Strong Towns readers might want to know about some good news out of Portland, Oregon this month, a city which continues to lead the pack in bringing sanity to its parking policies.

Parking is a bottomless money hole for most cities. We devote an unbelievable amount of urban land to it—often more than we devote to the actual buildings where people live, shop, and work that parking is meant to serve. As a land use, parking functions as a"non-place." It produces very little wealth or public revenue directly, while taking up land that could have gone to more productive purposes. That's a significant opportunity cost our cities can't afford. Add in the fact that parking impedes the walkability and vitality of a neighborhood (as anyone who's ever made the long march across a "parking crater" knows), and a growing body of evidence indicates that we have dramatically more of it than we could possibly need, and adding more parking is almost always a bad bet for your community. 

For all of these reasons and more, we're big fans of the work of Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor who has been the go-to authority on parking policy for most of the past two decades. Shoup's books—The High Cost of Free Parking (2005) and the more recent in Parking and the City (2018)—illustrate just how profound the damage can be to our cities' wealth and vitality when cities over-focus on parking, and his ideas on how to fix it have steadily gained currency among policy makers.

Shoup urges that cities implement three key reforms:

  • Set the price of on-street parking based on local demand
  • Spend the parking revenue generated in a neighborhood to improve public services for that specific neighborhood
  • Remove parking minimums for new development

Now, Portland has become one of the only big North American cities to implement the full trifecta of Shoup's recommendations. The Sightline Institute reports:

We’re going to call it: No city in the Northwest, and few cities in North America, are doing parking policy better than Portland.
With a unanimous vote last week, its city council dropped two crucial pieces into place. First, they agreed to adjust parking-meter prices up or down each year based on the number of people using them, aiming for an average occupancy rate between 65 and 85 percent—one to three open spaces on each block.
Second, Portland enshrined a longtime practice into official policy: at least half the net revenue from new meter districts will be earmarked for reinvestment in that district. Specifically, the money will go to public transit discounts, sidewalk improvements, bike infrastructure and other ways to reduce the need to drive in that district.

Shoup's third recommendation—removing parking minimums—happened in Portland a while ago, at least for all residential buildings within 500 feet of frequent transit service.

 Modern parking pay stations can adjust the price dynamically to be higher at times of high demand, and lower at off hours. The revenue is best devoted to improvements in the neighborhood where meters are installed. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Modern parking pay stations can adjust the price dynamically to be higher at times of high demand, and lower at off hours. The revenue is best devoted to improvements in the neighborhood where meters are installed. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The second piece—locally earmarking the revenue from parking meters—is something Shoup argues is crucial to building public support for parking reforms. Otherwise, residents accustomed to "free" parking in their neighborhoods tend to get up in arms about pricing, because their perception is that something is being taken away from them. Of course, "free" parking is not really free at all—someone is paying the cost of paving and maintaining that space, and all of us are paying the opportunity cost of the other things it isn't being used for. But nonetheless, it's helpful to offer something tangible in return to those who will bear the immediate burden of a new parking fee.

The key to making our cities' approach to parking policy stronger is to align everybody's incentives. Charging for parking becomes politically viable when neighbors get something (street improvements in their area), the city gets something (a new revenue source, and less need to devote valuable public space to car storage), and people looking for parking get something too (not having to circle forever looking for a space, because the price fluctuates to manage demand so that some spaces remain available).

It's trendy to talk up Portland in urban planning circles, and don't get us wrong—Portland certainly has its problems. But in this case, it's getting something dead-on right, and a lot of places could stand to emulate it.