The Urbanists’ Panacea: Parking Reform

Donald ShoupOne topic of urban policy has come up again and again over the past year or so of my life: parking. A mild-mannered UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup is convincing more and more urbanists the key the reducing traffic and reforming the shape of our cities is to re-consider our parking policies. Although he makes his case in the intimidating, encyclopedic 734-page tome The High Cost of Free Parking, at its core his argument is quite simple.

Shoup thinks curb parking is too inexpensive. Rather than making parking accessible, he thinks low prices waste huge amounts of time and resources as motorists cruise for open spots. Raising the cost of curb parking to what is necessary to keep a few spaces open at peak hours will reduce traffic, increase turnover of this scarce resource, and bring in new tax revenue that can be used to directly improve the streets where it is collected. This thesis is creatively explained in this short film produced by New York’s Open Planning project.

College Park Shopping CenterOur zoning codes also require a certain number of off-street parking spaces for new buildings. Shoup critiques these requirements as a pseudo-science, complaining they are based on statistically dubious studies measuring “demand” for free parking in suburban locations. The cost of this parking, up to $35,000 per space, is almost never passed along to the parking users. Furthermore, the zoning requires parking to satisfy peak requirements, meaning it sits empty almost the entire year. In the aggregate, Shoup thinks the requirements are a total planning disaster: he argues they encourage auto use, damage the economy, degrade the environment, debase architecture and urban design, burden enterprise, prevent the reuse of older buildings, among a litany of other offenses. In Shoup’s view, “Off-street parking, far more than the interstate highway system, have spurred the dominance of the automobile.”

He concludes that “if cities deregulate off-street parking and charge the right price for curb parking, market forces will improve transportation, land use, the environment, and urban life.” While I think turning the requirements into maximums is a more pragmatic first step, it’s hard to reject his argument our policies should make parking users pay its full cost. Almost three years after its publication, the book’s sales seem strong: it is #2 American Planning Association’s list of bestsellers and among the top 100,000 titles on Amazon, no small feat for a $50 treatise on a mundane aspect of urban policy.

Reading the book inspired me to review what amount of parking region’s zoning codes require. The results of the survey are below, but I should make an important caveat. The codes can be extremely long and complex, making interpreting them difficult. Furthermore, many of the jurisdictions allow developers to reduce these requirements for certain districts of proximity to Metro stations, and almost everything in the zoning code can be negotiated through variances and exceptions. Nonethless, the findings seem to confirm Shoup’s complaint the requirements are inconsistant and excessive, especially if you consider each space required below could require up to 300 square feet of space in a parking structure and cost up to $35,000 or more.

How many parking spaces are required for different types of buildings?

Montgomery County DC Arlington Alexandria

Single Family House 2 1 1 2

Apartment 1 to 2 per unit 1 to 4 per unit 1.125 per unit for the first 200, 1 per unit for the remainder 1.3 to 2.2 per unit

Hotel 0.5 to 0.7 spaces per room, plus 10 per 1,000 GSF of meeting space 1 for each 2 to 8 sleeping rooms, or in C-M, M 1 for each room usable for sleeping plus 1 for each 150 SF, whichever is greater 1 per room 1 per room, more than three stories 1 per two rooms

Office 1.9 to 3.0 per 1,000 GSF with variety of reductions possible 0 to 1 for each 600 SF beyond 2,000 SF 1 per 250 to 400 SF 1 per 450 to 600 SF

Industrial 1.5 per 1,000 GSF 1 for 1,000 GSF 1 per 1,000 SF or 1 per 2 employees, whichever is greater

Retail 5 per leasable 1,000 GSF none for under 3,000 SF, beyond that 1 per 300 SF 1 per 250 to 300 SF 1 per 200 to 330 SF

However, in D.C. there is considerable interest in re-evaluating the parking requirements. The city has recently launched a major effort to undergo a comprehensive revision of the zoning code. As part of the process the Office of Planning has organized committees examining each aspect of the code, who will each hold multiple meetings open to the public. The documents used to kick-off the parking committee this week are online, and include an excellent summary of best practices in parking policy by the innovative firm Nelson/Nygaard.

Two upcoming projects in D.C. are also putting parking issues at center stage. The Washington Nationals Ballpark is set to open March 30th, and in response D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells has proposed an innovative curbside parking management proposal that would implement the sort of policies advocated by Shoup. In Columbia Heights, the massive DCUSA project set to open March 8 and Councilmember Jim Graham recently called several hearings where new policies for the neighborhood were discussed. The brewing events mean 2008 could be the year for parking policy in Washington.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Excellent post, thank you very much for the insight!
    I think your “list of bestsellers” link is broken, though; that’s a list I’d like to see.

  2. Wow, I was totally confused…and ignorant of that crazy zoning practice. I had no idea that the number of spaces was in the hands of the zoning and not the developers. Thanks for taking the time to come to MY’s and clarify.

    I’m not usually a grouchy first commenter, but I’m glad I was.

  3. Prof. Shoup is right: “form follows parking requirements.”

    Prof. Shoup is the dean of the problem of parking requirements but there are some other great practitioners if you want to dig further into application of new approaches. Nelson/Nygaard, a progressive transportation consulting firm is one of them, see more presentations on parking at their website:, and Todd Litman’s paper and book: There are more tips at our Ward 3 Campaign website:

  4. Thanks for an interesting post. The questions of parking — how much is enough, how much is too much? — will also be addressed by the Congress for the New Urbanism at its 16th annual congress. CNU XVI: New Urbanism and the Booming Metropolis, April 3-6 in Austin, Texas, includes:

    * A 3-hour “New Urbanism 202” seminar on Thursday, April 3, titled, “The Mythical Parking Shortage: Why Provide Excess Parking?”
    * A session on Friday, April 4, titled, “Park Once,” and a session on Saturday, April 5, titled, “Right-Sizing Parking for TODs and Mixed Use.”

    For more information on these sessions and more, please visit the CNU XVI web site, And hurry; early registration rates expire on March 5!

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  6. Looks like Tommy Wells’ parking plan is going forward in the ballpark district. JDLand has a roundup of links at:

    Here’s JD’s parking map page, which says: “On all streets shown in the color red, DDOT will install new multi-space meters or modify the times and prices on traditional existing meters. Multi-space meters will be programmed with rates that vary according by day and length of parking stay. These rates will be aimed at encouraging parking turnover and limiting vehicles squatting on commercial spaces.”

    And here’s Tommy Wells’ press release. He calls it “performance parking”:

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  8. As much as we want to reduce the parking created with new development, putting Shoup’s theories in practice are much harder. I work with developers who are more than happy to reduce parking (at upwards of $35,000 a space and much, much more – who wouldn’t?) but the neighborhoods just won’t let them. Everyone thinks that the development that has less parking will spill into the streets, instead of changing driving behaviors. The overflow parking often competes with resident’s on-street spots, which really makes the neighbors upset, and it’s all a political game from there.
    We must really get to the problem – reducing parking does not necessarily lead to fewer cars. Everything works together, so proper TDM strategies are also important.

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  10. @Megan.

    Removing the parking may remove cars, but only from the hands of those who cannot afford the added costs. Its also arguable that a car is still a tool that can provide one increased economic opportunities. In a class charged society politics are likelty to follow.

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  14. Fortunately, I rely on public transport or bicycling for most of my commuting. I can park in my office. In most larger east coast cities, this is a viable option. It’s too bad most people still insist on the convenience of driving to the detriment of the air quality.

  15. The major fault in this theory is that it assumes that the demand for the area is inelastic. If you have an area of a city that is a destination with high demand, people may be willing to pay to park. However,if you just want to change peoples driving habits, they will just change their destination. This latter type of change will be detrimental to the businesses in the affected area and the area will become a blight.

    If there is truly a market for parking, the government should get out of the way and allow private developers to develop parking. When private developments are doing well, then, and only then, should cities consider charging for street parking.

    Cites should never be involved in off street parking.

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