Shoup Recommends Parking Reform at Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance Spring Forum

Renowned parking “rock star” Donald Shoup addressed the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance (DVSGA) Spring Forum in May 2016, speaking about the high cost of free parking.

DVSGA is a coalition of more than 200 government, private sector and non-profit organizations in the Greater Philadelphia region encompassing Southeastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware.

Audience members from diverse backgrounds and communities across the region packed the conference hall to hear Shoup speak in Philadelphia. Many cities, suburbs and towns, including Philadelphia, grapple with parking issues on a regular basis, and Shoup came bearing solutions.

Shoup outlined key problems with the current approach to parking and recommended three strategies for reform.

Key problems with parking

Cars are parked 95 percent of the time, which requires a lot of parking lots and garages to accommodate non-moving cars.

“We tend to ignore this asphalt blight, especially when we park free in it,” Shoup said. “We don’t think about the cost of this parking.”

But just because parking is free for the driver doesn’t mean that parking comes at no cost. We all pay for it in other ways, including with tax dollars, higher housing costs, higher commercial rental rates and, in turn, more expensive goods and services.


Credit: Donald Shoup

Minimum parking requirements set by local governments are often arbitrary, yet they continue to be applied to new development, perpetuating the issue. Parking demand studies, which form the basis for many parking requirements, focus on sites with free parking, no transit and limited potential for walking or bicycling. In contrast, demand for other goods and services is measured based on how much people are willing to pay for the good or service.

Minimum parking requirements drive up the cost of development, reduce the amount of actual development that can take place on a site, and make it more difficult to build affordable housing or provide other amenities.

“Cities will not let any development happen unless there’s a lot of parking, even when we might want to create a site we can appreciate more than asphalt, it’s not allowed,” Shoup said. “We haven’t thought enough about why.”

The amount of parking provided for a particular use should be a private decision, not a public one, in Shoup’s opinion, though the public sector should weigh in on location and design of parking because it impacts the function and aesthetics of a community.

“We’ve made two huge mistakes,” Shoup said. “Keeping curb parking free or cheap, and requiring lots of off-street parking.”

Free on-street parking, and metered parking that is not priced relative to demand, create traffic congestion and encourage “cruising” for parking spaces, which contributes to air pollution.

So, how do we fix our parking woes?

#1: Demand-based parking prices

Demand-based prices are an alternative to free on-street parking and to prices that have no relation to demand. Demand-based prices adjust over time to maintain a few vacant spaces. The goal is to keep about 85 percent of the parking spaces occupied all the time, so that drivers will be able to find a parking spot without having to circle around the block most of the time.

San Francisco

San Francisco’s SFpark pilot project created a model for demand-based parking prices. Using flexible pricing and smart parking meters, San Francisco’s goal is for there always to be one available parking space per block.

In areas where parking is difficult to find, rates will increase until at least one space is available. In areas where open parking spaces are plentiful, rates will decrease until almost all the parking spaces are filled, or until rates bottom out at 25 cents per hour.

Drivers can find available spots using their smart phones and can pay using cash or credit at meters. Combined with extended time limits, these factors make parking and paying easier, and help drivers avoid tickets.

The average price of parking declined with SFpark, because so many parking meters had been overpriced in the morning. Seventeen percent of all meters’ prices went down to the minimum of 25 cents per hour in the morning, due to the large number of unused spots.

“The city council never votes on parking prices there,” Shoup said. “City council decides the occupancy they want to see, and they leave it up to the parking administration to set the price to attain that occupancy.”

The lesson: Raise the price of parking when there is a shortage of available parking spaces.

“It’s a mistake to believe, as I admit I did, that this model causes parking prices to go up,” Shoup said. “They did not.”

On top of lower parking prices for drivers, sales tax revenue got a boost, because more people were able to park close to businesses, and fewer tickets were issued because fewer people double-parked.

University of California, Los Angeles

Parking meters at UCLA charge four different prices during the daytime. The price of parking rises the longer a driver wants to park their car. The first hour is three dollars and the second hour is four dollars.

This approach is more sound than having rigid time limits because people often feed the meter to park longer, even when there is a limit. With this model if a driver is willing to pay, the city gets more money, and the driver benefits from the convenience of being able to park longer without having to repeatedly feed a meter.

Using this model, there was one space available 60 percent of the time, two spaces available 27 percent of the time, and zero or three spaces available a small percentage of the time.

“This is the right price for parking,” Shoup said. “Parking is well-used, but if you want to park, there is a space waiting for you.”

Parking is well-used, but readily available. That’s the right price of parking.

The lesson: Don’t impose time limits on parking. Instead, increase the price per hour the longer a car is parked.

#2: Parking benefit districts

Unfortunately, most drivers are opposed to paying for parking and merchants are opposed to making drivers pay for parking because they believe it’s bad for business.

To make on-street parking prices more palatable, Shoup says local governments should spend the revenue in a way that’s socially justifiable.

Credit: Mike Linksvayer/Flickr

Credit: Mike Linksvayer/Flickr

In Old Pasadena, California, merchants and property owners immediately agreed to install meters only when the City of Pasadena offered to return all parking meter revenue directly to Old Pasadena.

The city uses the money generated by the parking meters in Old Pasadena for new sidewalks, streetlights, graffiti removal, street cleaning and the like, within Old Pasadena. This system is called a parking benefit district.

Old Pasadena’s parking benefit district has transformed its main street. Cleaner, safer streets now draw more visitors who spend more money at local businesses and pay for more parking, creating even more revenue for improvements.

Property owners have made improvements without help from the city, because it is finally economically viable to do so.

Now Old Pasadena is a beautiful place to visit in Southern California, drawing over 20,000 visitors on the weekend, according to Shoup.

Parking benefit districts proved to be more than a transportation management tool; they’re an economic development tool.

Meters yield $1.2 million a year for Old Pasadena’s 15 blocks, about $80,000 per block.

The lesson: Use revenue from parking meters to invest in community beautification and improvements within the area that generates the revenue.

#3 Removal of off-street parking requirements

Removing or reducing off-street parking requirements makes room for something new and beneficial to take its place.

“If the government would let it happen, wonderful things would happen,” Shoup said.

Parking lots could be replaced by office buildings or job-adjacent housing.

Cities would have to start charging for curb parking (see recommendation #1), but with the density of the neighborhood, people could live without a car.

Removing off-street parking requirements would have economic benefits, because, as Shoup points out, free surface parking lots don’t create jobs.

New development would create jobs and housing, and it would allow people to live closer to work. Commute times would decrease and people would spend less on cars and fuel. Traffic congestion and air pollution would also decrease.

Freedom from parking requirements will allow higher density and make it easier to find new uses for old buildings.

The lesson: Remove off-street parking requirements to make room for new uses and amenities.

The parking reform trifecta

All three parking reforms used together would be the most beneficial, and they can receive support from all political persuasions.

[Liberals will see that it increases public spending.

Conservatives will see that it relies on markets and reduces government regulation.

Environmentalists will see that it reduces energy consumption, air pollution, and carbon emissions.

Businesses will see that it unburdens enterprise.

New Urbanists will see that it improves urban design and enables people to live at high density without being overrun by cars.

Libertarians will see that it increases the opportunities for individual choice.

Property-rights advocates will see that it reduces regulations on land use.

Developers will see that it reduces building costs.

Residents will see that it pays for neighborhood public improvements.

Affordable housing advocates will see that it reduces the cost of building new housing.

Neighborhood activists will see that it devolves public decisions to the local level.

Local elected officials will see that it reduces traffic congestion, encourages infill redevelopment, and pays for local public services without raising taxes.]

*text within brackets extracted from Donald Shoup’s powerpoint presentation.