Parking: A Tale of Two Cities

“The Devil’s most devilish when respectable.”
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Few sagas of good and evil involve the subject of parking policy, but this primer looks to remedy such an absence. The truth is that parking is duplicitous in how it shapes the way we interact with our cities, and to illustrate this subtle influence we present the story of Eva and Marilyn, two former college roommates in their early 20’s. The two women live in relatively similar urban neighborhoods. and like the vast majority of us, they do not pay much attention to parking policy.

1. Mandatory Parking Minimums = Higher Housing Costs and Subsidized Car Ownership
Marilyn owns a car and pays $150 more a month in rent than Eva. Her apartment is within walkable distance of many cafes and stores, but since her apartment came with a space and all nearby retail destinations include prevalent parking, she easily integrated a car into her new urban life. Eva, on the other hand, sold her car when she moved into her apartment. A parking spot would have cost $150 a month more, and since she can walk to nearby stores and cafes, she decided she didn’t need it.

For new and existing residents on the fence about keeping their car, the parking policy that is attached to housing and retail destinations plays a hidden yet pivotal role. It is often assumed that because people want cars, an effective parking policy provides ample storage for them. Yet this gets the relationship backwards: if a city provides ample storage for cars, people will respond by purchasing more cars and using them more.

While Eva’s city has no parking requirements and therefore allows developers to build what they think the market desires, Marilyn’s city has mandatory parking minimums that require all development to build 1.5 parking spaces per unit. Developers would surely build some parking anyway, but the fact that they are often mandated to build so much means much higher overall costs go into construction. Marilyn’s rent is thus higher than Eva’s rent because the cost to build Marilyn’s “free” space– about $25,000 on average– is passed on to her in the form of $150 additional rent. Parking minimums also make some new housing developments unable to pencil out financially, thus restricting the supply of housing and driving up housing costs throughout an urban region.

2. Free Employer Parking = More Driving to Work
Though she lives only a short bus ride away, Marilyn drives to work and parks for free at her office. In contrast, Eva takes the bus to work and takes advantage of her employer’s parking cash-out policy in which people who don’t drive to work receive $50 a month and a free public transit pass.

As explained in the previous section, parking is never free, and this also applies to workplaces. Since parking is a costly employee benefit that only workers commuting in cars can benefit from, parking cash-out policies give those who don’t drive the opportunity to receive money in the place of the parking they don’t use. These policies have real influence on commuter behavior- for example, a study in the 1990’s of eight firms who offered the cash-out policy found that for every 100 commuters offered the cash option, thirteen solo drivers shifted to another travel mode: on average, nine joined carpools, three began to ride transit, and one began to walk or bicycle to work. (Shoup Cash Out, ACCESS)

3. Free Parking = Less Walking, Bicycling, and Public Transit Use
Eva gets around the city by walking, biking, and riding public transit, and on certain occasions (like late at night) she uses the rideshare service Lyft. Marilyn initially walked to the store regularly and even took public transit to work a few times a week, over time she started driving everyday and has now grown accustomed to hopping in the car even for short errands.

When parking is included with housing and attached to office and retail destinations, people not only have more incentive to own cars but also use them more extensively. The presence of parking is a strong influence on whether people use other modes of travel like walking, biking, or public transit. The ubiquitous parking in Marilyn’s neighborhood made it is easy to stop using other modes and fall into pattern of relying on her car, while in Eva’s neighborhood people are more likely to walk, bike, and and use public transit due to the high cost and difficulty of using a car.

4. Dynamic Parking Pricing = Less Congestion + Reliable Parking
On a Friday evening, both women decide to go to a movie with a friend in the city’s historic core. Marilyn and her friend decide to drive separately and meet at the movie theater, bringing two cars into the theater area. In this area, parking is almost exclusively available as metered, on-street spaces that cost $1.50 an hour. Yet because all of the spots on the blocks surrounding the theater are full, Marilyn cannot find a spot. After eight minutes of frustrated driving in congested conditions, she finally finds a spot.

Since Eva doesn’t have a car, her friend picks her up and they carpool to the movie. When they get to the theater most of the spots are full, but a few remain open on each block. This historic areas utilizes a parking policy known as “dynamic pricing,” in which parking is raised or lowered depending on the demand for the spaces. Eva knows from experience that at this hour the spots near the theater cost $5.00, while those spots a few blocks away are $1.50, and she and her friend elect to save money by quickly parking at a more distant yet cheaper spot.

In Marilyn’s city, the policy of preserving cheap parking close to major attractions has the end result of making traffic worse. In contrast, Eva’s relative ease at finding a parking spot demonstrates the Goldilocks parking principle: the right price for parking on a street is a price that ensures 85% occupation — not so low that spots are always full nor so high that they keep people away. Goldilocks prices ensure customer turnover so that new customers for businesses can always find a spot, and also reduce cruising for parking that worsens traffic congestion, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. San Francisco’s SFpark program is currently showing great promise deploying this approach. While prices rose in some areas in SF, the program’s implementation actually lowered the average price for a parking space.

5. Parking Districts = More Lively Neighborhoods
Marilyn and her friend leave the theater after the movie and contemplate extending the evening at a nearby cafe. Yet there is no observable nightlife nearby, and upon closer examination the sidewalk is strewn with bits of trash as well as cracked in various places. In the end they decide to drive their cars to a bar in a different part of town.

Eva and her friend exit the theater and walk down clean sidewalks lined with recently planted trees. A prominent sign posted nearby notes that all of the parking meter money is deposited into a special fund that goes towards specific neighborhood improvements. As they walk past several restaurants and bars, Eva runs into some friends enjoying a late meal at a sidewalk cafe, and she and her friend decide to join them.

Marilyn’s city exhibits the fallacy that in order to draw people you have to give them an easy and cheap place to park. Such an approach serves to inhibit the growth of lively places that people might want to visit in the first place. Moreover, the superior urban streetscape in Eva’s city is partly due to the presence of a parking district– an area of the city in which all parking money is delivered directly back into neighborhood improvements. The benefits of a parking district are perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the revival of old town Pasadena. In the 1980s the area had fallen on hard times, yet the bold creation of a parking district that funnelled parking money into street improvements that played a pivotal role in transforming the neighborhood into one of the region’s most popular retail and dining destinations.

Final Thoughts
The story recounted here is necessarily reductive to make a point: parking intersects with so many civic goals that cities ignore parking policy at their peril. These goals range from the local (housing affordability, lively neighborhoods) to the global (climate change). Mispriced street parking and minimum parking requirements for development have the end-result of making driving much cheaper and more convenient relative to other ways of getting around. Implementing better parking policy requires tough choices, but as the former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa puts it, “We can design our cities for cars or people, but not both.”

UCLA Lewis Center Contacts:
Donald Shoup, Distinguished Research Professor of Urban Planning |
Michael Manville, Associate Professor of Urban Planning |
Juan Matute, Deputy Director of UCLA ITS |

For reporters on deadline: Claudia Bustamante
424-625-8468 | 

Additional Resources
The High Cost of Free Parking

Cruising for Parking

Cashing Out Employer-Paid-Parking

Turning Small Change into Big Changes

People, Parking, and Cities

Free Parking or Free Markets

SFpark policy brief

by Nathan Holmes MURP ’15