Parking Is More Than a Number

By Edward Erfurt

Abolishing or reducing parking minimums all at once can be very challenging—instead, you may have to work through a series of smaller steps to advance parking reform in your community. Communities tend to perceive parking-related changes as large, transformative projects, and because of that, any ideas may be quickly met with technical brushoffs. Reducing or abolishing parking minimums may be too large of a change to execute as a strong citizen or as municipal staff, and it can be a particular political challenge in “car-dependent” communities.

The Strong Towns approach relies on small, incremental investments, or what we like to call “small bets.” These are little steps that yield resiliency in the result and where the change can respond to feedback. When trying to abolish parking minimums in your community, you might find another approach by exploring a couple of little bets first—incremental changes that may be hiding in plain sight around you.

Parking mandates adopted within conventional development codes require a minimum number of parking stalls to be provided by any new development or any changes in the building use. These requirements for parking spaces are based on peak demand, intended to accommodate every visitor arriving at the location, all at the same time, each in their own car, and with the expectation that everyone will have a dedicated parking stall.

For retail uses, the peak demand calculated for the number of parking stalls is based on the busiest retail day of the year: Black Friday. Across the country for the past several years, Strong Towns members have debunked the level of peak demand by sharing images of vacant parking lots on Black Friday, with the hashtag #BlackFridayParking.

Here are several graphics showing how a place can provide on-site, on-street, and shared parking. For the purposes of this example, we will look solely at the spatial use of land dedicated to parking. There are three total on-site parking spaces for this site, which would greatly restrict its development potential under a conventional parking code. However, when you go beyond a math problem and count what is available, this site actually has over 31 spaces.

The total number of parking spaces mandated through land development regulation is both a math problem and a counting problem. Advocates for abolishing parking mandates typically frame the issue as a math problem, where the recommended solution is to manipulate the numbers within the parking formula to yield less parking. This is a math problem where we must determine the total number of parking spaces required. For example, a zoning code may require a minimum of two parking spaces for every residential unit or apartment. Using simple math, we multiply each apartment by two and we get a total number of required minimum parking spaces. A three-unit building would be required to provide six parking spaces.

This particular site has potentially three parking spaces on the property. The parking is located at the rear of the building along an informal alley.

Parking can also be a counting exercise where an aspiring developer must demonstrate they have provided the number of spaces required. Unlike math, which is finite, counting can be far more forgiving—and this can be helpful for small-scale developers and other advocates who want to maximize the housing or business opportunities in their communities, without having to also waste valuable land on an excess of parking. The simple idea is to count the abundance of parking surrounding and adjacent to a development in order to fulfill the minimum parking requirements within a land development code.

The creative counting of parking can be an easy, little bet as a first step in advancing parking reform in a community. On every site plan or zoning application there is a required parking table with a column showing the number of spaces required by the code and a column showing the number of spaces provided in the development. Conventional parking mandates with minimum parking rates require the number of spaces provided to be equal or greater to what is required. The requirements as to where the spaces are located is absent in most codes, and it is intended that this be determined by the plan reviewer. This is where the plan reviewers who are generally municipal staff have the most flexibility when reviewing and approving developments.

This site in our example has approximately 50 feet of frontage on the main street and 140 feet of frontage on the side street. This adjacent frontage yields approximately eight existing parking spaces. This number grows exponentially, when you add in the parking further down the street or across the street.

Counting existing parking will not only utilize an existing resource, it also reduces the amount of required new parking and supports additional economic development. The counting of spaces is low-hanging fruit in the process of parking reform that may already be possible through an administration of a code without changing the parking minimums or requirements. Simple code or policy language can be implemented as the first step without an overhaul to a parking code.

Sample language may state:

Required vehicle parking may be fulfilled in the following locations:

  • Off-street within the same lot.
  • On-street parking spaces located along the public parking lane corresponding to the lot frontage.
  • Within an adjacent shared parking lot or parking facility.

Behind this building are two public parking lots. The closest parking lot has 20 shared parking spaces. That number doubles if you include the second public parking lot.

The counting of parking can go one step further by utilizing existing and underutilized parking lots through shared parking. Shared parking is when two or more uses share a common parking area. This could be a municipal parking shared by multiple buildings, or it could be parking utilized by a residential use at night and offices during the day. Shared parking allows for parking to be located and designed in the most efficient location and with the most efficient layout.

The site in our example highlights how a conventional parking mandate with minimum parking requirements would restrict redevelopment of any further investment into this site. The simple approach of reframing the parking math problem into a counting solution results in 31 parking spaces available to support continued investment at this location. Parking reform requires each of us to think creatively and may require framing the approach in a different way.

What Can We Count for Parking?

Parking can be located on-site within a development, on-street as parallel or head-in parking, or off-site in a shared lot or parking garage. All of these parking locations should be utilized and leveraged when you are stuck with required parking minimums.

  • On-Site: On-site parking should be minimized in both number of spaces and utilization of space. The car is the universal rectangle that dominates all other dimensions of the built environment. As a result, parking lots are generally rectangular, so the closer to a rectangle you can have the parking, the more efficient the lot will be.
  • On-Street: On-street parking has multiple benefits beyond just accommodating parking. For starters, parallel parking consumes 30% less land, calms traffic, and improves the pedestrian experience. According to the International Parking and Mobility Institute (IPMI), on-street parking can generate $20,000 in local revenue per space.
  • Shared: Shared parking is the highest form of parking efficiency. Shared parking is when two or more sites share a common parking area. This could be municipal parking shared by multiple buildings or it could be shared parking that is used for residential at night and offices during the day. Shared parking allows for parking to be located and designed in the most efficient location and layout.



This post was previously published on STRONGTOWNS.ORG and is republished under a Creative Commons license.



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