Solving the Parking Predicament: The Parking Problem and solutions to reinvent land dedicated to parking

Solving the Parking Predicament: The Parking Problem and solutions to reinvent land dedicated to parking

By Chrissy Mancini Nichols

Aug 20, 2012

This post first appeared at

MPC Research Assistant Lena Ferguson contributed to  this post.

Think it’s hard to find a parking spot? Think again. In the U.S., more than 800 million parking spaces exist to serve 250 million registered motor vehicles – at least a three-to-one ratio! If every car or truck in America is parked in an existing spot, at least 550 million spaces remain empty at any given moment.

Think of all that asphalt. Parking is the single biggest urban land use, and therefore accelerates urban sprawl. The total amount of land devoted to parking is about the size of Connecticut. In fact, many parking facilities are designed so that spaces are full only 10 hours per year, resulting in parking lots bigger than the places they are designed to serve, higher development costs, and unattractive land use.

These lots often aren’t designed that way merely by choice, but because zoning ordinances require it. Many places in the U.S. have high minimum parking requirements and no maximum parking requirements, meaning there’s no cap on the amount of parking developers are allowed to build. While the minimum parking requirements in downtown Chicago are better than average and parking maximums do exist, the Chicago zoning ordinance still requires new residential buildings in the Loop to have .55 parking spaces per unit with a maximum of 1.1 to 1.5 spaces per unit. What’s more, developers can apply for permits to build parking exceeding the maximum. This can result in a disparity between how much parking is built and is actually needed. For example, while developers usually project that 55 percent of renters will lease parking spaces, in Chicago’s Lakeshore East development, that’s currently down to 40 percent. If the parking minimum requirement was the maximum, it would better reflect the demand for parking in this case.

Though 99 percent of all vehicle trips end in free parking, it has expensive hidden costs: Estimated construction costs in 2012, per space, were $4,000 to $8,000 for a surface lot, $12,000 to $24,000 for a stand-alone garage, $40,000 to $70,000 for an automated garage, and $40,000 to $100,000 for an underground garage. So, while drivers often do not have to feed a meter or pay an hourly fee, we all absorb the cost of parking through higher retail and housing prices, reduced wages and benefits, and higher taxes. Donald Shoup, professor at the University of California Los Angeles and perhaps the world’s foremost expert on parking, estimates the total subsidy for off-street parking in the U.S. in 2002 was as much as $374 billion. To put that figure in perspective, that’s just over three-quarters what the federal government spends on Medicare.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, parking also perpetuates traffic congestion and environmental degradation. On average, 30 percent of cars in traffic are actually cruising for on-street parking. As those vehicles circle … and circle … and circle the street, they burn fuel and emit exhaust, polluting the air. 



Solving the Parking Predicament: New Strategies for Managing Land Dedicated to Parking

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Zach K.

Birds-eye view of a suburban Chicago mall.


MPC research assistant Lena Ferguson authored this post.


His followers call themselves “The Shoupistas.” They call him the “Jane Jacobs of parking policy,” “prophet of parking,” and “parking rock star” -- and in response he’s jokingly suggested changing his name to Shoup Dogg. Whatever you call him, he’s the name-to-know in the parking management world: Donald Shoup.

Shoup, a Yale-educated economist who is an urban planning professor at UCLA, is widely considered the nation’s foremost parking policy expert. He has long argued that getting parking pricing right matters for a host of reasons: to help manage demand for spaces, reduce traffic congestion and pollution, and create a new revenue stream to fund neighborhood enhancements. 

Shoup has a three-part theory to better manage parking. First, set demand-based prices for on-street parking that ensure 15 percent of parking spots are available at all times. This solves traffic congestion caused by cruising, because those who choose to drive and pay the rate for on-street parking can quickly find a spot, while others will forgo the parking expense and park off-street (provided that garage parking is more economical) - or, even better, they’ll take transit, walk, or ride their bikes.

Second, Shoup firmly believes that cities must dedicate revenues from parking meters to local neighborhoods. This strategy gains support from business owners and residents for the higher cost of on-street parking and provides much-needed neighborhood improvements that people can easily see and experience, without tapping existing budgets.

Third, Shoup believes in eliminating minimum parking requirements for developers, which he says “inflict widespread damage on cities, the economy, and the environment” and are a major cause of sprawl. Minimum parking requirements create lots that don’t reflect demand and often take up more space than the buildings they are intended to serve. Most of the time, the majority of spaces remain empty, essentially wasting land that could be put to better use. Shoup recommends replacing the minimums with maximum parking requirements, which would cap the amount of parking allowed to be built.

Shoup’s theory of pricing and zoning has been implemented in various stages in cities around the country, including San Francisco, Old Pasadena, CA, and Oak Park, IL, which will all be profiled for this series.

City planners also are exploring new strategies to rethink parking and land use. In San Francisco, parks have sprung up from the unlikeliest of places: metered parking spaces! In 2005, Rebar Art & Design Studio took over a metered parking space for two hours and transformed it into a public space with just some sod, a potted tree and a rented bench. Their idea turned into PARK(ing) Day, a now-global event that sparked the revolutionary idea that parking spots can be much more than the patch of asphalt where you leave your car while you do something more interesting elsewhere. By 2011, PARK(ing) Day was celebrated in six continents, 35 countries, and 162 cities and created 975 temporary parks. Many cities, including Chicago, have applied PARK(ing) Day’s concept on a permanent basis, redesigning parking spaces as “parklets” for people to enjoy. Chicagoans can see and use these “people spots,”  as we’ve branded them here in Chicago, in Andersonville and Lakeview. The Chicago Dept. of Transportation is planning more “people spots” for 2013.

In Oak Park, Ill., and Portland, Ore., some vehicle parking spots instead are reserved for bicycles. Copenhagen, Denmark, spent 35 years eliminating parking spots by 2 to 3 percent annually, replacing many of its on-street parking spots with bicycle lanes. Copenhagen is now one of the largest biking cities in the world, with bicycling accounting for a 37 percent mode share. Copenhagen also converted most of its surface parking lots to public plazas. A good example is Nyhavn, a harbor-side plaza lined with shops and restaurants, which is now one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations.


Better managing metropolitan Chicago’s parking spaces using Shoup’s theories and new strategies like parklets would make our region an even more inviting, livable place for residents and visitors. MPC’s Solving the Parking Predicament series will highlight parking management theories, and ways in which cities across the country are using demand pricing, zoning requirements, and a little rethinking to better manage land dedicated to parking.

Solving the Parking Predicament: Old Pasadena, Cali.

Solving the Parking Predicament: Old Pasadena, Cali.

Transit and the new federal transportation bill

Transit and the new federal transportation bill