A Guide to Busting Parking Myths in Your Town

It’s Thanksgiving week, and that means our annual #BlackFridayParking social media campaign is right around the corner! This week we’re running content on how to understand and talk about the costs of too much parking in your own city or neighborhood.

And on Friday, we have a job for you:


  1. Tell your friends about this event via social media. Share a link to a Strong Towns article so they can learn more.

  2. On Friday, November 23, 2018 get outside and take pictures of the parking lots in your town.

  3. Upload your photos to TwitterFacebook or Instagram with the hashtag #blackfridayparking. Bonus points if also include a note about how that parking lot could be put to better use in your community. (Housing? Offices? Park? You decide!) It's also helpful if you note the location of the parking lot and estimate how full it is.

  4. Visit our website on November 23, or check us out @StrongTowns on Twitter, to view other peoples' photos from across the country.

Within the urban policy and planning world, parking geeks are a special breed. Woe to the poor sucker who gets one of them going with an innocuous remark and is soon listening to rattled-off statistics and factoids, many no doubt drawn from the pages of Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking. (Want to really, really understand parking policy? That's the book you want.)

Indeed, there is no shortage of research on the harm done to the vibrancy or prosperity of our neighborhoods when we have too much parking, especially when we require too much parking to be built.

But when it comes to improving the situation in your own town, city, or neighborhood, very often what you need is not another national study to cite. You need to convince local elected officials. Or a developer or small business owner. Or residents skeptical of the value of changing the status quo.

And to do this, there is no substitute for local data. Otherwise, you're going to run up against the "That may have been true in City X, but it doesn't apply here" argument ten times out of ten.

This map of downtown Peoria, IL shows the enormous amount of land devoted to parking. (Source: Urban3)

Perceptions of “not enough parking” are ubiquitous in nearly every city in America. Everyone thinks they have a parking problem. But is there actually a shortage of parking in your downtown or neighborhood business district? Or is the situation more complicated than it seems?

Very often, there is ample parking within a few blocks of a popular destination, but drivers don't know how to find it. Or there's a tradeoff between closer parking which they must pay for versus farther-away parking which is free. Or they expected to find parking directly in front of their destination, and react emotionally when those expectations are violated.

If there isn't actually a parking shortage, what might be causing the perception that there is? It's not that most people actually find walking a couple blocks to be unbearable when push comes to shove. Just look at how drivers handle sporting events, large concerts, or festivals: by parking far away and walking, as necessary. If you really want to get there, you'll find a way to get there. And rarely is parking as scarce as the defenders of parking over-supply claim it is. 

Fortunately, the data you need to bust the "There's no parking" myth wide open is generally available without any special expertise. All you need is the following:

  • A good pair of walking shoes, or a mobility device such as a bicycle or wheelchair

  • An internet connection

  • Pen and paper OR an app that lets you jot down notes on your phone/tablet

  • Microsoft Paint or your choice of drawing software

Know The Questions You Want to Answer

Maybe your city wants to reduce or eliminate parking minimums, or you're part of a group pushing them to do so. Maybe there is a proposed change in parking in a neighborhood—say, adding meters, or removing on-street parking spaces as part of a street redesign. Maybe a development proposal is receiving neighborhood pushback, and parking concerns are part of the reason.

Whatever the issues at stake are locally, think about the perceptions or claims you're seeking to either back up or counter. And let that inform what you pay attention to.

Do a Walking Parking Audit

Now, let's hit the pavement and get the real story. First, figure out your geographic area of interest. This works best for a smaller downtown or a neighborhood business district—somewhere reasonably self-contained (i.e. most people going there are also parking there), and a manageable size so you could walk every block of it in a few hours.

Longtime Strong Towns contributor and founding member Nate Hood already wrote a fantastic guide to doing exactly this kind of parking survey, so no need to reinvent the wheel here. We're just going to excerpt from his post (and you can read the whole thing here):

Map Parking Supply

Load up Google Maps, search for your local area, and do a screen capture. Paste the image into MS Paint or a similar program. Start highlighting the open surface parking lots and parking garage structures. 

Don't spend a lot of time doing this. If you know your downtown, it should be straight-forward. Be honest, but don't nit-pick; this isn't a scientific peer-reviewed study. I've demonstrated this on the left with a map of downtown St. Paul. (This was created in 2013 so it's a little outdated, but still largely accurate).

This visual can be shocking. The blue spaces represent only off-street surface parking lots and parking garages, but do not highlight on-street or underground parking. Also, they represent only, to the best of my knowledge, available public parking and don't include private parking spaces.

Make this map, share it on social media and email it to your local council member.

Document Unused Supply

Walk around your selected area during normal conditions and take photos. By "normal conditions," I mean you shouldn't document supply the evening of a Rolling Stones concert, nor should you snap photos at 4am on Monday morning.

I did this in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood. I decided on an early Thursday evening and a Saturday mid-afternoon. I figured these times would capture both commuter parking during the weekday and out-of-town visitors on the weekend. So as to avoid being accused of cherry-picking locations, I encourage you to be fair and also document areas that have cars parked.

Let's take Hood's recommendations a couple steps further, and look at what else you can glean from hitting the sidewalks and examining the actual parking situation:

  • Get some numbers. City officials in particular often like to hear data points versus subjective impressions—rightly or wrongly, they lend an air of authority to your statements. Count actual parking spaces, both on the street and in the lots and garages you documented on your map. What percentage of them are occupied? At what time of day, on what day of the week? How close to peak demand do you think this is?

  • Who owns the parking? How much of it is public versus private? What do you notice about the distribution of available parking relative to the need—where within the neighborhood is there too much, too little, or just right? What types of businesses or institutions seem to have a lot of parking versus a little? 

  • Is there redundancy resulting from private lots that aren't shared? A common situation in urban neighborhoods is that an office open from 9 to 5 has its own parking for employees and customers, and that lot sits empty in the evenings. Meanwhile, a restaurant next door has its own parking lot that sits empty until dinner time, and then is packed all evening. Religious institutions, if they're present in the neighborhood, are often responsible for vast amounts of privately-owned parking that sits idle whenever religious services are not occurring. You may think, "Why don't these organizations just combine forces?" But there's little to incentivize these business owners to coordinate with each other—and they have real reasons not to. Legal liability is a common concern, plus if your city has parking minimums, they might each have to maintain their own lot no matter what.

    Do you see opportunity to get some of these local stakeholders to the table and cooperate on sharing parking? Are there policies that could help nudge this process along? (We'll feature more on shared parking districts in an upcoming post.)

San Francisco has been a North American leader in instituting dynamically priced parking, where the price is adjusted based on demand to minimize cruising. (Image: Panchenks via  Flickr )

San Francisco has been a North American leader in instituting dynamically priced parking, where the price is adjusted based on demand to minimize cruising. (Image: Panchenks via Flickr)

  • In the case of on-street parking, is there at least one space available on most blocks? This is an important measure of parking availability because of one key consequence of perceived shortages: cruising for parking. In some urban business districts, a significant amount of localized traffic congestion is caused by drivers circling the block looking for a parking space.

    One of Donald Shoup's three key parking policy recommendations is that on-street parking in a popular area should be priced at a level that tends to keep one parking space open on each block. This way, if you're in a hurry to find parking near your destination, you can, and if you're willing to go a bit farther to save a buck, you can do that too. If the on-street parking in an area is chronically full, there might be a case for parking meters, or for adjusting the price if it's already priced.

  • How do time limits and other restrictions affect perceived parking supply?Think of the complaints you've been hearing about lack of parking in this area. Are they from those who work in the area? Or from customers? Or residents? It's common for workers to be more restricted in where they can park because of things like 2-hour restrictions. If issues like this are driving the perception of scarcity, can you think of policy solutions that don't involve actually requiring or building more parking overall?

  • Where do you see opportunity costs? Yesterday, we wrote all about the opportunity cost of parking: the lost productive uses that land devoted to excess parking could have gone to instead, and/or lost opportunity to build a more vibrant place. A walking parking survey is a great time to reflect on these lessons, and customize your insights to your place. Think about questions like the following:

    • Are there surface parking lots that disrupt the urban fabric? What does the experience of walking past or through them feel like? Does it make you not want to continue walking in that direction?

    • What kind of buildings or businesses could be developed on those sites?

    • Does the design of parking facilities interfere with pedestrian safety or comfort? For example, are there blind driveways where you fear you could be hit by an exiting car?

    • If on-street parking is scarcely used in an area, do you think it's the best use of that street space? Or could wider sidewalks or more landscaping make for a better environment?

  • Expert Level: How does actual parking compare to the parking minimums on the books? Without talking to the owner or developer, you may not know whether a mandatory minimum was a factor in the amount of parking provided for a particular building, or whether they would have done what they did anyway. But you can still learn a lot by seeing how parking minimums play out across a neighborhood. Crack open your city's zoning code (google your city's name + "zoning code") and find the section on parking requirements. Where it is within the code might vary a lot, so we can't offer one-size-fits-all instructions, unfortunately. But if your code is searchable, you can search for "parking" and/or for terms like "floor area" / "GFA" [Gross Floor Area] — parking minimums are often expressed per square foot of floor area in a business.

    One dynamic you see often in older neighborhoods: buildings whose construction predates the parking minimum are often grandfathered in and exempt from it. This can result in a situation like this one I documented for a project I worked on in graduate school, along a stretch of Lake Street in Minneapolis:


Data from manual count by walking survey conducted Fall 2015; may be outdated. Parking minimums were those in effect in Fall 2015. Click to view larger.


 Some of the businesses in this neighborhood commercial district have parking far in excess of the city's minimum. Others are well under. In aggregate, there's more than enough parking in the neighborhood—and my walking audit confirmed that there were always plenty of empty spaces. But many area business owners perceived a parking shortage because of this mismatch.

Get Ready to Make Your Arguments to Stakeholders

Image: U.S. Forest Service

Image: U.S. Forest Service

Parking issues are emotional. At worst, they can involve our most selfish, territorial instincts as humans.

But they're also genuinely important: as long as we need cars to go about our business, we need places to leave those cars. But too much parking is a huge drag on your town's economic productivity and its quality of life.

We need to get better at talking about parking, and the data and insights you've collected by following this article's recommendations should help you ground that conversation in reality.

The next step? Tailor it to the priorities and perspectives of whomever it is you're trying to convince, in order to help get to a common understanding of what needs to change. Check back in on Friday for a list of common objections to removing parking minimums, and helpful responses to each.

(Cover photo via Pixabay)