How to Talk to a Skeptic About Reducing Parking Requirements

Our cities and towns devote too much space to parking. Often this is a function of parking minimums which require businesses to provide parking well in excess of what they know their own customers actually need—even on the busiest shopping day of the year, as our annual #blackfridayparking campaign is designed to illustrate.

If you’re going to be near any oversized parking lots today, grab your camera and share a #blackfridayparking photo of your own on social media! More about the campaign here.

However, free and abundant parking has been so woven into the fabric of our cities and towns for so long that many people struggle to imagine familiar places with less of it. Or they worry about the consequences: can we really afford to do away with our parking minimums? Or build less parking? Or even start charging a fair market price for on-street parking? Or will we scare shoppers and would-be residents away to friendlier pastures if we do?

If you have an objection on the tip of your tongue when it comes to parking, or one you’ve heard in your own community and want a good response to, let’s see if we can answer it for you. Below are some of the most common questions and reactions we see about removing parking or repealing parking minimums.

From Small Business Owners

Q: Parking needs to be convenient for my customers, or else I’ll lose business.

A: This is a common concern and a valid one, but what if I told you removing parking could actually help you gain business? Studies have shown pedestrians and cyclists actually end up spending more than those who drive. They are also more likely to be loyal, repeat customers who make frequent visits. A study of a Toronto neighborhood found small businesses drastically overestimated the share of customers arriving by car. A parking space converted into a bike corral will go from providing parking for one customer to up to twelve at one time.

Q: Won’t removing parking minimums mean more drivers cruising for on-street parking, leading to traffic congestion on our streets?

A: The best solution to cruising in a popular area, as parking guru Donald Shoup has long argued, is to price on-street parking at the right rate: whatever price keeps about one space open per block. This gives shoppers the choice between paying a little bit for extra-convenient parking, or parking a block or two away and walking.

Q: If you add meters, and drivers have to pay to park, they will no longer want to shop here.

A: Putting meters or time limits on parking spaces can help ensure rapid turnover of those spaces. In a business district, there is a good chance the parking spaces in front of your building are not being left available to your customers. Meters allow people to come and shop or eat, then leave and allow space for the next customers.

From Neighborhood Residents

Q: If residential off-street parking minimums are removed in my neighborhood, it will become too hard to find parking on the street.

A: It’s very likely that parking in your city isn’t as sparse as you think it is. In fact, most cities have several times more parking spaces than they do households. Take a walk around your neighborhood one evening and count how many parking spaces are actually unused; it may be more than you think. It’s also common in many cities for homeowners to have garage space that they use for storage but could use for parking.

Q: I live near a popular commercial street. If there’s not enough parking for customers there, it might spill over into the neighborhood and take up our spots!

A: On-street parking in a residential neighborhood is a tricky thing. You may park in the same spot in front of your house everyday and wave to the neighbors as you do so. That spot by your house where you put your car can really begin to feel like it belongs to you, especially when someone else, some outsider decides to park there. But it doesn’t. On street parking is public parking. If drivers from a business district park in your neighborhood—unless restricted—they have every right to do so.

However, consider the benefits to you of removing parking minimums in a business district from which you already enjoy the benefit of living in walking distance. Less space devoted to parking could mean more room for new business you might patronize, a more pleasant walking environment, and/or room for additional street trees and wider sidewalks.

Q: I like my neighborhood the way it is. That’s why I moved here. Why mess with things?

There are a host of benefits to requiring less parking for residential development. For renters, bundling the cost of parking into an apartment makes rent more expensive, sometimes by hundreds of dollars. Parking minimums also make it harder to add more housing in neighborhoods that need it. Driveways and parking lots take up space that could be devoted to greenery. And filling those empty on-street parking spaces can even help slow the traffic on your street, creating a more pleasant environment.

From City Officials

Q: The public will be upset if we change parking rules—we cannot risk the political fight.

A: If you flip the conversation, you may actually find more support for metered parking than you think. First, you need to engage the community around you before proposing any actual policy change. Reach out to business owners and discuss the idea of a Parking Benefit District whose revenues go into improvements in the same neighborhood.  This allows those affected by parking changes to experience the benefits of the new revenue. It also makes plain the opportunity cost of free parking, and residents’ views may shift as they weigh the trade-offs between abundant parking and what else those resources could support. (Listen to our podcast with advocate Donald Shoup for more details on how to go about changing parking policy in your city.)

Q: Isn’t parking good for the vitality of our commercial districts because it makes it more convenient and appealing to shop there?

A: To whatever extent this is true, it is probably outweighed by a) the opportunity cost of land that isn’t put to productive use for the tax base, and b) the harmful effect on walkability of having large expanses of parking. Better urbanism creates a place people want to linger, where they might serendipitously discover business they hadn’t intended to patronize.

Parking is taking up valuable real estate that could be producing tax dollars and economic benefits for your city. There is a reason that people love and flock to dense cities like New York and Paris. Off-street parking interferes with the continuous, high-quality walking environments that allow residents to experience a city easily on foot.

Q: We need to compete with suburban areas that have ample free parking. We’ll lose business to those areas if we don’t also provide that.

A: The value proposition of a strong downtown or neighborhood commercial district is different. The traditional development pattern has its own strengths. Don’t try to compete with malls; offer an experience that’s worth the slight hassle of parking. The small businesses, mom and pop shops, and iconic restaurants your city is known for are operating in a different environment than big box stores. (They are likely also more profitable for your city.) These businesses embody a local character that will be amplified by the ability to experience it at a human scale.

From Developers

Q: I need to provide ample parking for my project—my customers expect it of me.

A: Case studies like Fargo, ND show that developments that do not add new parking can contribute to the city’s overall growth and even help alleviate traffic. How did they do it? In Fargo’s case, rather than being overly concerned with parking supply, the developers and city helped cut parking demand. The city worked to improve transit access, and mixed-use development reduced residents’ need to drive and park. Cities and developers have been looking at the supply half of the pie for a long time, but decreased demand can help reduce traffic for everyone.

Q: I can’t get financing for my project if I don’t provide enough parking to be seen as a safe bet.

A: This is tough, but different lenders and investors have different standards, and mindsets are beginning to change. (Here is a detailed article aimed at developers about how these status-quo views are evolving.) Parking could also be contributing to the financial strain of your project. Apartment developers pay about $30,000 per space to provide structured parking.

Consider what opportunities exist in the market you work in. Parking minimums can hamstring promising projects or cause good development prospects to be overlooked. They especially limit small-scale developers from getting into the game.

(Cover photo: Joe Brusky via Flickr)