Using Data to Improve Your Town's Parking Planning

Today’s guest post is by Jonathan Wicks (Twitter: @parkingmaster). Jonathan Wicks is a parking consultant with Walker Consultants in Los Angeles. Established in 1965 as a structural engineering firm, Walker Parking Consultants rapidly morphed into a parking design and consulting practice.  By the 1980s, Walker was the leading parking consultant in the United States.

Too often, decisions about parking in our cities are driven by emotion and intuition. It's a truism that everywhere you go, you'll find people who feel that their neighborhood or street has a parking shortage. Anecdotes and gut reactions often dominate discussion of any possible changes to parking policy or availability.

At the same time, local elected officials often wish they had better data to inform their decisions. A parking consultant, in this situation, can kill two birds with one stone: providing rigorous analysis to policymakers and helping citizens understand the actual parking situation in their city more clearly—thus building public support for decisions that are a win-win for residents, businesses, and the city.

Parking planners are experts in the field of gathering and interpreting data that is applied to evidence-backed principles for how to solve parking problems and implement policy to support parking regulations. The parking planner’s approach is careful to remove emotion from decisions which have impacts for decades. For example, the average expected life of structured parking can extend well beyond 50 years and it requires quite a bit of knowledge and expertise to accurately predict future parking requirements and long-term costs associated with the maintenance and operations of this facility for its lifetime. To achieve these parking solutions, parking planners reach out to stakeholders and engage with the community on upcoming developments to ensure the public has input on the process and economic solutions.

The outreach and education portions of a parking planner’s job are particularly important. For drivers, their vehicle is an extension of their personal space. Their emotions are evident in public comment sessions across the nation. Residents will express concern that strangers are parking in front of their houses. From their perspective, there’s not enough parking. They often see those spaces as part of the same extension of personal space as many home owners assume the public right of way in front of their house belongs to that home owner. In fact, these spaces are public, and the planner knows that use of parking in front of houses in mixed-use neighborhoods is a healthy sign for the entire community and is an indicator that the area is thriving as a destination for both work and play.

When people can’t find a place to park at their destination and find themselves circling or waiting in queues, this is known as parking congestion and businesses tend to lose opportunity and revenue when there is a lack of available parking. Since parking is a limited and valuable resource it should be managed as such.

The Parking Demand Paradigm (Triangle). Source: Walker Consultants, 2019

Framing Parking Trade-Offs

To help smart cities make data-driven decisions, parking planners outline various solutions to parking congestion. They use the Parking Demand Triangle to outline various tradeoffs. The triangle suggests that of the three things you might want a parking space to be—free, convenient, and available—you often get to pick only two:

Free and Convenient spaces are ideally located in front of a popular destination that the community does not charge to use. For example, a free parking space in front of a restaurant. If a location is popular, vehicles will rapidly fill the spaces. As a result, free and convenient spaces may not be available.

Free and Available spaces that require walking a bit farther from a vehicle to a final location. For example, a space in a surface lot behind the building. On-street spaces may be a block or two away, or on a side street. They’re less convenient than a space directly in front of a popular location.

Convenient and Available spaces directly in front of popular locations will only be available with parking controls. Parking controls include time limits and/or paid parking. This keeps the spaces turning over. Additionally, with paid parking, the choice of free versus convenient is starkly outlined for motorists. They can choose between parking for free, but farther away, or paying for the right to park in the more convenient spaces.  The revenue is used to repair roads alongside other civic improvements.

Source: Walker Consultants, 2019. Click to view larger.

Studying Where Parking is Actually Used Most

As part of their role, parking planners often perform parking occupancy studies. They help communities understand how parking is being used, a survey will be conducted of the local streets to determine how current parking regulations affect parking with and without controls.  Parking studies also measure how long vehicles will remain in specific areas to optimize economic solutions.

A typical downtown parking occupancy study often reveals that parking is available at the perimeter of the downtown and limited as you get closer in proximity of popular destinations:

In this example study, the data shows that most spaces in the core business district are routinely occupied. Motorists that circle for free and convenient parking increase vehicle emissions, creating safety conflicts for pedestrians, and becoming stuck in traffic jams to reach their destination.  The community in our study is growing, which is good for the businesses, but bad for free and convenient parking.

Source: Walker Consultants, 2019. Click to view larger.

As part of our study, the parking planner will measure occupancy rates of two different types of spaces throughout the day. The data shows that most on-street spaces in the heart of the business district are full by 10am. Some drivers who want to be in the business district may not be able find parking. This is the proximate cause of the neighborhood’s traffic jams.  The parking consultant would recommend to direct drivers to the off-street parking for longer stays after 10 AM. They would also recommend paid parking to keep the spaces turning over. Pricing parking for turnover and desired availability would allow drivers with short errands downtown to nearly always be able to find a space.

Source: Walker Consultants, 2019. Click to view larger.

This data further goes into types of parking and their occupancy rate throughout the day and shows that there is a demand for on-street parking short-term visitors and customers. The parking planner may recommend that local employees find alternative spaces in a lot or garage for longer duration stays to vacate parking for customers with shorter parking duration needs.

Communicating the Benefits of Paid Parking

Many people have an understandable gut resistance to paid parking, but there are places where it can be appropriate and actually a mutually beneficial outcome for everyone. A parking planner uses data like those gathered in the study above to help explain when, where, and why community members might actually see benefit in a paid parking program.

Paid parking will keep spaces turning over. Visitors will be more easily able to visit local businesses. The parking planner would recommend keeping the perimeter parking spaces free. People would have the option of parking for free, in exchange for walking a few blocks.

Paid parking will also produce revenue to fund efficient parking management that will include less expensive alternatives for those willing to park further-away from their destination. The revenue will be used to maintain and improve parking conditions. This includes enhancing lighting, fixing potholes, and beautifying the streetscape with planters.  The revenue will also be used to improve the downtown core in less visible ways.  It will also support the infrastructure of a paid parking program.

Parking planners help communities grow through studies like the one above. A parking study presents the balance of how different stakeholders’ access different parts of the community and supports decisions that help neighborhoods thrive.