Managing on-street parking: zoning is not the way

Park sign. CC image from Pixel Jones.

We don’t manage our limited parking resources very well. However, that leaves us lots of room to improve our policies.

A recent Freakonomics podcast entitled ‘Parking is Hell’ provides a nice entry-level synopsis of the challenges involved in using market forces to better manage this valuable resource. The podcast features interviews with parking scholars, including Don Shoup. They address the fallacy of the idea of ‘free’ parking, the idea of using price to better allocate this resource, and the practical challenges to better management of on-street parking (such as the abuse of handicapped parking placards, as well as the rampant illegality in parking practice).

Despite the cold, hard logic behind the idea of performance parking, it’s not an easy political sell. Similar experiences with de-congestion road pricing in Stockholm show reluctance at first, and then broad support for the program once the benefits can be demonstrated, and revenues directed towards locally-controlled improvements. Still, no one likes the idea of someone proposing an increase to your daily costs in exchange for uncertain benefits.

That risk-aversion applies to parking, too – and perhaps explains a great deal of the reluctance to embrace a whole host of parking reforms, both for on-street parking management, but also for zoning code off-street parking requirements. The evidence for the ineffectiveness of these requirements in managing on-street parking is huge; the unintended consequences are large.

Zoning requirements won’t manage on-street parking for you. Consider this case from Boston, where air quality regulations capped the total supply of off-street parking garages, but the city fails to manage on-street parking effectively:

The steep costs at our garages mean that only the well-off and the truly desperate ever wind up parking in them. The rest of us find ourselves in a never-ending chase for metered street parking, which is an absolute steal. Because the price is absurdly low for such a rare commodity—there are around 8,000 metered spaces in Boston—drivers are willing to circle the block for as long as it takes to find an opening, like vultures in search of prey. The $10-an-hour difference between a garage and a metered spot in Boston gives “drivers a license to hunt,” says Mark Chase, a local parking consultant,“but it’s not a guarantee of a parking place.” The result, naturally, is congestion. Studies from around the country have shown that as much as 34 percent of all traffic in downtown areas involves drivers just looking for parking spaces.

Meanwhile, Boston has set aside a ton of spaces for resident-only parking in neighborhoods, and it charges nothing for the permits to use them. And what happens when it doesn’t cost anything to keep cars parked on the street? They stay there. Today more than 311,000 vehicles are registered in Boston, and more than 87,000 of them have residential parking permits. Each of those cars takes up around 160 square feet—the size of a street spot—of prime city real estate.“You have some of the most valuable land on earth, and you’re giving it away for free to cars,” says Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking. “It’s preposterous.”

Enter a new development proposal, aiming to build car-free, promising not to rent to car owners and therefore not make Boston’s off-street parking problem even worse:

Paul Berkeley, president of the Allston Civic Association, said residents support Mariscal’s plan for an airy, green building, but said the no-car idea would not fly.

“It’s well-intentioned and it could be successful, but people felt that in that location there was too much of a risk of people having cars and just putting them in front of houses nearby,” he said.

So, they tried to reconfigure the development with 35 spaces for the 44 units. Even that is not enough to satisfy the zoning code, as the article notes that the current code requires an absurd two spaces per housing unit. Patrick Doyle notes that the real problem here is not with community skepticism about all the new residents being car-free, but with the absurdly low price for on-street parking. Such ignorance of the basics of supply and demand is not a recipe for good management.

Consider the opportunity costs. It’s not as if requiring parking only hits a developer in his/her pocketbook (though it does). Parking takes up a lot of space, and the geometric requirements for cars to circulate into a garage and have appropriate turning radii to get in and out often do not match up with the geometry of small urban lots ripe for infill development. In Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger writes about the same Boston development:

His proposal also highlights the hidden reality – true in cities everywhere – that our modern buildings largely take their first architectural cues from cars.

“When you remove the car component as the main design challenge,” Mariscal says, “your way of thinking about design is completely different. The possibilities that open for a more environmentally friendly and human design – they are endless.”

Furthermore, the kinds of older neighborhoods we love in our cities usually pre-date zoning requirements for parking. Their very existence is non-conforming. When you suddenly add a very different geometry to design around as a legal requirement (the car and associated parking), you fundamentally change the shape and design of the kind of buildings you build and of the city that will result.

Do your requirements actually make sense? It seems like a basic question to ask. However, lots of requirements exist because they were the default when a code was written, often without much in-depth consideration or any easy mechanism to regularly re-evaluate them.

Consider New Haven, CT. The City asked some out-of-town developers what it would take to make New Haven an attractive place for them to do business. In the vein of a dating game show, the city wanted to know what a developer’s ‘turn offs’ might be:

Demands for lots of parking ranked high on the turn-off list.

“You asked what is an automatic turn-off. … Market research shows [the amount of parking] needed is X. We flip open the zoning code and we find out the requirement in the zoning code is two times that,” replied Patrick Lee, co-founder of a Boston firm called Trinity Financial. “It is a lightning rod … Oftentimes we often just say, ‘That one is too, too hard.’ … When the zoning catches up with the market or gets close to it, we’ll come on back and have the conversation [about building]. Even if you’re doing surface parking, it eats up so much land it ends up being a cost-driver in your pro forma.”

This raises the question: why even require parking at all if the market is a) willing to forgo it, or b) willing to build it? Eliminate that problem, and you don’t have to worry about forcing your zoning to “catch up” to the market. At the very least, some mandatory periodic review of the requirements (in the same vein as the zoning budget idea, but for a specific provision of the code) would help ensure the requirements in place make sense.

None of this changes the need for rational management of on-street parking. Zoning requirements cannot do that for you.

6 comments to Managing on-street parking: zoning is not the way

  • benschon

    Sadly, Portland is in the process of “re-regulating” parking for sites on transit lines. In my experience, the city’s professional planners are (privately) in favor of letting the market set the amount of parking. Longstanding owners of houses in areas just outside the transit corridors are the political force pushing for zoning changes to increase parking requirements.

    It occurs to me that homeowners who advocate for keeping or instituting parking minimums are acting rationally. The effect of their activism, if successful, will be, one, to increase the supply of free parking, including on curbs in front of their houses, and, two, to block the development of new housing, which makes their real estate asset more valuable.

  • Alex Block

    And no movement to manage on-street parking instead?

  • charlie

    Somehow, I suspect parking isn’t really why developers don’t want to build in New Haven or other distressed areas.

    And I’m not sure if you are walking around the same downtown that I am, alex. Sure, curb cuts are annoying, but they aren’t altering the building that much. The big alternations are for garbage and retail delivery. Are we digging deep at city center — sure. Do you really expect two million dollar condos to park on the street?

    But in terms of your major point, is, zoning the best way to mange this. Requiring minimums, which isn’t zoning but a building code, is much better. That is a huge part of the reluctance to adopt the new parking code, which is just going to dump more cars on the side streets as developers cash in. That’s even more true with the giant exemption for small condos.

    Minimums make sense as a base line. If the developer doesn’t want them, let them negotiate down and put down some money to help provide alternatives.

  • Alex Block


    The developers in the New Haven panel were speaking in general terms. Zoning is but one constraint of many.

    And I wasn’t really speaking about downtown development. Site assembly has lead to buildings with much larger footprints downtown, which makes it a lot easier to park the building. That’s not where the geometric challenge is, the geometric challenges are in parking a small (and this is not even that small!) lot with odd geometry.

    And no, I don’t expect two million dollar condos to be sold without parking. But if a developer wants to market expensive condos, they will likewise find a way to park them in the same method they’ll find a way to fit in high-end appliances.

    There is zero good research on what that minimum level should be. The end result is bad policy out of the unintended consequence of the regulaton – regardless of if it’s in the zoning code (DC) or the building code (as in, say, Houston).

    Minimums do not make sense as a baseline. You then assume all will drive. That assumption is not supported by the facts, nor would any assumption about what the minimum level of parking required be static.

  • benschon

    Portland is looking at “permit districts” as a way to manage on-street parking in existing neighborhoods, but in the meantime, they are likely to increase zoning requirements for parking. Of course, most neighbors object to permit districts too, since it would mean paying $5/month (instead of $0) to park on the street in front of their houses.

  • RTA

    Just because a developer provides parking doesn’t mean all residents will actually park there, rather than on the street. If on-street is free and convenient, that’s where they will go.

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