Solving the Parking Puzzle


For Main Street programs, parking is often known as the “P-word”: plagued with misinformation and exaggerated importance. Whether it’s perceived or real, parking is cited as the number-one problem among cities and towns throughout the nation.

Parking policies are often based on the opinions—and behavior—of everyone except customers. Does your business district actually have a parking problem? Do the customers think there’s a problem? How do you know? Often, when customers are asked to think about the business district as a whole, then rate and prioritize a dozen features that need improvement, parking is not even near the top. Typically, their top priorities are things like “variety of businesses” and “selection of merchandise.” The main purpose isn’t to park, but rather to get all the items on your list before you get back to your car.

Truly addressing parking means going beyond a prescription for the number of downtown parking spaces needed to a plan for the physical design and placement of parking along with a plan for parking management. Parking should be located near downtown’s anchors. The anchors draw the most traffic and the parking needs of that traffic need to be accommodated as conveniently as possible. The better the downtown functions for the strolling shopper, the less need for parking lots next to every building or business (each parking space serves multiple businesses). Because successful strolling requires a continuous wall of appealing storefronts, parking lots become secondary to maintaining and improving that sequence of storefronts, including infill buildings when and where necessary.

Be careful when requiring new developers to provide parking because they may not provide it in the most desirable way (e.g. by tearing down a historic building and creating a gap in the streetwall). Malls provide the lesson. Parking and entrances to the commercial complex are located at the anchors. Visitors to the mall don’t expect to be able to park at the front entrance of any of the smaller stores located between the anchors. In fact, by design they can’t. However, it is crucial to maintain parking spaces along downtown streets.

A parking survey is the first planning step in developing an effective parking plan and management system.

What a Parking Survey Can Reveal

By properly studying actual parking supply and demand, your community will be able to make reasonable projections and develop improvement strategies. A parking study can help you:

  • Resolve local issues about supply and demand. A study will eliminate, or at least neutralize, the misinformation about parking. In its place, facts can be used to build new strategies. A thorough parking study will reveal actual current parking demand for each block of your district, and will quantify it in relation to building floor space.
  • Determine parking demand and behavior. Occupancy and turnover studies will reveal how parking is actually being used, and if there is in fact a parking supply shortage, a parking demand shortage, or a parking management problem, and show where problems exist.
  • Project future parking demand. Making an educated estimation about future parking demand will determine if new facilities are necessary.
  • Create new multi-purpose tools for your Main Street program, such as an accurate base map of land uses, building inventory, parking, and street circulation. Your research will extend beyond parking and provide information for market analysis and business recruitment.
  • Survey people’s attitudes about other issues, not just parking. Discover what (business and property owners, visitors, and customers in your market area think about your business district, especially their priorities for the district. These survey results will also serve the marketing and business recruitment objectives of the economic restructuring committee.
  • Identify weak demand areas. A good parking study is a good redevelopment study: where future parking demand is low, new infill can be constructed on underutilized land and vacant lots. You can find out how much new floor space the parking supply can handle and what types of new businesses would best fill the new space.

How to Manage Parking

Effective parking policies and designs will maximize the efficiency of your parking systems as well as improve customer convenience. Some of these concepts include:

SOTW_8-1-13_PublicPkgShared Parking versus Exclusive Parking. Shared, or public, parking is available to everyone at most times, while exclusive, or private, parking is not―which makes shared parking more convenient for customers. A parking study’s occupancy survey will show that public lots will have higher, more efficient occupancy rates than private lots. It’s easy to see why. Public parking serves mixed uses (i.e., retail, office, service, entertainment, residences) and will have several peak hours spread over the course of the day: when office workers leave at 5 p.m., for example, those parking spaces are then filled by apartment dwellers returning from work, as well as people headed out to dinner. This is partly why curb parking is so desirable: it’s shared parking, and being in the public right-of-way, it does not occupy taxable land. On the other hand, after quitting time, a private parking lot that exclusively serves an office building will remain empty until the start of the following workday.

SOTW_8-1-13_AnglePkgOn-Street, Off-Street Parking and the Zoning Ordinance. On-street, curb parking in front of businesses provides opportunities for more people to park conveniently; this type of parking is “golden” and especially valued by retailers, providing that it turns over rapidly and customers use it. At least 25 percent of total parking should be curb parking.

  • Consider diagonal parking for primary streets where speeds are slow, and on side streets, as well, especially if the street seems to have excessive travel lanes. A retail-oriented traditional business district cannot have too much diagonal curb parking. Simply, it’s the best kind of parking to have. Period.
  • When considering angled parking, look at back-in angled parking. Among its many advantages: loading is from the sidewalk/curb, not next to the traffic lane; sight lines are better when exiting the space; the parking supply is greater than with parallel parking; bike lanes are better accommodated; maneuvering is easier than parallel parking; and less time is spent in the travel lane, with less delay than parallel parking. One disadvantage is that back-in angled parking takes up more space than parallel parking.

Check the local zoning ordinance for appropriate off-street parking requirements. If your ordinance requires minimum off-street parking for commercial uses in your business district, and your district seems to have ample shared parking, chances are the zoning requirement minimum is excessive. Ideally, if there is enough public parking and it’s reasonably well distributed, then there is no need for the zoning ordinance to require that commercial uses supply private off-street parking at all. An exemption from the zoning ordinance’s off-street parking requirement will greatly enhance Main Street’s ability to attract new businesses to the district, as it eliminates a substantial development cost and a layer of bureaucracy.  A parking survey will if your district has enough shared parking to exempt a minimum off-street parking requirement by showing how much parking is being generated per gross floor area. If you’re not sure, and you don’t have hard data from a parking study yet (but you plan to conduct one), consider, in the meantime, asking your elected officials to change the minimum requirement to a maximum.

SOTW_8-1-13_PkgLotShort-Term Parking, Long-Term Parking, and Parking Meters. Short-term parking is often limited to two hours and is located near businesses’ front doors. It’s meant for customers and should be enforced. Long-term parking is located farther away and intended for employees, residents, and customers on longer shopping trips. Parking lots should be accessed from side streets or the rear of blocks, not from front. They need to be clearly designated with signs and colored pavement striping. They also need adequate lighting; otherwise security-conscious employees will park in short-term zones, especially during winter months when the sun sets earlier. Enforcement of parking regulations is part of the parking management system, usually operated by the municipality or DDA, and promoted (by off-premise directional signs and in marketing materials) by the Main Street organization.

The primary purpose of parking meters is to promote customer turnover, not to provide revenue. Meters are also used to distribute limited on-street parking time equitably; to provide spaces for short-term shoppers and business clients; and to maximize the economic viability of the district by creating convenient parking. Conditions are ripe for meters when parking turnover is necessary; when the shopping district is a unique destination that attracts many people; and when the district is not surrounded by other shopping districts with free parking.

Although excessive parking, as exhibited by too many continuously empty parking spaces and underutilized parking lots during business hours, may go unnoticed by the majority of visitors to the Main Street district, this condition is a neon sign warning of a problem. Many cities use generic national standards to create local parking requirements.

SOTW_8-1-13_OregonPkgGuide_COVER“This approach,” says  a new handbook, Parking Made Easy: A Guide to Managing Parking in Your Community, produced by the Oregon Transportation & Growth Management in collaboration with Oregon Main Street, “has often yielded codes that force businesses, property owners, and developers to build more parking than is necessary…. It makes downtowns and business districts less walkable and vibrant. And it adds to our dependence on the car—with pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and other environmental problems.”

A successful parking plan, says Parking Made Easy, “creates an easily understandable system that is safe, affordable, and well-integrated into the entire transportation system.”

Parking Made Easy is available to all Main Street Network members in our Solution Center.