Editor’s note: This post was contributed by Todd Litman, author of “Parking Management Best Practices,” and founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. For more information see his free summary report (pdf), Parking Management: Strategies, Evaluation and Planning.

A great example of the maxim “no free lunch” is the common struggle over parking. Motorists often assume that parking should be abundant and free at nearly every destination, and any deviation from this is considered a problem that must be solved by developers (who are forced to construct ever larger parking facilities when building or upgrading buildings) and governments (who are forced to provide subsidized public parking).


But—as noted in these three recentPlanetizenop-eds (and previously in thisblog), none of this parking is really free. We all pay double through higher rents, higher prices, higher taxes, increased traffic problems and sprawl. These practices are also inequitable since they force non-drivers to subsidize parking costs, reduce travel options for non-drivers, and reduce housing affordability.

The good news is that a fundamental shift in parking planning is gaining momentum. Communities and planners are beginning to adopt the “no free lunch” approach to parking. They’re developing policies and programs—called parking management—that use parking resources more efficiently. And they’re reaping benefits ranging from more-vibrant downtowns to more-affordable housing to a greater variety of transit options.


Here are some examples of successful programs.

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  • Downtown Pasadena Redevelopment: During the 1970s Old Pasadena’s downtown had become run down, with many derelict and abandoned buildings and few customers, in part due to the limited parking available to customers. Curb parking was restricted to two-hour duration but many employees simply parked in the most convenient, on-street spaces and moved their vehicles several times each day. The city proposed pricing on-street parking as a way to increase turnover and make parking available to customers. Many local merchants originally opposed the idea. As a compromise, city officials agreed to dedicate all revenues to public improvements that make the downtown more attractive. A Parking Meter Zone (PMZ) was established within which parking was priced and revenues were invested.


    With this proviso, the merchants agreed to the proposal. They began to see parking meters in a new way: as a way to fund the projects and services that directly benefit their customers and businesses. The city formed a PMZ advisory board consisting of business and property owners, which recommended parking policies and set spending priorities for the meter revenues. Investments included new street furniture and trees, more police patrols, better street lighting, more street and sidewalk cleaning, pedestrian improvements, and marketing.


    This created a “virtuous cycle” in which parking revenue funded community improvements that attracted more visitors which increased the parking revenue, allowing further improvements. This resulted in extensive redevelopment of buildings, new businesses and residential development. Parking is no longer a problem for customers, who can almost always find a convenient space. Local sales tax revenues have increased far faster than in other shopping districts with lower parking rates, and nearby malls that offer free customer parking. This indicates that charging market rate for parking with revenues dedicated to local improvements can be an effective way to support urban redevelopment.

    Tri-Met Parking Management in Portland: The Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District, which manages transportation in the Portland, Oregon area, has implemented various parking management strategies around transit stations to minimize costs and support transit-oriented development.

    These include:

    • Sharing parking with Park & Ride and other types of land uses, including apartments, churches, movie theaters and government buildings near transit stations.
    • Using lower minimum parking requirements around transit stations.
    • Allowing Park & Ride capacity near transit stations to be reduced if the land is used for transit-oriented development, thus allowing walking and bike trips to replace car trips.

    More Accurate Parking Requirements in Vancouver: Vancouver, British Columbia, is developing a more flexible approach to parking requirements for multi-family dwellings to support efficient transportation, smart growth and housing affordability objectives. The program is loosely based on the LEED TM Green building rating system. Developers receive credits for reducing the number of parking stalls, providing parking spaces for carshare vehicles, and providing annual transit passes to building occupants.

    Rich Sorro Commons, San Francisco, California (USEPA, 2006): Rich Sorro Commons is a mixed-use project with 100 affordable units and approximately 10,000 square feet of ground floor retail. Conventional standards would require 130 to 190 parking spaces for such a building, but it was constructed with only 85 parking spaces, due to proximity to high-quality public transit services, the provision of two carshare parking spaces in the building, and the fact that the building provides affordable housing, with tenants who are less likely to own a car.

    Reduced parking supply freed up space for a childcare center and more ground-level retail stores. Just 17 avoided spaces allows the project to generate $132,000 in additional annual revenues (300 square feet per space at $25.80 per square foot in rent), making housing more affordable. Two carshare vehicles are available to residents, giving them access to a car without the costs of ownership—a particularly important benefit for low-income households.

    Austin Parking Benefit District: Many neighborhoods experience parking spillover problems, including difficulty finding parking for residents and visitors, concerns that public service vehicles cannot pass two lanes of parked vehicles on the street, or that parking on the street reduces neighborhood attractiveness. These problems become an opportunity with the establishment of a Parking Benefit District (PBD) A PBD is created by metering the on-street parking (either with pay stations on the periphery of the neighborhood or with the traditional parking meters) and dedicating the revenue, minus City expenses for maintenance and enforcement, towards improvements in the neighborhood that promote walking, cycling and transit use, such as sidewalks, curb ramps, and bicycle lanes. Charging for parking and promoting alternatives reduces parking in neighborhoods and helps fund neighborhood benefits. The PBD may be used in conjunction with a Residential Permit Parking program to ensure that parking is available for residents and their visitors.

    Using Parking Revenue to Support Transit in Boulder: Faced with a shortage of parking for customers, Bou
    Colorado. developed a program to encourage downtown employees to use alternative commute modes. In 1993, Boulder’s City Council mandated restricted downtown parking and appealed for parking demand management for the city’s commuters. The Central Area General Improvement District (CAGID), made up of many of downtown’s 700 businesses, responded to the Boulder City Council’s demands by creating a system using revenue from downtown parking meters to pay for free bus passes. The passes are provided for all of the district’s 7,500 employees, and cost $500,000 each year. The City of Boulder offers deeply discounted Eco-Passes to businesses outside the CAGID, and to residents, and encourages walking and bicycling. The program has changed travel behavior, freeing up valuable customer parking spaces and reducing parking costs, congestion, accidents and pollution emissions.

    • Employee carpooling increased from 35% in 1993 to 47% in 1997.
    • The district’s employees require 850 fewer parking spaces.
    • More available parking has increased retail activity in downtown Boulder.

    Although individual parking management strategies often have modest impacts, typically reducing parking requirements by just 5-15%, their effects are cumulative. A cost-effective, integrated parking management program can often reduce parking requirements by 20-40%, while improving user convenience and helping to achieve other planning objectives, such as supporting more compact development, encouraging use of alternative modes, and increasing development affordability. This can increase profits and help address a wide range of transportation and land use problems.


    P.S. For more information, see VTPI’s summary report, Parking Management: Strategies, Evaluation and Planning