An Overview Of Management Strategies

U.S. Parking Policies

By Rachel Weinberger, John Kaehny and Matthew Rufo

Editor’s note: This is the Executive Summary of “U.S. Parking Policies: An Overview of Management Strategies,” published by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. Its authors are Rachel Weinberger, John Kaehny and Matthew Rufo.
In the last 5 to 10 years, U.S. transportation planners have become much more aware of the impact of parking on congestion, air quality, economic development and the pedestrian environment. Historically, the “parking problem” has been identified as the problem of too little supply; increasingly, the problem is now seen as the poor management of existing supply and, in cases where cities have instituted parking maximums, the problem is understood to be of too much supply.
There is a growing realization that the dysfunction caused by poorly conceived parking policies is a major impediment to creating an effective and balanced urban transportation system; it also is a significant cause of traffic and air pollution.
Transportation planners seeking to learn from the United States should take note of how traditional U.S. parking policies have had significant unintended consequences. By and large, these policies have produced excess parking supply. The excess has served to keep the price of parking down — 99% of driving trips end in free parking — and consequently reduced the cost of car use. By reducing the cost of driving and by consuming large amounts of space, traditional policies have promoted automobile use and dispersed land uses, thus undermining public transit, walking and bicycling.
There is a growing movement to employ parking policies that encourage balanced transportation systems and reinforce central cities. These newer approaches emphasize measures that manage parking demand through pricing, shared parking and reduced off-street requirements. These “demand management” oriented policies are most often found in dense downtown areas or central business districts served by public transit.
In the U.S., decisions about off-street parking and land use are made by planning departments within cities, towns and counties. These groups base traditional parking practices on a number of assumptions — the most fundamental of which are the notions that the automobile is always the preferred mode of travel, demand for parking is independent of price, parking should be or will be free, and there is no transit or other travel alternative. Parking policy decisions are typically made without reference to the rest of the transportation system.
This has lead to cities being designed around parking. Builders are required to provide minimum amounts of parking with most new developments — a costly requirement. These “minimum parking requirements” have contributed to a cycle of automobile dependence that is especially damaging to city centers. More parking reduces the cost of car use, which leads to more car use and more demand for parking. The walking environment is undermined, and the distance between destinations increases.
Ultimately, this leads to lowered densities within cities to a point where transit becomes inefficient. Street life and public spaces cease to function. This indeed is what we see in suburban office parks, “big box store” developments and dead downtowns. In contrast, some cities are beginning to set parking policies that promote city centers and balanced transportation systems.
Curbside parking, on the other hand, is frequently managed under the jurisdiction of city streets or public works departments, which also have some responsibility for transportation planning. The parking and transportation dysfunction caused by the land use planners setting off-street requirements and public works departments managing curbside supply can be reduced by having clear planning objectives and one entity setting coordinated policy in both realms.
Basic principles of sustainable parking policy and planning
• Minimum parking requirements subsidize driving by shifting the costs of car use onto development and the nondriving public.
• Required parking imposes significant direct and indirect costs; parkers should bear this cost, not the general public.
• Good access is easily impeded by abundant parking. Conservative parking requirements allow better accommodation for public transit, walking and bicycling.
• Increasing supply lowers prices and stimulates increased parking demand.
• The demand for parking is influenced by price and travel alternatives
• The supply and price of curbside and off-street parking influence each other.
While these principles are well understood, they are infrequently invoked. A handful of cities in the United States are using them to develop new policies that support broader sustainability and economic development goals. The parking innovations underway in seven of those cities are profiled in this report.
Off-street parking practice and best practices in the United States
The majority of off-street parking is “accessory” to the primary land use and is regulated by landuse zoning codes written by city planning agencies and commissions. Commercial off-street parking is provided by profit seeking firms, primarily in dense downtowns. Municipal off-street parking is provided by the public sector, typically as a low cost, downtown amenity.
By the 1950s, most city planning commissions required a specified amount of accessory parking as part of most new residential and workplace construction. These “minimum parking requirements” were a reaction to growing automobile use that, absent any pricing mechanism, was swamping available street space. In addition, single use zoning results in segregated residential and commercial areas, triggering more reliance on the automobile. As accommodation to the automobile increased, so did its use. This cycle of dependency soon prompted additional requirements for off-street accessory parking.
Minimums had a huge impact on American cities. Any visitor to the United States will be struck by the difference between cities and towns built before the adoption of minimum parking requirements and those built afterwards. The requirements led to an explosion in new parking and fueled dispersed land uses like the “office park” and “big box stores,” which consist of buildings in the midst of vast parking lots.
In the 1970s, the link between the parking supply and car use was explicitly recognized when New York City, San Francisco, Portland and Boston were all forced by lawsuits brought under the federal Clean Air Act to cap parking in their central business districts (CBDs).
Minimum parking requirements are by far the most prevalent government parking policy. They profoundly influence everything from hundreds of billions of dollars in construction costs to land use density, travel choice, environmental sustainability, and the way cities look and function. Yet, the methods used to determine minimums are fundamentally flawed. Typically, requirements are based on the type of land use and its square footage, with no reference to the existing transportation system or ambient development.
The recommended parking requirements for a restaurant would be the same if the restaurant were in a business district — where customers could walk — or at a highway intersection with no access option other than driving. Most minimum requirements are based on a compendium of minimum requirements assembled by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. The compendium is a limited inventory without contextual analysis.
Off-street parking best practices
Planners in many cities recognize the high cost of “free” parking and offer a menu of alternative approaches to manage the parking supply more efficiently and account for mixed land uses, transit and pricing parking to manage demand. These include:
• Elimination or reduction of minimum requirements: used in a number of San Francisco neighborhoods.
• Shared Parking: encourages the consolidation and reduction of a neighborhood’s parking facilities, allowing more productive land uses. It can also be priced in a way that accessory parking cannot. Shared parking is a key part of travel demand management in Montgomery County, Maryland; Boulder, Colorado; and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
• In Lieu Fees: paid by developers to a city in the place of building accessory parking. The fee helps fund city owned shared parking. This is in use in a limited number of cities.
• Transit Zoning Overlays: special zones that supersede existing use, density, design and parking requirements near rail and bus lines. Typically, parking requirements are reduced.
• Unbundling Parking: compels developers to sell or lease parking independently of residences or commercial leases. Thus, overall parking costs are not subsidized by other uses. San Francisco is piloting unbundling, but compliance by developers is proving difficult.
• Cashing-out Parking: employees are given the cash equivalent of a parking perquisite (where free parking had been offered). The employees may then choose whether to “buy back” the parking space or keep the cash. Where parking cash-out is offered, single occupant vehicle use and, thus, parking needs, have been reduced.
• Parking Benefit / Travel Demand Management Districts with Curbside and Off-Street Parking Coordination: revenues from curbside parking meters in downtown Boulder help fund shared, public parking garages and free transit passes for downtown employees. The prices of curbside and off-street parking are coordinated to shift curbside demand to off-street parking facilities. As a result, Boulder, which is surrounded by a heavily automobile dependent suburban area, has much higher transit, walk and bicycle-to-work shares than other small U.S. cities.
Curbside parking practice and best practices in the United States
Because off-street parking can be continuously expanded and the supply of curbside parking is essentially fixed, curbside parking policy is fundamentally about managing the demand for an unchanging supply.
Commercial streets have the greatest competition for curb space, with delivery and service vehicles competing with shoppers, store employees and local residents for parking spots. Parking policy on these streets has a long and complex political history, reflecting this conflict.
However, there is a strong consensus that the most efficient use of commercial curb space is for short-term parking. Businesses largely agree and, as a result, commercial streets have a wide variety of metering, time limits and usage restrictions, intended to encourage short-term use. In contrast, residential streets are not metered, regardless of demand, and are typically either unregulated or restricted to local residents with residential parking permits.
The focus of this report is on commercial streets, where pricing policies and new technology are transforming traditional practice.
Curbside management employs four basic approaches: metering, time limits, user restrictions and parking bans. All four approaches depend on enforcement to be effective. Unfortunately, numerous studies show that parking enforcement is rarely adequate to prevent widespread illegal parking. Where studies have been done, approximately one-fifth to one-third of vehicles are parked illegally.
However, three technologies in the early stages of adoption have the potential to revolutionize parking enforcement. The first two are license plate or vehi­cle recognition scanners mounted on vehicles. These can drastically reduce the personnel required to enforce time limits. The third involves the use of sensors embedded into parking spots, as seen in San Francisco’s SFpark.
Enforcement is important because of the considerable costs of illegal parking. Double-parked vehicles endanger other road users, especially bicyclists; sharply reduce the capacity of roadways; delay emergency vehicles, buses and other traffic; and add to air pollution and travel costs. Vehicles that overstay time limits reduce parking availability and cause other motorists to spend more time searching or “cruising” for available spots. Studies find that cruising vehicles can represent as much as 40% of traffic. Removing these cruisers would free up street capacity that could be reprogrammed for pedestrians, buses or cyclists, and ensure smoother flow for buses, delivery trucks and other automobiles.
Metering is demonstrably the most efficient and flexible way to manage curbside demand. However, one- or two-hour time limits represent the majority of applications. Numerous studies show that time limits are difficult to enforce and are thus often ignored. Other studies show that time limits produce longer stays, less turnover and curbs that are 100% occupied. Areas with time limits frequently suffer from double-parking and additional cruising.
During peak travel hours, many U.S. cities also use curbside parking bans to reallocate curb space from parking to buses and through traffic. This traditional measure is easy to enforce. Some cities restrict curb access to particular types of motorists, usually commercial vehicles and government and handicapped permit holders. Unfortunately, widespread abuse of government and handicap permits has been documented in several places.
Curbside / On-street parking best practices
• Enforcement: Automated scanning enforcement as employed in Chicago, parts of Virginia and Santa Barbara, California, appears transformative, though in its early stages. Other technology, especially wireless handheld devices with cameras, has made traditional enforcement more efficient; as has software that automatically issues and tracks parking summonses.
• Pricing Policy: Variable or peak-hour metering in which the price is set based on a curbside occupancy target of less than 85% is a logical and consistent way of managing a congested curb. San Francisco’s SFpark is the largest application of this approach; it also is used in Redwood City, California, and in a flexible form by New York City’s ParkSmart. Another effective practice is to both restrict curb access to commercial vehicles and meter them. New York City does this in Manhattan and adds an escalating meter fee of $2, $3 and $4 per hour to encourage short stays, high turnover and faster deliveries.
• Payment Methods and Meters: Pay-by-phone is growing rapidly in popularity. Industry experts believe that remote payment will eventually replace meters. In the meantime, the state-of-the-art meters are solar-powered, multi-space meters, which are in wide use across the U.S.
• Building Support for Metering Via Parking Benefit Districts and Revenue Return: In 20 to 30 special parking districts, in cities as varied as Boulder, Los Angeles and San Diego, meter revenues support streetscape improvements to attract more retail business.
This entire paper can be seen at

Article Abstract from May, 2010

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