Parking management – an unlikely economic development tool

By Mary Ebeling

During the era of interstate highway construction, and the resulting demographic shift from city to suburb, municipalities worked to provide auto access to their downtowns, hoping this access would support economic growth. However, mounting evidence shows that greater automobile access came at the expense of the very economic vibrancy cities sought and does not help reduce roadway congestion. Costs associated with accommodating cars, particularly for parking, are outweighed by the long-term economic costs. In response, cities are beginning to develop strategies for managing automobile access in ways that support downtown resiliency. A surprise actor in this drama is parking infrastructure. Parking, whether on-street, structured, or in surface lots, demands enormous amounts of real estate, and often results in unusable public spaces, building tear-downs, and other undesirable outcomes that harm the potential for a vibrant local economy.

Recent research shows cities that focus on auto access experience a decline in economic activity and lack of vibrancy, suggesting a policy of prioritizing cars often fails as an economic development tool for urban areas. Municipalities with excess parking do increase driving into and within the city, but the increase in income disparity between urban core and suburban areas shows how this policy may pose equity issues.

Chart: Atlantic Cities: Cars and Robust Cities Are Fundamentally Incompatible

What are some responses to poorly managed car parking? Leading edge practice demonstrates the importance of parking management for economic development and transportation demand management. Parking is never free but two examples in particular suggest that context-appropriate parking management programs can achieve surprising results in mitigating congestion and improving downtown vibrancy.

Mexico City, which recently won the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s (ITDP) Sustainable Transport award, recorded impressive decreases in traffic congestion downtown while simultaneously improving pedestrian and transit modes. As part of its congestion mitigation, Mexico City targeted streets in the historic downtown district for new parking management technologies. The changes to parking availability proved successful and became an integral part of the effort. The program – ecoParq – manages the availability and pricing of parking spaces on designated streets. The city also reduced the number of available spaces at the same time. These efforts have been so successful that residents in other neighborhoods in the city are clamoring to have ecoParq installed where they live.

In partnership with USDOT, the San Francisco Bay-Area Urban Partnership Agreement (UPA) has taken on the issue of roadway congestion in the metro area. The UPA’s work focuses broadly on congestion mitigation in the larger urban area. One of the key tools developed for San Francisco is variable pricing for parking. Part of the area-wide congestion mitigation project, SFpark dynamically sets prices for on- and off-street parking to reduce congestion related to the “cruising” for parking phenomenon.

Managing car parking does not amount to an anti-auto outlook or policy. Simply put, cities working to manage car parking are hoping to offer multi-modal transportation options that make for a vibrant urban life.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.