A Logical Approach to Reforming Parking Policy

parking_reformby James A. Bacon

The United States has hundreds of millions more parking spaces than it needs. As a result of this excessive supply, mandated by local government regulations across the country,  acreage worth billions of dollars is tied up in unproductive land use. So-called “free” parking really isn’t free. It drives up the cost of housing, especially for lower-income Americans, makes commercial space more expensive than it otherwise need be and makes it difficult to build walkable communities.

That is the starting point of the book, “Parking Reform Made Easy,” by Richard W. Willson, a former student of parking guru Donald Shoup and now an urban planning professor at California Polytechnic University. Shoup has made a career of subjecting parking to rigorous economic analysis, and Willson follows in his shoes.

“Parking is a prodigious and inefficient consumer of land,” writes Willson. There are an estimated 820 million to 840 million parking spaces in the country, or about 3.4 spaces per vehicle. The overwhelming majority sit empty at any given time. Why such inefficiency? Because local governments impose stand-alone parking requirements for housing, offices, retailing and everything from churches to government buildings without considering the possibility that they could share.

Local parking policies often are arbitrary in nature, copied blindly from neighboring jurisdictions, which may have copied them from someone else. Minimum parking requirements also utilize parking ratios based on national data sets that may not replicate local supply-and-demand conditions. But the thinking is changing. Increasingly, municipalities regard parking requirements as an invisible subsidy for automobiles that hinders the development of pedestrian- and transit-friendly communities. Willson’s book is, in effect, a how-to manual for jurisdictions wanting to overhaul their parking policies.

Willson provides a 12-step “toolkit” for repairing obsolete parking requirements. He takes readers through a detailed, step-by-step process for calculating parking demand for multi-family housing projects, workplaces and transit-oriented development. Willson’s empirically driven approach appears to be entirely reasonable, and should prove invaluable to anyone whose job is to worry about government parking policy, although he does go into greater depth of analysis than any normal person would think possible (or really care to think about).

Readers with a more casual interest in smart-growth and urban-planning issues will find the book a tough slog. Still, the reform-minded may find the effort worthwhile for the many ideas the book contains.

One idea Willson explores is the sharking of parking. When builders are required to bake parking spaces into their projects, they have no incentive to find creative ways to economize, such as sharing spaces with complementary users. For example, offices tend to have peak day utilization while apartment buildings tend to have peak evening utilization. It makes sense for them to collaborate. In a mixed-use setting with multiple users, the opportunities for sharing are even greater. As a bonus, reducing the space devoted to parking brings down costs and reduces distances between destinations, a major plus for walkability.

Another good idea is unbundling parking from leasing and rentals. If office tenants gets parking spaces packaged as part of the lease, they tend to hand out spaces to employees with no questions asked. But if the property owner unbundles parking — making parking available but charging for utilization — a very different dynamic occurs. Instead of subsidizing employee parking, employers might decide, for example, to subsidize car-sharing, van pooling or mass transit. Employees are more likely to use their cars when they perceive parking as free; if they have to pay for it, they are more willing to consider alternatives to driving their car.

My main disappointment with “Parking Reform Made Easy” is that Willson spent little time exploring the dynamics of market-based pricing for parking, especially on-street parking. Parking is undergoing a technological revolution making it possible to fine-tune policy to an unprecedented degree. That’s the future of the industry, and Willson glides over it. Maybe he’s saving the topic for his next book. I hope so. I’m sure he would have something valuable to contribute to the conversation.

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5 responses to “A Logical Approach to Reforming Parking Policy”

  1. Darrell Avatar

    Fine-tuning: Banning super sized sodas for the public good.

    Parking made easy. Let’s force apartment buildings to make their parking available for business. Yeah, that works. There are two local business down here that share their parking lot. One one side, signs say Parking for Business A only. YOU WILL BE TOWED. On the other side of the lot the signs say Business B.

    And if you want to really see Parking made easy, just try to find a space near a park for the 4th of July fireworks. Tons of parking, blocked by the owners who do not want freeloaders on their property.

    Or did the government ‘fine tune’ property rights out of existence?

  2. I’ve had a number of talks about parking with Tysons landowners. The new residential units will largely have unbundled parking. The commercial buildings will likely try to balance their TDM requirements with enough free parking to remain competitive with other office locations that have free parking.

  3. I’m not convinced that this is purely a local govt requirement.

    the reason why is that in our area – businesses like WalMart have been approached about leasing out part of their lots for commuter parking and they have refused citing the fact that while there is unused parking at some times
    of the year – that at holidays – the lots often are near full and there is no easy way to let commuters use the parking at some times of the year and ban them at other times.

    Nothing will burn a commercial retailer more than keeping a customer from coming through their doors for lacking of a parking space.

    so I’m not convince that this is a “forced” imposition on retailers as much as I might be convinced that retailers would like to blame the local govts for the rule – that they want anyhow.

    think about this. In the Fredericksburg area there is tremendous demand for commuter parking as our area is one of the tops in the countries for people using carpools, slugging, van pools and buses.. and parking is procured with great difficulty near the I-95 ramps for on the order of 10K per parking spot – and up – paid for from gasoline taxes.

    The retailers have been approached – leases offered and the result in most commercial parking lots is signs that inform commuters that if they park there their cars will be towed.

    Now someone might say – well just add another local govt rule ot require some percent of commuter parking in commercial retail lots… but then you’ll get the fire of the “we don’t want any more stinkin govt regs” guys.

    I think it was Reed that said parking was “complicated” and my view is that it may or may not be – but it ain’t as simple as some think.

    I think Walmart wants every single parking spot that is in their lot – no matter what the local govt rules are – and I strongly suspect that what WalMart wants and what the local govt want – has a suprising level of agreement!!!

  4. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    I did earlier suggest that parking was complicated. And now suggest that policy decisions on how the government should regulate parking are also by nature complex. The consequences and ripple affect can be enormous. This includes unforeseen consequences.

    So while I find much useful information in Mr. Wilson’s PARKING REFORM MADE EASY, I disagreed with the premise of the book’s title. And I disagree with the entire trust of all that that title implies.

    The paradox of parking is that at base is a utility, yet it is woven deep into private property rights, and fulfills a multitude of special, legitimate, and critical needs of individuals and businesses in pursuit of their rights. Larry G and Darrel have suggested this too.

    So everyone needs parking ample to their needs. I say this despite current trendy fads that recall the late 60’s and early 70’s when the folk flocked barefooted to communes out in the country to live as Flower Children. Eve’s Garden did not work then and it is equally unfit for today’s world.

    So the Flower Children have returned from the Garden to use ample parking and ample electricity as necessary to shop at Whole Foods. Some even shop at Walmart. More folks depend on Walmart for more purchases than any other retailer in America. And some people want to change that. Parking regulations might the lever. Herein lies the great danger.

    So Mr. Wilson’s PARKING REFORM MADE EASY shows many ways that might, under in the right circumstances and if done the right way, just might make parking more productive, efficient and useful. But those very same tools used the wrong way in the wrong hands of the wrong people can be used destroy the lives and livelihoods of fellow citizens. Thus to much government and special interest manipulation can do great harm. Its now clear this to a substantial degree is happening in Portland Oregon. The mistakes there, made with the best intentions, are now becoming obvious.

    We need to slow down and get into delicate balance then tread carefully. And when in doubt do nothing. That’s hard to do.

  5. […] Reform Made Easy reviewed on Bacon’s Rebellion blog […]

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