Parking Management for Thriving Places

On Tuesday June 23, we heard from Richard Willson, a funny and engaging speaker, who explained that parking policy is the intersection of transportation, economic development, sustainability/social justice, urban design goals.  Two years ago, he wrote Parking Reform made Easy, which advocated for setting correct prices to regulate parking (a la Don Shoup, author of the High Cost of Free Parking and Willson’s PhD advisor).  His follow up book, Parking Management for Smart Growth was born from the fact most cities can't use pricing as a regulatory mechanism because they have not implemented other parking management tools first.  Palo Alto has certainly experienced this in recent years, as the economy has taken off and parking has become a scarce resource in some places.

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Willson began his talk by noting that parking problems are the tail that wags the dog.  It's a symptom, but the goal is to create better access to places by aligning land use and transportation policies.  He described how current parking requirements typically dictate built form and scale by forcing the creation of self-sufficient islands of parking. He explained that not all 320 sf parking spaces (200 sf space plus drive aisle) have the same value: the rarely used, outer spaces of a shopping mall are less valuable than spaces in the downtown that regularly turn over. Parking requirements drive our built form, as well as unintended economic development consequences; Willson gave the example of a street where parking requirements were so rough, that they de facto prohibited restaurants on a particular block. In the US there are 3.5 parking spaces total per car and providing too much parking space is not great use of land.  He suggested that there are many tools available to better manage parking resources, including policies that get people to the right spots (ex. day-long workers shouldn’t be parking on-street), and freeing up spots for customers in prime locations through proper pricing.  

Retailers usually worry that paid parking will cause business will suffer. Willson says that data no longer support this.  As an example, he cited two popular areas in Pasadena, just a few miles apart: Old Town which has 2.3 parking space per 1000 sf of commercial square feet, but charges for parking, and The Playhouse (theater) District, which has 8 spaces per 1000 sf, but does not charge for parking. Old Town had significantly greater revenues than The Playhouse. Both areas are in the same city, caters to the same demographic, has the same economic milieu, but where did people think the greater parking problem was?  The Playhouse district - because the parking is not managed.  

Willson also talked a bit about how the "set it and forget it" parking management mentality is not right. Parking policies need to constantly be evaluated and tweaked.  And pricing alone (Shoup's position) isn't enough because most cities aren't ready for true market-based parking pricing.  Parking management involves a lot of “people work” across organizations and stakeholders and transitional strategies until market based pricing is possible.  

Pricing needs to be one tool that is part of coordinated comprehensive planning, but not the only tool. Willson advocated use of pilots to test different parking management strategies. To that end, he put forth several ideas cities can take immediately: like leasing private parking space for public use or shared parking arrangements (i.e. using school parking during non-school hours), as well as several broader strategies that cities can take that range from direct interventions and  monetary commitments to educational/marketing methodologies.

The audience questions were very good. The first question asked whether state law parking cash out should be a parking management tool. Parking cash out incentivizes employers to pay people for not using a parking space. Willson likes this concept but noted the original law was watered down to the point few counties have adopted it or required the option of employers. Others asked about tiered pricing strategies, how and where parking revenues could be returned (Pasadena returns parking revenues to the area from which they were collected and they go to the street scape, safety, parks, etc.), and how to set RPP boundaries.  Richard Willson advocated gathering data on the number of spaces, duration of use and reason for use to help set parking pricing, and then evaluating policies regularly to adjust.  SF has reduced its parking pricing on average because of this.  Someone from Los Altos asked what number of meters have to be implemented at once for such an undertaking to be cost effective, and Willson estimated approximately 200 meters at a price of $0.75/hour.  Willson also noted that in places where neighborhoods abut busy commercial areas, RPP should be implemented before other parking management or pricing in the commercial core to prevent spillover parking in the neighborhoods and a community backlash.

Palo Alto has been looking at many of these parking management ideas and will be poised to start or continue development on many of them.  We’ll be following them as they get started or come to council in the coming months. Downtown RPP is slated to start in September 15, and the Transportation Management Association stakeholder group has begun identifying programs to reduce car demand.  Other programs in process include evaluation of parking technology tools and apps, improved parking wayfinding. Stay tuned for more!

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This Event was co-sponsored by City of Palo Alto, City of Palo Alto Library, Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, Friends of Caltrain, Palo Alto Forward, Imagine Menlo, Transition Palo Alto, Transform, and Greenbelt Alliance.



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