The Problem of Parking, Part 1

If I asked you how many parking spaces a hotel should pave with its building, how would you answer? Your first instinct might be to include at least one parking space per hotel room, plus maybe a few more for registration, employees, and so on. Seems logical, right?

But, what about people who are visiting the hotel for a conference, or maybe a wedding reception? Would that change the number of parking spaces you’d suggest? Maybe some hotel guests came in two vehicles rather than one. Or, perhaps the hotel restaurant is a popular spot even for those not actually staying at the hotel. That might increase the number of parking spaces needed. Then again, maybe not.

How do you account, then, for travelers who don’t bring a vehicle with them at all? Maybe they flew into the area from out of town and took a shuttle to the hotel. Maybe a family drove in together, but used two hotel rooms. Now, how many spaces should that hotel provide?

The point is, the answer to providing parking isn’t obvious or clear cut, whether the development in question is a hotel, apartment building, or a shopping center. As you’ve probably experienced in driving around your own city, most developers—either because of zoning requirements or faulty math—overestimate the parking needed for a site, leaving a wasteland of blacktop most days of the year.

How did it get this way? According to Donald Shoup in his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, the quick shift to travel by car created an immense need for off-street parking, shifting regulations so that new developments would require built-in parking for its users. Then, in a constant battle to keep citizens happy, minimum parking requirements have grown ever larger to ensure every car has a spot.

Shoup argues, however, that the drastic increase in free parking is, in fact, quite costly. Developers have no choice but to pass along the cost of paving and striping the spaces along to the building’s tenants who, in turn, pass that cost along to its customers. We pay for “free” parking in every gallon of milk, every value meal, and every piece of clothing we buy.

How do we decide the number of parking spaces a particular building requires? The Planning Advisory Service provides a chart of guidelines depending on land use, and some of the requirements are downright silly. For example, a nunnery requires 1 space per 10 nuns, and a swimming pool requires 1 space per 2,500 gallons of water. Seriously? Is this the way we study parking demand?

In the same book, Shoup provides an example of how predetermined parking metrics can be a long way off from the reality of parking demand. Several Home Depot stores were studied and, even at one of its busiest times of year, the number of parking spaces required for a building of its size was up to double the actual demand determined in the study. Put plainly, current standards could require a Home Depot to pay to provide hundreds of parking spaces it will never need.

Is there a solution to this parking predicament? Part 2 is still to come…


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