Rethinking Parking as Infrastructure
December 1, 2016

Last week was Strong Towns' Black Friday Parking campaign where we saw how underused most of the parking in the United States is, and we saw earlier how parking minimums drive up housing costs in dense cities where land is highly valued. So let’s talk about parking a little more.

In most discussions around parking, it seems as if we are only given two options - we either provide parking on the street or provide ample parking on the destination's property. But, both can be impractical.

Parking is just transportation infrastructure. It is infrastructure because it provides two services: a parking space provides storage for our shiny metal transportation boxes, and a parking space is a point at which we switch modes - from driving to walking and vice versa (any driving trip is technically multi-modal if it starts and finishes with you walking to and from your car.) Parking is infrastructure just as much as traffic lights, bus stops, and train stations are.

On-street parking can be okay, especially on wide streets with too much space to know what to do with. On narrower streets, on street parking can get kind of crammed and I recommend against it, this is despite my affection for narrow streets (which I love.) I am also highly skeptical that on-street parking actually provides many parking spaces. In a fine-grained urban area, where businesses are perhaps 20 feet wide, you are looking at about 1 space per business.


Cramped parking in Cambridge, UK.

Because of its low capacity but extreme convenience of being able to pull up right in front of a door, I would prefer if we treated all on-street parking spaces as loading bays - a spot for quickly running in to drop something off, or a spot for a van on moving day while you are actively loading things into it, rather than as a place to park a car while it sits there unused for several hours.

Cars lined up in front of stores in Hoboken, NJ. You can fit in perhaps one parking space per store. Ample room if treated as a loading bay, but certainly not enough to fill your business with visitors.

The alternative to on-street parking is off-street parking. One version of this is to require every property owner to provide their own parking. Requiring land owners to provide parking is bad because we place the burden on property owners to provide enough parking spaces for a theoretical peak load - which is one of the least productive things you can do with urban land (both expensive and artificially spaces things out) and simply a waste of redundant space, and it massively affects the urban character - as every building would have a parking lot, ramp, garage door, or alley entrance somewhere along the street. All of this comes together and works against producing lovable, fine-grained urbanism.

A townhome in Hoboken, NJ. Its character would be completely different if the ground level were a garage door.

If parking is simply transportation infrastructure, we should not expect there to be parking on-site at every property, just as we do not expect a bus stop in front of every property along every street, or a subway station under every block. I think we should think of parking in the same way we think of transit stations - simply points where we transfer between a vehicle and foot. When thinking of parking as communal infrastructure and not private property, it makes sense to think of each parking space as adding to the pool of parking in the area, rather than tied to a particular property. We can think of each of these “stations of parking” (be it a parking lot or a multistory parking garage) to have a walk shed similar to a transit station.

If it is too soon for your community to eliminate parking minimums, allowing the parking requirement to be satisfied within a walk shed (say 400 feet of the property) rather than onsite is an incremental change that would enable you to transition to communal parking, and allow infill development.


Woodstock, NY with parking pooled behind the main street.

I could imagine in a large urban area under optimal conditions - where on-street parking was treated as a loading bay (so there is always a spot for the delivery van, without letting people leave their car there for an hour), and property owners weren’t required to provide onsite parking - that we would have our “parking stations” distributed somewhat uniformly around so that there was a parking garage within the walk shed of any property - similar to the placement of transit stations.


Union City, NJ and West New York, NJ with possible “parking stations” (in red) and their walk sheds (in yellow), so that no point is more than 400 feet away from one.

I see advantages to this arrangement - not only does it relieve the burden of providing parking from each individual property owner, but it also relieves the burden on motorists from having to circle around looking for parking. Instead of circling around looking for a place to park, you would head straight to the nearest garage. (The best parking garages even allocate you a parking space when you enter, so you know exactly where to go.) In an ideal world, we would integrate the location of these parking garages into our GPS software - such as Google Maps (and perhaps the GPS software is even aware of the vacancy rate of the garages), so that when we request driving directions to a place it will give us directions to the nearest garage, with up to the last 400 feet done on foot.

Parking garages often get a bad reputation for being anti-urban, and that tends to be correct. The most important aspect of a building is how it interacts at street level - and many single-purpose parking garages interact very badly - blank walls, few entrances, not adding any destinations along the street - and this kills street life around them. It’s important to remember that parking is a non-place (infrastructure dedicated to ‘getting there’ rather than the stuff that is ‘there’ that people want to go.)

A bad parking garage in Hoboken, NJ that is one long blank wall.

But, I have seen many good examples of parking garages. Simply require the first level to add destinations to the street and the intrusion to the street be as minimal as possible. It’s not hard - make the first level into retail space, and make the ramp in and out of the garage be as small as possible. I have faith that it would be possible to retrofit the ground level of existing parking garages with a little creativity. Or, we could build garages today that can be retrofitted to other uses as mode shares and technology changes.

A parking garage in Adelaide with a department store on the first few levels.

By creating parking stations that are close to businesses and residences and reserving on-street parking as loading zones, we could eliminate the need for minimum parking requirements and make our towns stronger in the process.