Parking: A Poison Prescribed as a Cure

Determining how millions of urbanized Americans will live in the coming decades will be, in part, determined by the actions of cities today. For many city dwellers, parking is just a part of daily life, merely an afterthought or nuisance for most. It is not often that people equate food or housing prices with circling the block, but all of those resources spent building and seeking an elusive parking space comes with a price.


Well-known urban planning expert Donald Shoup (2005) estimates that cruising in search of parking creates as much as 8% of total city traffic in the US. The implications of these assertions convey the idea that the perceived need for parking spaces and its resulting ramifications, may actually help dismantle a city’s vibrant connectivity. Through an analysis of minimum parking requirements in the United States, this article will analyze the environmental, economic and social challenges planners face, and how best practices aim to shift the existing parking paradigm.

The Endless Search for Free Parking

In an effort to understand how to move forward with the analysis, there needs to be common understanding of criteria. Minimum parking requirements set baseline number of spaces that must be allocated, which come from the Parking Generation and Trip Generation reports published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) in the US.  Based on the ITE Parking Generation report, 22% of the various rate recommendations are based on a single survey, while an additional 50% are based on four or fewer surveys (Shoup, 2002).

This staggeringly narrow scope is used as a universal standard for comprehensive trip generation rates, setting precedents for new development and many city zoning ordinances. One of the most apparent misfortunes of the report is it lacks survey data on development that has sufficient and accessible parking facilities, transit ridership, and a relevant urban context (ITE, 1987).



Parking and Land Use

Creating parking infrastructure is one of the largest land uses that plague urban development and negatively affects the environment by limiting the usability of the available land. Based on the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey, parking is free for 99% of all automobile trips in the US (Shoup, 1995). The consequence then, when planners and engineers codify minimum parking requirements, are regulations for development which ensure peak parking is met with free spaces and roads built to handle peak flow.

Such regulatory oversight has created a phenomenon where people expect to find a close free space; when they don’t, around they go. The result is a tremendous amount of excess driving and destructive consequences such as traffic accidents, added air pollutants, and a perceived need for more parking. With this additional information, how do these requirements affect our natural and built environments?

Parking and the Environment

On and off-street parking infrastructure tends to be a ubiquitous staple of our built environment, but do we even notice the repercussions on our natural environment? The U.S. Geological Survey stated “man-made surfaces will generate two to six times more runoff than a natural surface” (Olivier, p. 3).

This run-off flowing at an unnaturally high rate, funneling a litany of pollutants like oil residues, pesticides, and debris into swales or stormwater systems, adversely affects the immediate surrounding environment. As noted in the EPA’s Green Parking Lot Resource Guide, polluted stormwater is one of the most apparent environmental impacts because of how it negatively impacts ecosystems and enables urban sprawl to continue.


Parking and Economic Consequences

Beyond their environmental impacts, parking requirements have economic consequences: costs, which are often much higher than consumers realize. Shoup’s argument in The High Cost of Free Parking (2005) is that planners often set parking minimums without understanding the costs, which are initially placed upon the developer, ready to pass onto the consumer.

Instead of promoting highest and best use of valuable land, parking actualizes the opposite result. Consuming large amounts of land for parking not only creates a lower tax base and disjointed land use patterns, it also limits the developer in creating something more vibrant and useful for the community for whom the project is being built.

With the understanding that parking has both actual and perceived costs, what does this look like in real life?

A Parking Case Study

Manville and Shoup teamed up to take a look at this interplay in three prominent cities across the US in their article, People, Parking, and Cities (2004). They  looked at Los Angeles in comparison to San Francisco and New York City.

Manville and Shoup dive into why the numbers don’t tell the whole story and how downtown San Francisco and New York City have more vibrant downtowns. The challenge is to understand that although NYC has a much denser central city, its suburbs are only a mere 12% as dense, whereas, LA has a suburb density of 82% of its central city density (Eidlin, 2010). This makes LA a dense area that lacks an extremely dense downtown core.

As with any thriving downtown, the prime advantage is a proximity to a wide variety of activities. This clustering effect is the key for economic success, but the age-old question of access seems to plague decision makers. The dilemma continues of trying to find a solution to congestion that paralyzes, versus the high cost of off-street parking to reduce people mindlessly wandering for that elusive parking space.

It is no surprise that off-street requirements come at a high price, be it a surface lot or a structure wrapped with retail. These off-street solutions oppose a multi-use densely vibrant space; it is no wonder businesses choose to locate outside of these core areas when uniform and rigid parking minimums are that.pngWhat can be seen as a negative contributing factor are the parking requirements on LA’s downtown core when comparing the cities various parking regulations. New York City and San Francisco both limit their off-street parking, while LA requires it.  Jane Jacobs labeled this issue decades ago saying, “The more downtown is broken up and interspersed with parking lots and garages, the duller and deader it becomes … and there is nothing more repellent than a dead downtown” (1992, p. 19).

According to the People, Parking, and Cities publication, off-street parking, if solely built as surface lots, would cover 81% of LA’s central business district. In comparison, San Francisco would only be at 31% and New York City at 18%. This staggering difference is where the challenge for LA resides. Any of the benefits it could have from its dense human population are quickly offset by its relentless accommodation of the automobile.

Will the rise of autonomous vehicles and mobility innovations such as Uber and Lyft decrease this need for parking? That will require more R&D that this article explores.

For now, since parking is an indispensable part of our environment currently, what can we do? Since economics have won thus far over environmental concerns, can we start to socially recognize that there is such a thing as too much parking?

Parking Innovations and Solutions

One of the simplest best practice methods currently available to handle the issue is to update zoning ordinances with flexible requirements, rather than imposing rigid requirements regardless of the context. Some of the contextual factors when assessing how to vary standards would be location, demographics and nearby transit, with the idea to never exceed the previously codified minimum requirement. In an additional effort to go against the dated rhetoric of minimum parking requirements, Shoup and Manville suggest something simple, yet drastic: “Declare all existing off-street parking requirements are maximums rather than minimums” (2004, p. 8). This creates an opportunity for the parking maximum best practice to play its part.

This next method, Parking Maximums, cap the number of spaces on a particular project. The inherent beauty in this method is that it doesn’t allow a developer to create an oversupply of parking and pass the costs onto the consumer or the environment. This route ensures that land and existing facilities are utilized to their best and highest capacity, while encouraging users to find alternative modes of transportation.

The third progressive method for cities to take on would be to implement variable-priced on-street parking. Shoup (2005) has calculated example pricing metrics to have meters dynamically change their rates to ensure at least one or two spaces are always available. This proposal for pricing off-street parking has the most public benefit, as Shoup suggests that all of the revenue made from these meters be funneled directly back into that parking district to increase the quality of life for the business owners and daily users.



In addition to the summarized costs and possible solutions, it is clear, because we live it out every day, the theory must resonate in the minds of the decision makers first, otherwise the rest does not matter. It has been summarized here that ubiquitous free parking, based on minimum requirements, has distorted our ability to steward the interconnected relationship between land use and transportation.

This is not meant, however, to say we must cease to plan for parking, but it means planners and engineers should focus on other key aspects like the overall community environment as well as the pedestrian relationships, landscaping and other impacts of parking. “As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew” (Lincoln, 1862). Effective parking is more than a number, and minimum requirements are an antiquated methodology of regulation. It is time for change.

David Eisenbraun is a long range planner for the City of Loveland, Colorado whose focus is on creating innovative parking solutions for small to medium sized cities. David holds degrees in Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture and Urban and Regional Planning.

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