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS FREE PARKING. This distortion has subsequently raised costs on everything else.
You’re never getting free parking. You’re getting subsidized parking.
The costs of parking are pushed onto housing developers, businesses, and government. These costs are then subsequently pushed onto consumers.
As Professor Shoup explains: “Few people are interested in parking itself, but parking strongly affects issues people do care strongly about, such as affordable housing, climate change, economic development, public transportation, traffic congestion, and urban design. Parking requirements reduce the supply and increase the price of housing. Parking subsidies lure people into cars from public transportation, bicycles, or their own two feet. Cruising for curb parking congests roads, pollutes the air, and adds greenhouse gases. Do people really want a drive-in dystopia more than they want affordable housing, clean air, walkable neighborhoods, good urban design, and a sustainable planet?”
Speaking of sustainability, when cities price parking as FREE, that does not reflect its environmental costs. Free parking in high-demand areas means that people don’t think twice about the potential savings of taking another mode of transportation or carpooling. Our default of driving everywhere is not an actual market outcome, because we’ve subsidized parking over mass transit. As a result, more driving in single occupancy vehicles contributes to more greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and more air pollution.
Free parking also come with social costs as it accommodates sprawl and artificially distorts our urban form. High parking minimums make it very difficult to achieve denser, more walkable and transit-oriented areas that contribute to strong, tight-knit and environmentally-friendly community.
You can see it in your own communities. When new developments attempt to come in, citizens often object to the resulting traffic congestion, and cities respond by restricting development to reduce traffic. The de facto result is: “Cities are limiting the density of people to limit the density of cars. Free parking has become the arbiter of urban form, and cars have replaced humans as zoning’s real density concern.” — Professor Shoup
So what needs to be done?
Parking is an extremely sensitive topic, and oddly enough it makes people behave counter to their normal stated political beliefs.
“Some strongly support market prices — except for parking. Some strongly oppose subsidies — except for parking. Some abhor planning regulations — except for parking. Some insist on rigorous data collection and statistical tests — except for parking. This exceptionalism has impoverished thinking about parking policies. If drivers paid the full cost of their parking, it would seem too expensive, so we expect someone else to pay for it. But a city where everyone happily pays for everyone else’s free parking is a fool’s paradise.” — Professor Shoup
Shoup’s 3 Reforms:
- Remove off-street parking requirements. Developers and businesses can then decide how many parking spaces to provide for their customers.
- Charge the right prices for on-street parking. The right prices are the lowest prices that will leave one or two open spaces on each block, so there will be no parking shortages. Variable pricing will balance the demand and supply for on-street spaces.
- Spend the parking revenue to improve public services on the metered streets. If everybody sees their meter money at work, the new public services can make demand-based prices for on-street parking politically popular.
This is Holy Trinity of Parking Reform.
Recently, the City of San Diego sought to reduce unnecessary and socially harmful residential parking near major transit stops and downtown, encourage alternate modes of transportation, unbundle parking and housing costs for prospective buyers, and encourage affordable housing. This is a solid and bipartisan step in the right direction, but more still needs to be done. We’ve nibbled at #1 in Shoup’s list, but we haven’t started #2 and #3.
Beyond the big 3, other reforms include having establishments with different use patterns share parking — a religious institution or community center can use the majority during off-peak business hours, while a nearby business park can use most of the parking when few people are at the religious or community center.
“Improving parking policies could be the cheapest, quickest, and most politically feasible way to achieve many social, economic, and environmental goals.”
Parking reform is probably my favorite topic in all of urban planning, because I believe it leads to cascade of benefits: shorter commutes, less traffic, a healthier economy, a cleaner environment, and more affordable housing.
Parking reform is also a component of two of my other policies: Better Land Use and YIGBY
When we combine parking reform with better transit, it changes the urban geometry and leads to much more efficient land-use. Applied to our current city, it would also allow for our vast inventory of parking to be converted to new uses. Gigantic parking lots become a canvas for new possibility, evolving into walkable communities with healthy urbanism.