Beyond minimums and creative infrastructure: An incremental approach to efficiently managing parking demand for resource-constrained municipalities and developers

By Michael A. Spotts

The problems with city parking policies are well-known among people that study urbanism or work in planning and development. From the writings of Donald Shoup to Strong Towns’ annual Black Friday Parking series, it sometimes seems as if there is an emerging consensus that parking minimums are a problem that need to be addressed. We see the empty spaces, the “missing teeth” of downtown blocks, and data that shows the impact a $50,000 parking space can have on housing affordability. We have invigorating conversations with like-minded practitioners, and it raises our hopes that our argument may finally carry the day…

…until we go to a community meeting or read a neighborhood listserv after a parking reduction is proposed. In these forums we are consistently reminded of the fact that ours is the unpopular opinion, and that erring on the side of higher parking minimums is the conventional position.

In many cases it is easy to understand why. Automobile orientation is deeply engrained, and proceeds along a reinforcing feedback loop. When a place is designed for cars, fewer people use alternative modes, which increases demand for automobile oriented infrastructure, which further degrades the pedestrian experiencing, and so forth. In many contexts, it can take a significant (and costly) amount of redevelopment to reach the “tipping point” where the cycle reverses itself and walking, biking and transit are competitive options.

Which brings me to the inspiration for today’s article. Last Friday, Minnpost.com’s Peter Callaghan reported on efforts in Minneapolis to encourage parking garages to be built to standards that would allow for conversion to alternative future residential and commercial uses. This is an intriguing concept that would allow for adaptability and incremental improvement in the future. It is also a positive step in areas where the political dynamics prevent more aggressive reductions in parking levels.  All in all, I think it’s a practice that should at a minimum be explicitly enabled.

Yet while it is great that some communities are generating big, creative ideas, many communities will need to think smaller (which I do not mean as a pejorative). Setting aside the non-trivial design challenges, both the construction of the parking decks and any eventual conversion would require capital investment at a scale that is most often seen in the highest-demand neighborhoods. What can be done in places where those sums are unlikely to materialize or where surface lots are more prevalent? What about the communities with insufficient population, density or capital to hit the aforementioned “tipping point” through a big investment in transformative transit infrastructure? What are the incremental steps available to the full spectrum of communities, including those whose residents are not yet fully on-board with a more dramatic break from the 20th century parking dogma?

Luckily, there are plenty of (relatively) low cost and in some cases uncontroversial practices that can move the needle toward multi-modal mobility, either individually or in concert:

Understand the need: Communities can benefit from making a relatively minor investment in surveying both public and private parking usage. This is beneficial from both the technical (data-driven policy-making) and tactical (building political support) perspectives. Studies should focus on both on- and off-peak usage.

Better manage existing supply: Perceptions of parking shortages are informed by personal experiences. Even if data shows that a neighborhood has a slight parking overcapacity, people may not believe it if they must circle the block looking for spaces or struggle to find parking near their home at certain times. Policies and improvements that maximize the use of existing parking infrastructure can include:

  • Using differential pricing to manage demand.
  • Incorporating clear signage that directs drivers to underutilized lots/spaces.
  • Establishing fee-based street parking permits in residential neighborhoods. This can be done in a way that reserves a specific space for a resident while opening excess space for visitors. (It can also be useful in combating the perception that homeowners also own the public right-of-way.)
  • Adopting tech solutions, such as sensors connected to apps that show open spots and/or allow reservations and instant payment.
 

Make more efficient use of existing right-of-way: Many existing streets are wider than necessary for the safe flow of regular traffic. If space permits, parallel parking can be converted to diagonal parking on wider roads, or parking can be allowed on both sides (or along the center line) where none previously existed. Adding more spaces using this approach may make the removal of surface lots or reductions in parking requirements more politically palatable at a comparatively small cost. As an added benefit, narrowing streets can have a traffic calming effect, improving the pedestrian experience. Unfortunately, this approach may work best for local streets, as state and federal funded streets may have more restrictive width standards. 

 Arlington County, VA has adopted a multifaceted transportation demand management plan

Arlington County, VA has adopted a multifaceted transportation demand management plan

Manage current and future demand: As Enterprise’s Ahmad Abu-Khalaf and I wrote in a recent report, communities can adopt transportation demand management (TDM) practices, which “utilize a range of techniques such as subsidized transit passes, car and bike share arrangements and facilitating first- and last-mile connections to reduce the amount of road and parking infrastructure required. In some contexts, such measures may be more cost-effective for both developers and residents than constructing expensive parking facilities.”

Reduce regulatory barriers to shared parking: Shared parking is an approach in which a discrete number of spaces is used by multiple (often complementary) establishments to reduce the total amount of parking needed for each. This is often utilized in the context of larger-scale new construction, but municipalities should also consider removing any regulatory barriers to allowing existing property owners to lease existing underutilized spaces (especially in the context of structured parking) to developers, and have those spaces count toward the new building’s parking minimum.

Adopt “proof of parking” policies: As highlighted in another Enterprise report (co-written with John Hersey), “the suburban Cities of Woodbury (MN) and St. Louis Park (MN) allow developers to refrain from initially providing the full required amount of parking if they can demonstrate that the amount exceeds demand, provided that they can prove that the site can accommodate additional parking in the future. While the latter stipulation may prevent the addition of incremental density, landscaped areas would provide a better pedestrian experience than surface lots. Such policies could also provide data points for consideration in efforts to reduce parking minimums.” Since established uses often develop constituencies against their removal, shifting the default from parking to green/open space can also minimize demand for eventual conversion.

Facilitate “tactical” street-level activation: As the Minnpost.com article above notes, some cities already require garages to include street-level active uses, such as retail space. However, this approach may not possible or desirable in all contexts, because of political constraints and costs (or when existing garages have been constructed without such space). Municipalities can overcome this by permitting and/or encouraging temporary or semi-permanent uses to ring the inactive portions of the site. Such uses can include street vendors, food carts or trucks, landscaping and pop-up parks and/or other temporary programming. As an example, Portland, OR has several “food truck parks” that surround and activate surface parking lots. 

Allow multiple paths for adaptive-reuse: Encouraging newly constructed garages to be built to standards that allow adaptive reuse is one approach to preparing for future reductions in demand. In addition, jurisdictions may also want to consider the reverse – adopting flexible building codes or a process for waivers that could accommodate reuse of structures with standard parking garage dimensions. This may not be feasible in all circumstances (ceilings may simply be too low to generate any demand for office/residential use), but a certain level of flexibility may be appropriate given the pace of innovation in design and shifting demand. For example, underutilized parking garages could provide the low impact industrial or “maker space” enabled by modern technologies such as 3D printing.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and individual approaches may not work in all circumstances. However, various approaches do work best when coordinated. For example, launching an app to make it easier to find parking could be most effective when paired with policy shifts that reduce the amount of new parking being built. Absent a coordinated approach, some interventions could backfire by simply making it easier to drive and park.

That being said, the ideas do illustrate that much can be done while we play the long-game of working toward the bigger picture policy and consumer preference shifts that would facilitate a more equitable, multi-modal development model.