Car Parking is a Fascinating Subject

Some years ago, when I was active in Ottawalk, I developed a position paper on car parking.  Essentially, it said that the parking of cars should not be provided as part of various land uses.  In this way, parking of a certain minimum quantity becomes a requirement.  If some of these spaces are not ever used, or some are used only a couple days a year, you have underutulized spaces, and this is part of sprawl.

Further, parking spaces that are ancillary for one building use (for visitors, owners, employees, customers) cannot be used to park cars that were driven by others not visiting the particular land use.  That means that underutilized spaces cannot be rented out to ‘neighbours.’

As this thinking grew, I found myself reading stuff on the subject, including the excellent — and groundbreaking — book by Prof. Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (2005) .

Most recently I have found the site and blog by Prof. Paul Barter, of the Univ. of Singapore.  His latest entry,, is provocative.  It recounts a blog in Spanish from Enrique Penalosa, well-known former mayor of Bogota, Columbia).

I wrote several paragraphs of comments, but lost them when I tried to post them.  It was an attempt to agree with most, with extra reasons, and to disagree with a couple:

Parking should not be ‘ancillary’ to other land uses, but be its own land use.  That means that parking lots and structures should be seen as a business that must pay its own way.

However, since no one likes to look at parking lots — even though that situation provides some of the security for those parking cars as naturally accrues to those parking on the street — such land uses should be either underground, with park space (‘people parking’) on top or it should be above ground, in surface lots or structures, with other users around the perimeters on all sides facing the public realm.

I disagreed that parking is a poor use of the street realm, unless it is converted to people space, for seating, walking, or street commerce (I am not in favour of segregated bike lanes).  Taking away parked cars to use the space for moving traffic is regressive.  It is just what happened in most cities since the 1950s, as there was a shortage of space for “traffic.”  It is important not to convert to people uses that cannot be supported by sufficient volumes of users.

Street parking actually provides an important function for pedestrians, buffering them from the moving traffic.  Further, for occupants of cars, parallel parking provides a ‘sanctuary’ (the sidewalk) along one side of the car, whereas nose-in parking, which predominates in off-street parking, eliminates that, leaving children and the elderly in danger when the adjacent parking space is being accessed by another driver with very imperfect visibility and anxiousness toward other moving vehicles.

Off-street parking suffers from other problems: 1) it is less fully utilized, as empty spaces are harder to see from the street and many parking spaces are reserved for particular individuals, and therefore not available to be shared; 2) they take more space, since the underutilized access lanes cannot also serve through traffic, as parallel parking on the street does, and it is harder to accommodate some spaces that are shorter or longer for different sized vehicles; and 3) pedestrian safety is compromised by the movements of vehicles across bordering sidewalks, usually at speeds far above the speed of walking by drivers more concerned with their own safety than that of the pedestrians.

By making parking a separate land use, there is not only a higher likelihood that parkers will pay a suitable amount for it — and thus parking will be added to their internal ledger-sheet of car costs, and it will not be ‘bundled’ with rents or prices of goods — and it will not be oversupplied.  As Shoup pointed out, if parking is free, there is no economic model in the world that can define a demand for it.   Demand is determed by price (and price also determines supply); but no price has to produce an indeterminate demand.

And in the case of parking for cars at the owners’ homes, the requirement that each home or apartment be provided with one, two, or three parking spots means that the housing becomes more expensive, and if car populations decline — as might happen if carbon- or road-pricing is introduced — we will have a lot of parking land that becomes surplus, but still causing sprawl by its continued presence.   And for low-priced housing, whose occupants often can’t afford cars, it become a factor making that housing unnecessarily more pricey.

I foresee a city of the future where all cars are owned by companies licensed by the city who provide them on a shared bases, both like rentals and carsharing (one user at a time using it) or shared occupancy like ride-sharing or shared taxis, which could grow to be an adjunct to transit for low-density areas, but on a relatively high-frequency basis.

Such an arrangement would not only greatly reduce the city’s car population (making road congestion relatively impossible), but would allow for integrated road/congestion pricing, and real-time charges for parking (which would, in my mind, be done via parallel parking alone, which is in the public (shared) domain.  It would also add a much higher accountability for drivers in terms of their behaviour on the streets.



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