Why metropolitan Chicago should re-examine its parking policies

Why metropolitan Chicago should re-examine its parking policies

By Chrissy Mancini Nichols

Apr 14, 2014

This post first appeared at metroplanning.org

When on-street parking is priced too low, demand exceeds supply, causing drivers to circle the block looking for a space. The result: clogged streets (in fact, up to 30 percent of cars in traffic are actually cruising for on-street parking) and air pollution. That’s why MPC has been advocating for better parking policies to manage demand in Chicago, by analyzing on-street parking demand in busy districts like Wicker Park and by promoting better city policies.

So I read Eric Jaffe’s recent Atlantic Cities article 3 Enormous Benefits to Charging the Right Price for Parking with great interest. He correctly argues that, “Most U.S. cities … undervalue the price of street spaces. They keep parking so cheap it encourages driving (and thus undermines their own transit investments, leading to more driving). And they require a minimum number of parking spaces for new developments whether residents need them or not.” He goes on to cite three recent studies that prove the benefits of charging the right price for parking—less congestion, higher transit use and more revenue.


Jaffe highlights San Francisco's SFpark, a federally funded pilot that switched 7,000 of San Francisco’s 28,000 meter spaces to variable pricing, periodically adjusting meter and garage prices to match demand. The goal is to maintain an average occupancy of 60 to 80 percent, or at

least one spot per block. Technology monitos real-time information about where parking is available, and drivers can quickly find open spaces via a Smartphone app.

An evaluation of SFpark by Adam Millard-Ball of UC-Santa Cruz has found that the pilot has achieved the target occupancy rate thanks to demand based pricing and has resulted in an astonishing 50 percent decrease in drivers cruising the block to find a parking spot.

Jaffe's interview with Millard-Ball gets right to the point: "People might not like new meters or an extension of meter hours, but certainly our data suggests that they're very effective in reducing the amount of traffic cruising for parking," said Millard-Ball. In fact, as soon as the meters are shut off in San Francisco at 6 p.m., traffic surges, likely from cars circling the block looking for parking spots. 


Studying the parking rates in 107 U.S. cities, Amy Auchincloss of Drexel found that in larger cities, as parking prices increased, transit passenger miles more than doubled. There was no similar correlation for smaller cities, where parking is generally cheaper, and transit likely not as available or reliable. One could argue Auchincloss' conclusions prove it’s important that cities invest in dependable public transit and adequately price parking to encourage people not to drive for every trip—a message the Chicago region should take to heart, especially because we’ve set a goal to double regional transit ridership by 2040.


As a nation, the U.S. devotes too much land to parking. More than 800 million parking spaces exist to serve 250 million registered motor vehicles—at least a three-to-one ratio. Right now, if every car or truck in America is parked in an existing spot—most of which are free—an astonishing 550 million spaces will remain empty.

Parking is the single biggest urban land use, and therefore accelerates urban sprawl. 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 by the developers 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.

If building further than 600 feet away from transit (which encompasses Chicago’s TOD ordinance), developers in the City of Chicago and rest of the region are required to build a number of parking spaces, depending on the size of the site —and it’s expensive. 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. 

While Chicago’s new TOD ordinance takes important steps to allow developers to dedicate more land to people instead of cars next to a transit station, it only allows up to a 50 percent decrease in minimum parking requirement for residential uses (though Alderman are able to approve reductions greater than 50 percent.) Because people often choose to live near transit so that they can forgo owning a car and younger people are driving less, we must achieve the maximum return on one of our City’s most valuable assets, land near transit. Dedicating it to parking is not always the highest and best use of this asset.

Backing this up, Jaffe cites research by the University of Connecticut and the State Smart Transportation Initiative that finds land devoted to street and garage parking generates less tax revenue for a city than other types of development do. In Hartford, this means a loss of $1,200 per year per parking spot, for a total of $50 million annually. Considering that yearly taxes paid by all downtown real estate total $75 million, that’s a significant amount. "If the city can find new uses for these parking lots, then this means that it can bring a lot of revenue," study co-author Norman Garrick told WNPR in Connecticut.

Parking policies matter. Better managing metropolitan Chicago’s parking spaces based on these theories would make our region an even more inviting, livable place for residents and visitors. 

Solving the Parking Predicament Series

Solving the Parking Predicament series offers an in-depth discussion of parking management. Beginning with a review of the parking problem and new strategies to solve them, each case study highlights best practices from around the country:

   Parking Meter Zones in Old Pasadena, Cali.,

   The SFPark smartphone app in San Francisco,

   The meter and permit system in Oak Park, Ill.,

   Performance Based Parking in Washington, D.C.,

   The EPA-piloted Parking Benefit District in Austin, Tex.,

   The Parking Improvement District in Boulder, Colo., and

   Payment-in-Lieu of Parking in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood.

These case studies show how parking can develop out of a headache and into a demand strategy that facilitates and supports the use of alternative modes of transportation, builds business activity, and boosts community ambience. 


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