Parking Hysteria is the norm -and that ain’t right

on street parking in queens

I was in Southwestern Michigan recently where I encountered an odd idea about parking on the street.  In many of the residential neighborhoods you cannot park overnight on the public street.  I asked if this was to facilitate snow removal during Winter months.  I was told that the ordinance is in effect all year.  Maybe there was a freak blizzard in July in years long past and that event lead folks to want to err on the side of caution.

Parking is a volatile subject.  Anyone who has ever be frustrated trying to find a place to park is an expert on the subject without applying any effort or legitimate mental rigor to the topic.  Proposals to change parking rules can whip up the kind of hysteria that makes you question the mental capacity of folks you used to hold in some regard.

What does this mean for a small developer looking to get relief from the municipality’s minimum parking requirements?  Don’t assume that common sense will prevail.  Parking can be such a hot button issue that it clouds the minds of otherwise reasonable people.  If you want to challenge or change the local parking rules, you really should not expect grownup behavior from your neighbors, city staff, or elected officials.  Don’t base your project on an assumption that you will get any reduction in parking, particularly if that relief will require a public hearing.  You may be able to get some relief, but don’t count on it to make your project pencil.

Many municipalities are getting rid of minimum off-street parking requirements, recognizing that cities have done a lousy job of guessing how much parking is going to be needed for any given use.  Other cities have figured out what a nifty tool charging the right price for parking is for managing the supply of public parking in desirable areas.  These islands of common sense are still too rare.  Professor Donald Shoup has done excellent work debunking common parking myths.  I recommend reading his book The High Cost of Free Parking (now in paperback) to anyone serious about understanding how to manage parking issues.

If you are not ready to read a 700 page book about parking, I recommend this short paper by Prof. Shoup as an illustration of how warped and hysterical everyday thinking about parking has become: Roughly Right or Precisely Wrong  Parking Bloat is needless and wasteful.  It is born of myth and sloppy thinking.  Providing alternatives will require clear thinking and well-informed local leadership, (so it is going to take a while)…


Parking Hysteria, Sloth, and Indifference


There is a relationship between how woefully uninformed people are about parking and how epically they lose their shit over parking problems.  I am really tired of explaining the basics of modern parking management to people who seem incapable of using the Internet.  Here are the highpoints from Donald Shoup’s fine book The High Cost of Free Parking:

  • Recognize that all public parking is not equal.  Some spaces more convenient than others, so price them accordingly.  The spot at the curb in front of the coffee joint should not cost the same as the top floor of the seven level parking structure.
  • For retail areas, price the parking at the curb for a 15% clearance rate. Raise the prices for curb parking until you reach the point where when 15% of the spaces are available.  Reduce the price of parking in a rational gradient, the further away from high demand the cheaper the space.
  • Make it easy to pay with a credit or debit card or with a phone app.  Phone apps that message you to ask if you want to add another hours are particularly handy.
  • Folks that live in residential neighborhoods close to areas with high parking demand like universities, hospitals or retail areas get bent out of shape when the public parking spaces at the curb in front of their house gets a lot of spill-over parking.  This can be solved through the use of resident parking permits and the sale of parking permits in that area for daytime hours.  Proceeds from the sale of the permit can be used for public works and parks within the neighborhood by setting up a Parking Benefit District.

Folks that don’t care enough about solving their parking issues to use these proven tools need to get a real problem.  How much sympathy or patience fan you have for difficulties born from sloth and inattention?

Asking Nicely for Something that should be Really Obvious —(Again with the Parking Thing)

Providing convenient parallel parking at the curb should not be hard.
Providing convenient parallel parking at the curb should not be hard.

Parallel parking at the curb provides some important and useful things:

  • Slower traffic.
  • A formidable barrier between passing cars and people walking on the sidewalk, so walking feels safer.
  • Parking spaces located close to where people are actually going.
  • Parking spaces without any additional circulation lanes (and additional impervious surface).
  • Greater flexibility for building on private parcels.

So if you want to build in a place that does not allow parallel parking on a public street and requires way too many off-street parking spaces on the private parcel, it is usually worth the hassle to ask for a variance or exception to the rules that are on the books.  Sometimes this decision is made by a municipal staffer like a Zoning Examiner or Planning Director.  Sometimes special permission for something really obvious, (like a better parking arrangement) will require the approval of the Planning Commission or even the City Council.

If you are asking for on-street parking or a reduction in off-street parking It is important to make that ask in the context of a thoughtful project .  When you show the amount of on-street parking being provided, the reduction in the number of off-street spaces seems like housekeeping item and not a big deal exception or some completely exotic one-off variance.

Just to be clear , (since it is often all about how you ask), don’t just ask for a reduction in something that is on the books as a black and white requirement that everyone is supposed to follow. Show the reviewer, commission, or council the whole project and ask for the reduction as part of that larger conversation. When you demonstrate that you are doing more, doing better than a lot of what they are reviewing, relief from a number in the zoning code seems like a minor accommodation needed to get to a good outcome.

Parking Bloat Drives Down the Price of Land in Desirable Neighborhoods (which is really dumb).

Parking in Downtown Buffalo, NY.  A stark example of a city that has prioritized affordable places to house cars (--regardless of the cost or consequence).
Parking in Downtown Buffalo, NY. A stark example of a city that has prioritized affordable places to house cars (–regardless of the cost or consequence).

In an email exchange with my Architect friend (and aspiring developer) Sara Hines in Massachusetts, she asked “Okay, so I really want to build better places.  What towns in New England are going to let you build small scale walk-up buildings as-of-right, without requiring a lot of off-street parking?”

Good question.  More likely than not, you will have to satisfy some local version of a dumb minimum off-street parking requirement. This is particularly unfortunate and wasteful, since municipalities are genuinely terrible at guessing how much parking is actually needed.  Let’s just call it what it is.  Parking Bloat.

With off-street minimums, parking becomes the driver of what can be built and what a developer can afford to pay for land.  (also called the “land residual” in finance speak).  Simply put –you can only build what you can park according to the rules. That drives down the price you can afford to pay for the land.
There is some minor good news if you have an appetite for parking reform.  Since the requirement for off-street parking just reduces what can be paid for the land, you may have an opportunity for some arbitrage as a small developer. Think of excessive off-street parking as a land bank.  A piece of the parcel that needs to be set aside in the right configuration so that it might be built upon later, (after the rules change).   The strategy to deal with this is to provide the unessessary surface parking so that it is configured to be converted to building pads later.  To do this you need to keep the utilities out of the future pad and watch out for how the site drains.
Another strategy is to build actual garages to provide some of the required off-street parking.  You can rent out garages at the same rate per SF as local self-storage (or more).  Let’s face it.  They will end up being used as self storage anyway, but in the mean time they are a rent paying work around for Parking Bloat.
If a municipality is serious about the economic and cultural benefits of places worth caring about and they want to provide a greater range of options for where people can live and work, they will eliminate off-street parking requirements.  If they won’t take that step, I wouldn’t trust their well-intentioned planning efforts. It is clear that they are somehow just not equipped to do the most basic thing.   Parking Bloat is a telling metric for figuring out how a town works.  It could mean the elected officials and staff may not know what they are doing.  It could also mean that they know what needs to get done, but for some reason, cannot get it done.  Either way, the effect is the same.  The small developer/builder should watch out for surprises in dealing with the planning staff and elected officials. If the community is crippled by Parking Bloat, land will cost less and you will have to build less initially.  So don’t overpay for land and start working on getting rid of the regulations that require Parking Bloat.
Don Shoup’s book   The High Cost of Free Parking is out in paper back for $28.  Make sure your local public library has several copies.  Give copies to the leadership of your town’s various neighborhood associations and to the prime movers at the local chamber of commerce. With a little luck, the Town will do the right thing and you may create a couple of building sites down the line within the projects you built under the old bloated rules.

Tasks to Demonstrate a Town’s Resolve both Essential and Useful


In a presentation at Build Maine 2015 , I started off this list with these two bullets:

  • Lousy Streets and Lousy Public Spaces make it harder to sell or rent buildings. They drag down the local economy and make the town uncompetitive..
  • Contaminated Sites require a lot of extra work.

The first bit about lousy streets and lousy public spaces should be obvious, but it can be hard to really understand the numbers on this issue, and how you got the lousy streets you have now in some parts of town.  Those lousy streets were built to a very specific set of standards  The wrong stuff built with tremendous precision.  It is mind boggling to find out that lousy streets are built to a legal standard, while the best streets in your town may be illegal to build today.  Which brings us to the second bullet.  Contaminated sites require way more work to build upon.  I’m not referring to chemical contamination.  I’m talking about sites that are contaminated by bogus rules and ordinances that just don’t work any more, but nobody has been willing to clear them out.  Sites that are Administratively Contaminated need to be cleaned up.  If you wait for the individual property owners or developers to do that clean up, it could be a very long time before your town is competitive.  Towns that can show leadership in cleaning up Administrative Contamination will perform better than their neighbors.  So here is the list of stuff a town can step up and do to show their resolve in making their community better:

An added Note. Comments on Twitter described this post as hopping from the Essential to the Useful, So I have annotated each item as Essential or Useful

Dump Functional Classification —Replace with NACTO Replacing the grid or network of streets with the stem and branch system required under Functional Classification was a really bad idea.  It produced high levels of congestion with fairly low volumes of traffic by concentrating trips on a small number of really wide and fast roads.  Providing cyclists and pedestrians with a fighting chance with the stupid Functional Classification requirements still in place is blind and wasteful.  Dump the bad rules and adopt the Design Standards published by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).(Essential)

AMEND the International Fire Code for local use–Repeal 20’ Clear and Appendix D  The International Fire Code is hazardous to the communities it is intended to serve, because it is the source of overly-wide streets which promote faster car movement and result in more serious vehicle injury accidents and more people getting hit by cars getting maimed or dead.  Appendix D in the Fire Code requires 26′ clear for streets fronted by a single building greater than 30 feet tall (even when that building has fire sprinklers. (Essential)

Stop Using the Wrong Damned Ambulance –Firefighters should not design streets.  If 80% of emergency responses in your town are medical and only 20% are vehicle and structure fires, why roll fire engines to medical calls (just in case the first responders have to continue on to a fire).  The second part got me into some trouble with local folks.  I am still pissed off that in the town I lived in for 15 years, (Chico, CA) The starting salary for a firefighter with a high school education and some time at the Community College Fire Academy is $90,000 plus pension and benefits.  This is going on in a place where the Area Median Income (AMI) for a household of four is $43,752.  The firefighters I know are operating building companies on the side in addition to their generous salary and benefits.  The last time a position opened up for an entry level firefighter, there were over 600 applications.  I should have checked on the local situation in Maine where firefighters in Auburn and Bangor start at about 70% of AMI.  So I upset some folks by being wrong on the local situation.  We can argue about the pay scale for firefighters  but it is more important to recognize they have done a lousy job designing streets in communities across the country.  Relieving them of that authority will help your town. (Useful.  Be mindful of where you invest your political capital.  Taking on the Fire Department will bring forward all sort of nostalgic and heartfelt -but irrational reactions from the general public.  Get some of the other stuff on this list done first and the problems presented by having the fire marshal control the design of your streets will come into sharper relief).

Overhaul your Off-Street Parking Requirements, Manage your Public Parking Properly,–Dump ITE Manual / Read Don Shoup  Municipalities are tremendously bad at guessing how much off-street parking should be required for a given building.  The closest thing to an object standard they can point to is a collection of tables with decimal points published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers.  Those tables were developed by surveying single use suburban parking lots and are being mistakenly applied to downtown settings which also have on-street parking.  Somebody asked me where spending $1200 would do the most good in Municipal government. It would be a book club formed from the City Council, Planning Commission and Senior staff assigned Donald Shoup’s book The High Cost of Free Parking.  At $30 a copy that’s 40 copies.

For an explanation of why the ITE parking numbers are quite bogus, check out Shoup’s paper Roughly Right or Precisely Wrong? (Essential)

Come to Terms with your Zoning Code. Is your zoning code a collection of amendments and post-it notes that tarted in 1958 with an off the shelf ordinance from some outfit  in Atlanta?  Do it prohibit the worst possible thing from happening and allow the next to the worst possible thing to be built as-of-right?  How many special exceptions and variances does it take to build stuff that you say you want in you Comprehensive Plan? (Useful -but only because as tangled as some zoning codes are changing the rules can be a needlessly drawn out process.  Essential that you get started, but less critical than changing the off-street parking requirements).

Provide an Alternative to your Current Process for Building Permits, Inspections, Plan Check –Self Certification When an Architect or Engineer stamps a set of building plans they are taking personal liability for any failure to meet the building code or established professional standards of practice.  When a municipal plan checker approves a set of plans for construction or if a building inspector approves the building for occupancy, the municipality has no liability.  If you are the architect stamping the drawings and a city staffer tells you to change something or the building permit won’t be approved, what do you do?  What if you know the requested change is outside the requirements of the building code?  Some communities have passed ordinances recognizing where liability for code compliance falls and have allowed Architects and Engineers to certify their work subject to some peer review. This would be a way to reduce the time, expense, and frustration in the building permit processes of many towns. (Useful -but hey come on, as long as you have the hood up do this thing too.)

Be Rigorous about Municipal Finance –Do the Math.  Many towns do their books without considering the cost of repairing and replacing infrastructure that will be wearing out.  They don’t have a good handle on what parts of town generate the most revenue per acre, or the most cost per acre.  Without those numbers, it is hard to see the reality of how the wrong pattern of development can be really expensive.  Take a look at the work that StrongTowns is doing in Lafayette, Louisiana.  See how your town measures up when you do the math.  (Essential)