By Jeffrey Tumlin and Adam Millard-Ball
Line Magazine, Dec. 2004
Parking is the poor relation of architecture and design. Unglamorous and often downright ugly, it tends to be treated as a necessary evil. If the parking system works well, nobody notices. If it doesn’t, it can work against a city’s best efforts to improve urban design, manage traffic, and achieve a wide array of other goals.
Parking can determine the success of both a particular development and the entire urban neighborhood around it. Parking requirements imposed by local jurisdictions, when coupled with height, bulk and floor area restrictions, often dictate the type of building that is possible on a constrained site. The amount of parking and the way it is designed and managed control the traffic, congestion, and quality of the pedestrian environment in a neighborhood. Meanwhile, the cost of parking–often $50,000 per space and up–can determine the project’s financial feasibility, and the scope to include additional neighborhood amenities.
At the same time, planners, designers and architects often fail to understand how parking works and how to use it to achieve their goals.
Often, they fall prey to myths that are well established, not only among the public at large but also among specialist transportation planners schooled in conventional traffic engineering. This article seeks to clarify some of the most common misconceptions, presenting ten widely circulated parking myths.
Myth 1: Successful cities have abundant parking.
Compared to cities, the suburbs will always have more free, front-door parking than any urban neighborhood can match–and the roadway infrastructure to go with it.
No great city is known for its cheap, abundant parking. Monthly parking costs in San Diego and Seattle are more than three times those in Phoenix and Reno. Santa Monica and Palo Alto have just 2.4 spaces per 1,000 square feet of commercial space in their downtowns–less than two-thirds of the ratio for a typical suburban center.
Places such as Santa Monica compete on the basis of qualities such as historic architecture, transit access, and the sheer vitality of their urban life–qualities that large supplies of parking tend to dampen.
Cheap, abundant parking is often a sign of a downtown’s failure–after all, half of downtown Buffalo is given over to parking.
Myth 2: It’s difficult to find parking in the neighborhood. We need to build more.
Motorists aren’t interested in how many parking spaces a neighborhood has. What matters is how easily they can find one. Maintaining availability is therefore a key goal, but building more spaces is only one way to achieve it–and usually an expensive one.
Most of the time, it will be far cheaper to free up spaces by using demand management strategies. Charging for parking or increasing the rate will encourage some motorists to carpool, take transit, walk, or bike. Car-sharing programs allow people to sell their cars–studies show that each City CarShare vehicle takes seven private cars off the streets, at a fraction of the cost of building new garages.
It’s also important to combat perceptions of parking shortages. Often, people complain of parking problems when actual counts show that only 60 to 75 percent of spaces are occupied. The key is to use pricing and time limits to free up the most visible spaces–particularly the “front door”
spots at the curb and in entrances to garages. Advanced information systems such as those in San Francisco’s Financial District can offer motorists real-time information about where spaces are available.
Myth 3: Free parking–the 28th Amendment.
Parking is often provided free of charge to motorists. Every space, however, entails significant costs for developers, owners, tenants, and/or taxpayers. So while parking fees are often subsumed (“bundled”) into rents, lease fees, or sale prices, the costs are borne by everyone, including those who choose to walk, bike or take transit.
These costs are substantial. For residential developments in San Francisco, parking accounts for about 20 percent of the total project cost. A typical parking space occupies 375 square feet, including space for aisles–about $43,000 assuming a land value of $5 million per acre.
Parking garages use less land per space, but construction costs are typically at least $40,000 per space in the Bay Area. (San Jose recently built a new downtown garage on an existing surface lot at a cost of $77,000 per net space.) Add in maintenance, cleaning, lighting, security, interest, and financing costs, and the total cost amounts to an amortized $4,000 per space per year.
Myth 4: All motorists are created equal.
In many cases–particularly neighborhood commercial centers–providing convenient, visible, front door parking is critical for economic success. In some cases, cheap or free parking is desirable to compete with other commercial centers nearby.
This doesn’t mean, however, that employees and park-and-ride commuters also need this benefit. Rather than treating all parkers equally, it is essential to segment them into different groups of users and prioritize them accordingly. Typically, customers and shoppers are the highest priority, since they generate the greatest benefits (sales tax dollars) with the highest turnover and the lowest costs (fewer peak period auto trips). Other visitors, residents, employees, and park-and-ride commuters follow in importance.
Public garages in San Francisco provide an excellent example of how this prioritization can be easily implemented in practice. Prices are set to favor short-term visitors who stay just a couple of hours. Parking at the Fifth and Mission garage for an hour will set a shopper back $2, but an eight-hour stay for a commuter costs $18. Garages in some suburban downtowns provide the first hour free, with hourly fees rising for additional hours.
Other techniques include time limits (one- or two-hour maximums), validation stickers given by merchants to their customers, and permits issued to particular groups, such as residents. These strategies prioritize those who bring in sales tax dollars to a neighborhood, while helping manage traffic congestion by discouraging all-day employee parking. They also steer employees to public transit–since commuters make the same trip every day, they can research different transit options, and they are also unlikely to choose a different job based on the availability and cost of parking alone.
Myth 5: Even in the Bay Area, people don’t like to walk. Parking needs to be right outside the front door.
Front-door parking is important for many users, particularly shoppers or people with disabilities. However, there is no reason why most motorists cannot park a block or two away from their destination, much as they might prefer the most convenient spaces.
The key is to manage the most convenient spaces by reserving them for either the desired users (e.g. with time limits), or those willing to pay a premium. Just as people pay more for the theater seats with the best view, the most desirable parking spaces should attract a premium.
Myth 6: Having fewer parking spaces means that people will just drive around looking for a space.
Often, congestion caused by motorists looking for a parking space is an important concern. However, this often reflects poor management, rather than the number of spaces available. Even if plentiful space is available in off-street garages–as in San Francisco’s Mission District–motorists will often prefer to circle looking for a free on-street space.
In this situation, building more parking will obviously do nothing to alleviate the problem. The solution is a rational pricing policy that charges more for the most desirable, most scarce parking spaces.
Real-time information that directs motorists to facilities with available space is also an effective way to reduce traffic.
Myth 7: Parking ratios can be easily looked up in a manual.
Traditionally, parking requirements are set by local jurisdictions using two convenient reference sources: parking generation rates published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers and other jurisdictions’ parking standards compiled by the Planning Advisory Service. The average national minimum requirement for offices is four spaces per 1,000 square feet; for commercial, four or five spaces per 1,000 square feet is a typical ratio.
These ratios, however, are based on demand at single-use suburban sites, where ample free parking exists and few or no alternatives to driving are provided. The highest peak demand observed is then often used to set the minimum requirement. While this approach prevents spillover parking in all but extreme cases, it will often mean that a large supply sits vacant almost every day of the year. Conventional parking standards are simply not appropriate in urban communities.
More importantly, the amount of parking needed is primarily a value judgment, rather than a technical exercise. Developers and local elected officials must ask, at what point do the benefits of ample parking outweigh the negative consequences? Is there enough roadway capacity to serve an increase in parking? Is it cheaper to do something else instead of providing parking? Does additional parking or greater investment in transit fit better with the values of the community?
Myth 8: All households, even low-income ones, need parking.
Nearly 30 percent of San Francisco households–and 38 percent of renters–do not own a vehicle. In some census tracts, such as Chinatown, this proportion rises to 90 percent. Low-income households also tend to own far fewer vehicles. Rather than assume that every household will have a car–and therefore need to pay for a parking space–planners and developers should be sensitive to these variations.
There is no shortage of demand for housing without parking or with less than one space per unit. This means that we can be aggressive in seeking to capitalize on our investments in transit. Concentrating housing with less parking around Muni and BART stations and along frequent bus routes brings a double benefit–it maximizes the amount of housing while minimizing the traffic that the development generates.
Myth 9: Fewer parking spaces would be fine, if only we had decent transit.
Better transit is sorely needed everywhere in the US, not least the San Francisco Bay Area. But even current Muni and BART service is enough to persuade many households not to own a car. Along with density, household size, and income, transit access is one of the four most important determinants of how many vehicles a household owns.
Take the Market/Octavia neighborhood, for example, where census data show that there are just 0.46 to 0.70 vehicles per household. Parts of the South Mission and Bayview, with similar incomes but far poorer transit service, have more than double the number of cars per household, from 1.06 to 1.28.
What’s more, the density and pedestrian-friendliness of an area, as well as management strategies such as charging for parking, are just as important in determining how much parking is needed. Parking management is equally applicable in the suburbs, as places such as Walnut Creek and Palo Alto have demonstrated. Demand has been reduced by up to 28 percent in other parts of California, such as the Los Angeles region, where employers have charged for parking.
Myth 10: Parking isn’t just unglamorous, it’s unimportant.
Parking is one of the most important tools at the disposal of planners.
Parking supply and management is critical to achieving goals in a diverse array of fields–producing affordable housing, relieving traffic congestion, promoting neighborhood retail, and maintaining the integrity of the urban fabric. Poor parking management can destroy the urban qualities that cities such as San Francisco depend on for their success.
Jeffrey Tumlin is a partner at NelsonNygaard, a San Francisco-based firm specializing in transportation planning for livable communities. Adam Millard-Ball is a senior associate at the firm.