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?

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.