TMG Insights

1. Urban & Regional Planning

Shaping Cities: The Power of Parking

Ever since people owned automobiles, they’ve needed a place to park them.  To accommodate the rapid rise vehicle ownership that started in the 1940’s, the instinctual solution of city planners was to require parking in new developments.  Over time this became codified through newly adopted use of zoning ordinances.  Zoning also introduced the first significant effort of communities to regulate the location of businesses by generally separating activities into residential, commercial and industrial zones.  The effect was to reinforce the need for more parking as daily needs became located further and further away from homes.  What was once a short walk down to the local market or school now required an automobile just to pick-up a loaf of bread.

These reinforcing forces, of car ownership and land-use regulation through zoning, dramatically reshaped cities.  Impacts of the need for parking on the development of cities are strikingly visible when comparing the neighborhoods of a city developed before the 1940s versus the neighborhoods that developed afterward.

In suburban communities, where land was/is cheaper, developers could lay down more pavement to cheaply meet parking requirements, whether for a shopping center or office building.  As a result, free parking was expected and readily provided.  The result has been ever increasing spread, or sprawl, in total amount of space required for suburban living.

In older neighborhoods, often called streetcar suburbs, parking can be difficult because they were designed for people to access their jobs and other regional attractors, such as stadiums, parks and theaters, by public transit.  Daily needs, such as food, schools, and shops, were provided by ‘main street’ like commercial nodes within or adjacent to the neighborhood.  With the removal of streetcar lines, these neighborhoods are now often crowded, unable to meet the demand for parking with limited supply.

In city centers that retained relatively strong economies, garages were eventually built to ensure drivers had a place to house their vehicles, but a great cost (today they average $15,000 – $30,000 per space).  In downtowns that struggled, many buildings were economically more valuable as tear downs to be replaced by surface parking lots, further eroding the vibrancy and attractiveness of these areas.

So what does providing all this parking really cost us?  This question was fully examined by Prof. Donald Shoup in his landmark book, “The High Cost of Free Parking”.  Here’s the short version:  more traffic, higher land costs, higher development project costs, more emissions, and marginalization of people who do not drive – whether restricted by age, health, or income.

In downtown or main streets the cost is usually direct.  Parking meters were introduced about the same time vehicle ownership took off in the 1940’s as an attempt to manage demand.  Parking management is typically a combination of parking meters for curb parking and lots or garages.  Parking lots and garages often come with heavy prices, particularly for companies.  As parking is now considered an employee benefit, business often have to absorb very costly monthly parking contracts into their overhead.

For decades, cities have charged less per hour for curb parking than for off-street parking. The incentives encourage drivers to seek out cheaper curb parking even though there is a limited supply.  The result during busy times is that customers and residents have difficulty finding a space close to their destination when they need it.  So, businesses suffer from the lack of available convenient parking, and drivers create added traffic as they circulate, or cruise, the surrounding streets.

Additional costs, particularly in suburban environments, are more difficult to quantify, but persist.  For young, elderly and low-income segments of the population, the inability to drive in an auto-dependent community dramatically affects their mobility, leaving them dependent on others or an oft-inadequate public transit system.  For active drivers, significant quantity of time is thus spent in the car, or even looking for parking at popular designations, such as the mall.

In summary, demand for parking has reshaped our cities, and often at a costs that we do not readily recognize.  In my next post, I’ll look at what cities are trying to do to manage these costs and mitigate the impacts of parking demand.

Contributed by: Dwight Norton, Senior Analyst, Planning

The views, interpretations, or strategies expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of TMG Consulting. This site is meant for educational purposes only and does not constitute professional advice. TMG Consulting makes no representation as to accuracy, completeness, or suitability of any information on this site and will not be liable for damages arising from its display or use.

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