Public Policy Boring? Not When it Involves Parking

Barbara Chance

“There is nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don’t know. “Ambrose Bierce added the last part to the fabled quotation from Ecclesiastes. Barbara Chance uses this as a base for looking at public policy and parking. She will be expanding on this article at the Parking Industry Exhibition to be held March 30 through April 2 in Chicago. Editor

“One size does not fit all,” said Cinderella as she heard of the lineup to find the foot that fit the glass slipper. And the same is true in parking policy. Here we have six areas we can review to delve into the issues of the public side of parking.
Nothing’s new
There truly are a lot of old things we do not know, or that we have forgotten, or that we have not passed down as knowledge in our industry. For example, the difficulties of free parking have been known since the first parking meter was installed in Oklahoma City in 1935. This is not a new concept.
Modern “parking management” dates from the late 1970s and early 1980s in Washington, D.C., and a few other cities. The objective of professionally managed parking has always been to use parking management tools to encourage people to park where you want them to park, and for the length of time desired.
One size does not fit all
Why do cities charge for parking? What are they trying to accomplish with the public policy of charging for parking?
Most charge to influence who parks where, and for how long. Likewise, charging promotes turnover to regulate the use of a scarce and valuable resource – curb space in dense areas.
Many municipalities charge to raise revenue from popular parking places to pay for parking needed in other locations. The revenue from popular downtown parking blocks may help to pay for meters and parking services in smaller commercial strips that do not generate the same revenue but need parking services nonetheless.
And, finally, charging for parking may raise revenue for non-parking activities.
This is where the “green vs. green” debate is beginning to arise. Some cities do not want to add parking in dense downtown areas, but they are tempted to do so because they can raise revenue to be used for other activities: parks, pedestrian improvements, public transit or wayfinding.
One concept does not work everywhere. Smaller towns are different from dense, highly urban areas, and strategies for parking management ought not to be exactly the same.
Money is NOT the real objective
Contrary to what many individuals believe, particularly after they have received a parking ticket, the objective of public parking management is not to generate revenue. Revenue is the by-product of having managed certain kinds of parking successfully, and it need not be associated with all parking (although it is a very effective tool).
Economic activity in downtowns and commercial areas is vital to the life of a city, regardless of size. Parking is part of the infrastructure, not the main event. Thus, the purpose of charging for parking, in the public sector, should not be to raise money but to facilitate access to land use.
Parking as part of the transportation infrastructure is becoming worthy of investment as real estate in some locations. It is far behind toll roads and port facilities, but interest exists and examples are multiplying. Access to real estate (roads, ports, airports and parking) is becoming a real estate investment class.
But is privatizing good public policy? The answer depends, of course, on who is being asked. Moving parking out of the public sector may provide a large, initial, short-term influx of revenue, but it may have less positive effects in the long term.
Typically, public parking is the “bottom” of the market in terms of price. If all or significant public parking resources are transferred to the private sector, what holds prices to reasonable levels in many urbanized areas? Who builds parking that is needed in areas that are not “prime” in terms of the ability to pay for parking? Is the short-term influx of revenue better than a well-managed program that provides a long-term revenue stream that is predictable and reliable?
Discipline in all areas
Cities are experiencing many parking problems today, such as the inability to pay for improvements, all-day parking in on-street spaces and abuse of accessible spaces.
Just as “one size does not fit all,” not all cities share these problems to equal degrees. What are the determining factors in various cities?
The reasons these problems are occurring are many, and include inappropriate regulations, outdated regulations, inadequate or inappropriate enforcement and outdated rates.
Some cities control so little of the parking supply (as public parking) that they cannot substantially influence the market, either overall or in selected locations.
Many cities did not create parking management organizations, and lack of management meant that very little got done and fragmented departments did not understand the concept or how various program elements should work together.
When cities did create parking management organizations, some allowed them to deteriorate over time in the misguided search for more revenue.
Discipline is needed in parking management, just as in the management of any other significant resource. This means that:
• funds need to be devoted to the analysis necessary to develop and manage good parking programs;
• equipment and facilities need to have adequate budgets for updating and repair; and
• enforcement, wayfinding, design, regulations, PARCS – all need to be a part of the program, not just parking rates.
The focus on raising revenue, particularly to use for things other than the constant improvement of existing parking and programs, promotes the focus on rates and a reluctance to devote time and resources to the other parts of parking management that make the systems work.
Habits are hard to change
Where should parking money go? This is typically not a decision that parking managers get to make. Often it is a political decision, usually local but not always so. Many public officials and sometimes others in the public want parking money; they see parking as a “cash cow” to be milked for other uses. Generally, they do not understand the programs.
What are the dangers in diverting parking revenue from parking activities?
The most common danger is that funds are not set aside for capital improvements such as garage restoration and repair; updated PARCS (parking access and revenue control systems); updated parking meters; and vehicles and equipment to support the parking program.
The second most common danger is lack of funding for a dedicated organization and staff: “We can run this in existing departments” no matter how many departments are involved. Analysis is no longer the basis for decisions. All the functions except the “revenue producing” ones get neglected. This results in lower revenue anyway.
The truth of the matter is that once parking revenue is diverted to other programs or needs, it is almost impossible to get it back – even if funds are needed for parking! So both public administrators and members of the public should be careful before suggesting that significant net revenue can be diverted to other uses without adequate consideration of what it will mean over time for public parking.
Following fashion is not always best
Some aspects of parking are almost always the same, no matter where you are. People will say there is not enough parking, the price is too high, parking is not convenient, the walk is too long, etc., etc.
However, the context in which parking occurs is always different. There are variations in the political, economic, physical, historic and geographic landscapes.
Organized, proactive, analytical, customer-sensitive parking management has existed for more than 30 years in cities across the United States. The strategies are proven, analysis is simple but not simplistic, and results have been shown in numerous cities.
Don’t adopt the latest fashion because it receives a lot of publicity. Learn from your colleagues with successful programs, and develop your own that work in your environment.
Know who you are, and do it right for where you are!

Barbara Chance, Ph.D., is CEO of Chance Management Advisors. She can be reached at

Article Abstract from March, 2008

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