The Importance of Parking in Planning for Livable Communities

Source: CMAP – Moving Forward

The influence and value of parking in planning for livable communities is often underestimated and not well understood.  As one of the largest single land uses in municipalities’ “footprints,” parking deserves more attention than it typically gets, due to its influence on the character, form, function, and flow of our communities. Many places in our region face a shortage of available, convenient parking close to businesses, especially in traditional downtowns. Drivers circle the block hoping to catch a break; some move their cars every few hours when in time-restricted areas to avoid a ticket. To help communities address their parking concerns with the end goal of making their communities more livable, CMAP has created “Parking Strategies to Support Livable Communities,” a step-by-step guide to help municipalities reform their parking policies. GO TO 2040 specifically recommends parking management strategies and pricing to encourage the development of livable communities. This Policy Update features highlights from the new CMAP planning guide, which municipal governments can use when they choose the appropriate steps for addressing their unique challenges.

Challenges

The design and management of parking supply affects the livability and walkability of any downtown. Building additional parking without managing the existing supply can induce driving and increase the demand for even more parking. Conversely, managing the existing supply can be a cost-effective way to reduce demand and increase the attractiveness of underutilized parking spaces. One of a municipality’s most pressing challenges for parking is to find the right balance between supply and demand.

Two Dozen Travelers. These photos demonstrate the extra road capacity that is gained by converting trips from private auto to transit, walking, and biking. Source: Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. www.tjpdc.org

Two Dozen Travelers. These photos demonstrate the extra road capacity that is gained by converting trips from private auto to transit, walking, and biking. Source: Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. www.tjpdc.org

Parking is more than a necessary element of larger residential or commercial uses; it merits consideration as a distinct land use that affects travel behavior and the environment.  Even the perception of available parking can influence mode choice and economic competitiveness of an area. Communities planning for parking are wise to consider its impacts on nearby uses and travel behavior.  Where possible, parking should be planned to encourage transit use and support commercial activity; opportunities for shared parking should be pursued.

The primary goal of parking management is to create parking availability near businesses and restaurants so that customers can easily find a space. The perception of a parking shortage results when drivers have difficulty finding an open parking space. Drivers become frustrated and waste time and fuel searching for a spot. There may be an empty parking lot two blocks away, but without proper management of the more desirable spaces and wayfinding signage for the lot, it sits vacant while people complain about the shortage of parking in the downtown area.

A common reaction from residents, planners, and elected officials to this demand for convenient parking spaces is to build additional parking lots or garages.  Parking structures are expensive to build, often upwards of $25,000 per space, and revenue is rarely high enough to cover costs and debt service on the garage. The chart below highlights the construction costs of a variety of parking structures throughout the region.

Click image for larger version.

Click image for larger version.

To better manage scarce public resources, municipalities can seek a more thorough understanding of their parking supply and demand by developing a financial plan prior to incurring significant debt to finance parking garages.  The “Parking Strategies to Support Livable Communities” guide can help a community assess its current parking supply, engage its business community and residents in thoughtful strategy discussions and visioning, and identify and implement appropriate parking management strategies. The design and management of parking supply affects the livability and walkability of any downtown. Building additional parking without managing the existing supply can induce driving and increase the demand for even more parking. Conversely, managing the existing supply can be a cost-effective way to reduce demand and increase the attractiveness of underutilized parking spaces.

Parking Management Strategies

There are many different parking management strategies a municipality can undertake. Pricing of parking allows a municipality to limit and centralize the amount of off-street parking while also incentivizing alternative modes of transportation. Municipalities can design a “park-once” district that allows employees, visitors, and customers to park once and walk short distances between locations, thereby reducing overall parking demand. This might involve converting private parking spaces to shared, public spaces; discouraging private parking in new development; and facilitating shared parking agreements. Another potential solution is to create a transportation demand management program with strategies that increase transportation efficiency by changing travel behavior and parking demand.

Parking management strategies, particularly pricing, lead users to “economize” when it comes to parking.  Many drivers will shift to different modes of transportation, will drive at different times of day, or may combine trips.  These actions will help to reduce traffic congestion, roadway costs, pollution, and more.

Parking should be easy and friendly; it should not always be free. Making the process of paying for parking as simple as possible is important. “Smart parking technology” can provide users with a variety of payment options and options for extending their stay. Real-time information can help drivers locate spaces efficiently.  While many residents will try to avoid paying for parking, there are people who value their time and would prefer to pay to park if it means that they can get to their final destination more quickly. The more prevalent strategy of using time limits and ticketing vehicles is not customer-friendly. For example, some hair appointments take longer than two hours or an important business lunch may run longer than expected. The ability to add time to a meter remotely would be preferable to getting a parking ticket in these instances, and it is more customer-friendly.

The matrix below highlights various parking management strategies and where they are most effective.

Click image for larger version.

Click image for larger version.

The impacts of parking management strategies, both priced and unpriced, will vary depending on a number of factors, and they will be more significant when travelers have alternative transportation options.  But even in the absence of transit, it is still possible to use parking strategies to affect land use, congestion, and environmental degradation. The use of pricing, when paired with other parking management strategies, can be very successful at alleviating traffic congestion and freeing up parking spaces for short term use.

If a municipality wants to reduce congestion on high-activity streets where there is a perception of limited parking, they can prioritize availability of parking spaces at the most convenient locations and shifting long-term parkers to lower demand spaces. By pricing high-demand spaces at the lowest possible rate, a municipality can ensure that one or two spaces per block are available for customers.  This is sometimes called “Goldilocks parking pricing.” If the parking rate is too high, customers will go elsewhere; if it is too low, long-term parkers will stay in the premium spots; if it is just right, one or two spaces will be available on each block throughout the day. This helps reduce congestion by eliminating the need to “cruise for parking,” and keeping most spaces full ensures that customers are still frequenting local businesses.

If voters approve of a Parking Benefit District, a municipality can charge for parking and return the revenue to the street where it is collected, to improve streetscaping, help pay for garages, to clean sidewalks, or to provide free public Wi-Fi, among other things. This can increase business and residents’ acceptance of policy changes – especially if they are involved in the decision-making process.  If residents are going to pay for parking and they are not accustomed to doing so, it helps when they can clearly see that their money is being well-utilized.

CMAP Assistance

Managing the supply and price of parking is an effective tool for communities to assist in the pursuit of development goals—whatever they may be.  CMAP’s role in improving parking policy in the region could include long-range planning studies, visioning, project studies, technical assistance, workshops, and the provision of data.  Long-range planning studies can help spur discussion and educate the public on the inter-related issues that affect, and are affected by, parking. Where requested, CMAP can provide data and technical assistance to communities that are considering changes to their parking policy. On May 24, CMAP hosted an Ideas Exchange event for the Local Technical Assistance program, which featured a panel on parking management strategies and what the Village of Oak Park has done to address parking.  The Oak Park Patch wrote an article about the panel, work being done in the Village to better manage parking, and reactions to those efforts from local residents.

By understanding existing supply and demand and effectively communicating the costs associated with parking to the public, a municipality can implement appropriate parking policies. Centralized, shared parking will enable drivers to park once for multiple errands and walk between locations. When the demand for parking necessitates the construction of parking structures, the municipality can use the base knowledge of parking demand to provide the appropriate amount of parking, prepare for future demand, and utilize available financing tools. The way that municipalities plan for and provide parking will have a huge impact on the future livability of our communities.