It’s Official, I’m a Parking Groupie!

by Michele Reeves on May 9, 2013

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Yes, this is my autographed copy of the High Cost of Free Parking!

I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with one of my professional crushes, Donald Shoup, at Railvolution in LA late last year. Oh yes, it gets better. He actually sat next to me, too! I brought my book to the conference in the hopes that I would overcome my fear of being overwhelmingly dorky, and would work up the nerve to ask him to sign it. Which I did, and he so graciously assented.

Of course, as I handed it to him, a fierce internal debate was raging: should I explain why my copy looked so pristine and unread!?! You see, I pored over, and took copious notes from a library copy, and loved it so much, was impelled to buy my own. The book I handed over to the good doctor was so clearly recently purchased, I was very concerned that it didn’t look as worn as I thought it should for such a loved tome! Thankfully, I resisted the urge to blurt all this out in one long, run-on sentence.

What I did manage to say to Dr. Shoup, and it is absolutely true, is that this is one of the most well written books I have ever read. It was such a treat to be able to tell an author directly how much I appreciated his writing style, and the care he took to make it amazingly entertaining as well as amazingly informative!

The book is well known in the planning world, but I think many treat it like Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence — something that everyone wants to have read, but they are daunted by the size!

Well don’t be…daunted by its size, that is. The whole read is charming (I know, that sounds like a strange description for a 734 page book about parking), his chosen metaphors offer wonderful insights into the parking ecosystem, and the research is meticulous. It’s one of those volumes that, as you read it, you constantly quote it to hapless bystanders. Which, sad to say, was totally me during the entire duration of my first pass through this parking opus, snagging anyone nearby and asking,

“Hey, did you know…”

“…In 2002, the total subsidy for off-street parking was somewhere between $127 billion and $374 billion a year. If we also count the subsidy for free and underpriced curb parking, the total subsidy for parking would be far higher. In the same year, the federal government only spent $231 billion for Medicare and $349 billion for national defense.”

“…Every day, cruisers [looking for parking] within [the] 15-block [Westwood Village neighborhood] drove farther than the distance across the US. Over a year, their cruising creating 945,000 excess vehicle miles traveled — equivalent to 38 trips around the earth or two round trips to the moon.”

“…For a downtown concert hall, Los Angeles requires, as the minimum, 50 times more parking spaces than San Francisco allows at a maximum. These different priorities help explain the very different parking arrangements for Louise Davies Hall (home of the San Francisco Symphony) and Disney Hall (home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic). San Francisco built Louise Davies Hall with no parking garage, while Los Angeles completed Disney Hall’s 2,188-space $110 million parking garage three years before it had raised the $274 million needed to start building the 2,265-seat Disney Hall itself.”


…With the installation of the first parking meters in Oklahoma City, “cars pulled into metered spaces and moved out when their owners had finished their business, while in the unmetered zones, the old congestion remained. Magee’s idea of a coin-operated meter for the regulation of parking on city streets was proving itself, although at the time of installation most everyone had been skeptical of what the meters would accomplish. Within a few days other businesses were asking for meters on their streets, and within several months far more than the original 150 units had been installed.” (From Oklahoma Historian LeRoy Fischer)

Somehow, Dr. Shoup has managed to compose a book that is equally powerful to the geekiest of transportation engineers, and to the most enthusiastic of community volunteers.

I am going to leave you with a final passage…which are the opening few sentences to the book:

“Children first learn about free parking when they play Monopoly. The chance of landing on free parking is low, about the same as the chance of going to jail. Monopoly misleads its players on this score, however, because parking is free for 99 percent of all automobile trips in the US.”

Vintage Shoup! Now go out and get a copy and read it. Seriously.


Portlandia: Milquetoast Bureau of Planning Edition

by Michele Reeves on September 10, 2012

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Since the 1990s, Portland has not had parking minimums in much of the city, from the downtown core to more traditional neighborhoods with single family housing. Portland has been very proud of their no parking minimum. Portland has trumpeted this zoning policy as a shining example of why Portland is the City That Works!

The irony?

Up until recently, it was very rare for a residential developer to build anything without off-street parking. Finally though, that is changing. “Of 40 apartment building projects to be filed [with the city] in the last year and a half, 25 offer no parking,” according to a story from Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB).

As you can imagine, “Not in My Backyard” reactions to these projects are common, particularly in many of the eastside single-family home neighborhoods that are adjacent to the corridors where these projects are proposed.

To understand how entitled Portlanders feel to the street spaces in front of their homes, I want to share a personal anecdote I experienced right after moving to Portland and buying a house in 2001. We found a great house in the SE quadrant of the city, a few blocks from the Hawthorne District, which is a hopping mixed-use corridor and east/west arterial in the city. The neighborhood we chose was was comprised mostly of single-family houses built between 1910 and 1930, and it featured a designated bike corridor as well as abundant on-street parking. In fact, I don’t believe we ever had to park more than half a block away from our house in the over six years we lived there. Also, most homes in the neighborhood shared a driveway and a garage with their neighbor, giving most dwellings at least one off-street parking space.

As we were moving in, our neighbors came up to chat and introduce themselves. They were a lovely couple — a nurse and a school principal who had lived in the area for decades. They immediately informed us that we didn’t want to ever park, or allow any of our guests to park, across the street in front Bob’s (pseudonym) house. We thought they were joking and had a good laugh, because how could they be serious? Bob didn’t own the curb-side spaces in front of his home. Unfortunately, our neighbors did not join in our joviality. “No really,” they insisted, “He has been known to burst in on other people’s dinner parties and yell at guests to move their cars…of course, he has gone to anger management classes, which seem to really be helping.”

Yikes. They were serious. And as we met more and more of our neighbors, they all said the same thing after introductions were out of the way: “Don’t park in front of Bob’s house.”

Parking is always a hot-button issue in areas that are trying to increase density. So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the city of Portland, and its planning bureau, that there would be some neighborhood resistance to developers finally bringing product online with no off-street parking.

But apparently, it did come as a surprise, because the bureau’s response to this inevitable backlash has been purely passive. Pretty shocking considering they could have spent the last year and half planning for, and proactively addressing, these issues on the neighborhood level as applications for these kinds of projects began coming in over the permit counter.

What has been their response? As reported in the Daily Journal of Commerce:

The BPS is starting to take notice of these complaints. As part of the effort to update the Portland Comprehensive Plan, the bureau is weighing whether to make changes to the zoning code, according to Dabbs [communications officer for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability]. These changes could involve design and compatibility of new residential and mixed-use development on the east side.

The BPS also is re-examining its theory that tenants in apartment complexes with little or no on-site parking do not own cars. Earlier this summer, the bureau hired an outside consulting firm to conduct a survey of six apartment buildings without parking to find out if their tenants own cars.

“We’re hearing from the community; this is something we’re concerned about,” Dabbs said.

What? Are you kidding me?

It already sounds like the city is caving, just when the zoning is actually working and attracting the type of development they have dreamed of seeing since the 90s. Indeed, in the DJC article, one neighborhood leader said, “I think there is some momentum toward (zoning changes).”

Is that really the message the city wants to be sending?

There are myriad reasons why it would be a horrible idea to change the zoning. Below, I am going to focus on two of them.

COST OF HOUSING. As Portland’s in-city neighborhoods have gentrified over the last 10 to 15 years, lower-income and middle-income residents have been driven out. This has happened throughout the nation’s coastal cities.

In my mind, San Francisco is a great example of rampant gentrification. A few years ago, I heard Fred Blackwell, from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, tell an audience contemplating neighborhood economic development that you couldn’t fill Candlestick park with the number of African Americans left living in that city. To say I was shocked was an understatement. On a more personal note, many of my cousins, who grew up there, cannot come close to affording something in the city where they were raised.

In one of my favorite books on parking, “The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup wrote:

Reducing, or removing, off-street parking requirements, however, can increase the supply and reduce the price of all housing, without any subsidy. Planners everywhere are concerned about housing costs and urban sprawl, but they have not attempted to evaluate how parking requirements affect either housing costs or urban density. …Parking requirements substantially increase development cost and reduce density. Scarce land and capital are shifted from housing for people to housing for cars. Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people.

Diversity of income and culture brings creativity, innovation, and life to a city. But, this diversity will be difficult to maintain in the decades to come, because Gen Y and the Baby Boomers all want to live in walkable neighborhoods. Fantastic pedestrian places are going to see a tremendous increase in demand for housing, office, and retail space, and, unfortunately, gentrification’s negative side effects will prevail, unless we find ways to offer an array of housing options suitable for both lower-income residents and the middle class.

The bottom line: eliminating parking minimums results in a larger inventory of housing accessible to a wider variety of people.

CORRIDOR DEVELOPMENT. The OPB article has a good map of the proposed projects, and as you can see, nearly every one of them is either on a major mixed-use arterial, or adjacent to a mixed-use arterial (the Eastside), or in the densest portion of the city grid (the Pearl/NW Portland). The Eastside of Portland is where there is the most pushback to not having parking minimums, and also where there are the most single-family homes, some of which are less than 15 blocks from downtown (it doesn’t get much more in-city than that).

To be clear, Portland zoning protects single-family home districts with R5 zoning, which allows only 1 house per 5000 SF lot, the average sized lot in the city. There are certain transition areas that step down to a row house ratio, such as 1 house per 1000SF lot. So, Portland’s in-city, single-family housing districts are protected from dense apartment dwellings springing up, disrupting their bucolic, in-city life. Where these projects are presently being built are along the commercial and mixed-use corridors that have flexible zoning that allows for a variety of uses and sizes, and requires no off-street parking. In fact, these neighborhoods should be excited about zero lot-line buildings, built next to one another, with a variety of uses creating a 24-hour district along arterials. Why? Because Portland’s most economically successful and vibrant mixed-use environments all have historic infrastructure with exactly those characteristics: one hundred percent lot coverage, no off-street parking, and single-story/multi-story structures built right next to each other. They knew how to build great places for people back in the streetcar days!

A neighborhood spine that offers activity and density will build district-wide identity and increase long-term property values for the surrounding single-family homes. Not to mention the fact that these mixed-use corridors provide walkable amenities for all to enjoy.

So I say, “Let ’em build without parking!”

All images in this post are from mixed-use infill and redevelopment projects from Portland’s eastside that increased intensity of use, but offered no off-street parking.


First Create the Parking Problem, then Solve It!

by Michele Reeves on September 28, 2011

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Recently, the blog Reinventing Parking was pondering the fact that many cities are getting excited about Shoup’s call for parking meter dynamic pricing (like the program in San Francisco), but are virtually ignoring the case he makes for abolishing parking minimums.

Who is Donald Shoup, you ask? Before launching into a discussion on parking minimums, let me explain. Donald Shoup wrote a book called, “The High Cost of Free Parking.” Suffice to say, I believe this is one of the most well written tomes (and it is a tome), on any subject, that I have ever read. (Adding my two cents to the montón of raves that he has received over the years.)

Surprisingly, the book manages to be as in-depth and numbers-focused as a transportation and parking geek would require; but it is equally accessible to the lay person, as well.

Two Key Shoup Findings:

  • In places where on-street parking spaces are in high demand, they should be regulated via meters with pricing that fluctuates so that there are always a few spaces available on the street. In other words, prices are higher when demand is higher, and pricing is lower, when demand is lower. Additionally, parking revenue generated by these meters should be returned, in whole or in part, to the surrounding community.

  • Cities should not be in the business of determining how much parking various types of building uses require. They invariably overestimate, creating great places for cars and not so great places for people. (I am heavily paraphrasing here!)

Favorite Shoup Fun Facts:

  • “For a downtown concert hall, Los Angeles requires, as the minimum, 50 times more parking spaces than San Francisco allows as the maximum.” Louise Davies Hall in San Francisco has no parking garage, while Disney Hall in Los Angeles has a $110 million parking garage that nearly bankrupted the entire development. “Disney Hall’s garage almost never fills, even when Disney Hall is sold out, and it is almost empty for the rest of the year.”

  • In Oakland, where they require one parking space per living unit, the cost to build rental housing “per apartment increased by 18 percent and the number of apartments built on a typical lot fell by 30 percent.” The parking requirements also triggered another effect. Because the required parking increased development costs and reduced feasible density, land values fell by 33 percent.” Later in the book, he has great quote: “Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people.”

  • In Westwood, a Los Angeles neighborhood, a study of cars cruising for an open onstreet parking space yielded these results: “In a day, cruising for parking created 3,600 excess Vehicle Miles Traveled, which is greater than the distance across the United States.” Just one neighborhood in California. They also found that the amount of cruising increased when curb parking was free.

  • In Westwood, a Los Angeles neighborhood, a study of cars cruising for an open onstreet parking space yielded these results: “In a day, cruising for parking created 3,600 excess Vehicle Miles Traveled, which is greater than the distance across the United States.” Just one neighborhood in California. They also found that the amount of cruising increased when curb parking was free.

  • The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) parking generation report is the typical reference for planners selecting minimum parking ratios. As Shoup notes, “Half of the 101 parking generation rates [in the ITE report] are based on four or fewer studies, and 22 percent are based on a single study. [ITE] parking generation rates measure the peak parking demand observed at a few suburban sites with ample free parking and no public transit. As a result, urban planners who use these parking generates rates to set minimum parking requirements” are shaping the form of a city so that everyone will have to drive wherever they want to go.

Okay, so what about parking minimums? Why aren’t they being abolished en masse around the country?

I come at the question of parking from the perspective of revitalizing downtowns and Main Street commercial districts. Not surprisingly, one of the first things I hear from stakeholders when I arrive in an underperforming downtown is “We have to solve the parking problem.” The irony being that they believe their troubled commercial district has a shortage of parking; when, in fact, they usually have difficulties due to a surplus of parking.

This drive to increase parking supply to mirror arterial style development parking ratios is a deeply ingrained response from communities and business owners that have been watching their downtown or Main Street environment degrade over a period of decades, as all of the businesses in town left for the mall.

A commercial community’s desire for more parking is a formidable obstacle for planners to overcome because they often lack the real world development and retail experience to explain to property owners and business owners why adding parking will further depress commerce.

Downtowns and neighborhood commercial environments do not function like arterial style development. They are successful when they are fabulous walking districts. If they try and compete with auto-centric parking ratios, then a sort of in-between place is created — something that is not quite a downtown and not quite a strip mall, but is one hundred percent unsuccessful.

Another thing I often hear from planners is this: “We are a suburban community and we cannot have the same kind of parking ratios and development in our downtown that you have in bigger cities.” To this I usually reply with a Shoupesque observation, “Eliminating parking minimums does not mean developers stop creating product with parking, but it does mean that they won’t create any EXTRA parking.”

There is no universal, one-size fits all formula that accurately reflects how much parking various businesses and uses actually need, as if these things are independent of context. A fast food restaurant, such as Little Big Burger, in the middle of the Pearl District in Portland on the streetcar line easily gets away without needing parking, while the same restaurant located on a lonely stretch of road only accessible by car would obviously require some place for vehicle storage while people are eating.

Essentially, in getting rid of parking minimums, we are asking planners to let the market decide. To allow developers and businesses, with a lot of cash on the line, to figure out what minimum amount of parking they will need to be successful, within a given environment. The institutions that finance renovation and new construction projects also look very closely at parking to make sure it is adequate so that a development can be resold in the future.

I typically recommend downtown and Main Street districts think of cars this way: YOU WANT TO CREATE A PARKING PROBLEM! It is an indicator of success, not failure.

A lagging district must first focus all of its efforts on making itself thrive. Then, from a position of strength, figure out how to best solve the parking problem, when and if one develops. It’s much easier to tackle the issue of car storage when rents are high and business is booming, because you can pay for solutions that don’t damage the pedestrian environment, such as structured parking that is entirely surrounded by office/retail/residential uses, or by burying parking.