Making parking scarce and expensive is the best way to encourage people to walk, take transit and ride bicycles

By Guest Columnist MATTHEW GARBETT, a community activist who lives in Atlanta’s Adair Park

As I talk to Atlantans about transit, walkability, and parking – especially parking – I am often confronted with what I have come to call the “Tipping Point Theory of Transit.”

The theory, often summarized with a simple “We’re not there yet”, goes like this:

MARTA is a bare bones system that doesn’t go anywhere, and where it does go, it goes slowly. If we keep building the BeltLine, expanding the Streetcar, and growing MARTA, one day there will come a Tipping Point, when people will begin abandoning their cars for our finally completed system. Until we get there, however, we need to recognize reality and continue to build for cars, especially via parking.

It’s a great theory, and even better politics. We can support transit while pushing the difficult decisions off to the future. Unfortunately, it’s not true. As long as we keep building our city for cars, no matter how much transit or BeltLine we overlay on the city, we will continue to drive for the vast majority of trips.

Matthew Garbett

Matthew Garbett

At some point we will need to choose to make driving more costly. The easiest and most efficient way to do so, with the most benefits, is to dramatically reduce the amount of parking while increasing its cost.

The biggest mistake in the “Tipping Point Theory” is that the key to getting people out of their cars is to make riding transit easier. Easier than what, though? To be appealing to most “choice riders” – those who have access to a car – transit or walking do not need to be easier than they currently are; they need to be easier than driving a car.

Even in cities with extensive transit systems, getting around by transit will not get you around faster than a car.

We’re rational beings, and on a per-trip basis, cars are quicker. Fundamentally, riding transit consists of walking – up to half a mile often, waiting, riding, waiting, riding, and then walking again – often up to half a mile.

When you can step outside, hop in your car, drive, park for free, and be at your destination, which would most people choose?

It’s no surprise that in a comprehensive study of light rail systems built over the last 30 years, the number one factor correlating with reduced ridership was the availability of cheap or free parking along the route. Why ride when it’s easier to drive?

Conversely, we know that as the cost of driving becomes more expensive, more people will switch to transit. An excellent example can be seen at every home game of the Atlanta Braves as thousands of people take MARTA to the GSU station and then walk the mile to the stadium in the summer heat.

Did MARTA suddenly become better? Did walking become easier? No. The cost of driving through traffic congestion and parking costs soared dramatically, and people changed their mind accordingly.

On a larger scale, when gas prices rise, MARTA ridership increases, by as much as 6 percent. Once gas prices lower, do these additional riders who have used MARTA remain on the system? No. As soon as the cost of driving decreases, most return to their automobiles.

As long as it’s cheaper to drive than to take transit or walk, people will continue to do so. Therein lies the problem with the Tipping Point’s advocacy of continuing to build for cars while we wait for the transit and walking infrastructure to catch up: parking lots and the built environment they create and parking decks will not simply disappear because the BeltLine is completed and transit in the city is expanded.

The same factors that are encouraging us to drive now, mainly the availability of free and cheap parking, will still exist. The parking decks wrapped in apartments that have sprung up along the BeltLine’s Eastside trail will still have direct access parking for residents, the new Kroger on the BeltLine will still have a sea of parking lots in front of it asking people to drive.

The best case scenario is that the next generation of leaders will make the tough decisions and begin dealing with the legacy of parking that we are continuing to leave for them; the worst is that they will be exactly like us and drive for nearly all their trips.

So what can be done?

Quite simply we need to make parking scarcer and more expensive. To begin with, we need to remove surface parking lots as a permitted use. No, this does not mean we send crews out to be begin depaving existing lots. It simply means no new ones can be constructed and existing lots will be phased out as their lifecycle expires. The prohibition against surface parking lots is not as radical as it sounds; the city’s own Comprehensive Development Plan of 2011 recommends it.

Second, remove minimum parking requirements. It makes no sense to recognize the harmful impacts of parking while at the same time requiring their construction. Remember that the original variance requested for the Jeff Fuqua big box store along the BeltLine was for a reduction in the required minimum number of spaces. That property along our investment for a walkable future had parking requirements higher than what a big box would need is absurd. These minimums also impact the ability of smaller stores that may wish to open in mixed use neighborhoods and developments.

Third, increase the price of business fees for park for hire lots in the city. These fees, lower than $3 a space in most cases, allow institutions to bank land for far lower than the cost to the community of having a sea of parking lots.

Increasing the fees would generate revenue which could be used for transit expansion and the redevelopment of the lots, while discouraging the long term holding of land that the current system allows.

Finally, envision parking as serving a district or neighborhood, not individual locations. Parking decks, with active street front use, can effectively serve large areas, accommodating those people that choose to drive, but effectively become ‘car stops’ much as rail has a ‘train stop’, somewhat leveling the playing field between the two.

None of this is to say that automobile use will or should be phased out entirely. Cars will be a fundamental part of our transportation for the foreseeable future. This is not just about raising the price of parking or transferring people from cars to transit. Changing the way we park our cars has additional benefits that are crucial to our becoming a more walkable city.

Parking causes sprawl. The vast amounts of parking required at locations push businesses and other uses further and further apart. Free parking encourages us to drive to the grocery store, and we insist on having ample amounts of parking.

As the amount and size of our parking lots decreases, our businesses can move closer together. A business that couldn’t previously open in a neighborhood as a corner grocery because of required parking minimums could now open to serve walk-up customers.

Parking increases the prices of everything. Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking” is the definitive work on how the cost of parking is transferred to everything we buy from our groceries to our toiletries.

But perhaps most of all, parking dramatically increases the price of housing. The Transit Oriented Development proposed at the King Station will cost approximately $28 million to build. The parking deck will eat up $7.5 million of that. Fully 25 percent of the cost of development is dedicated to parking that must be recouped through rents. This people this hurts the most are those who don’t have cars and actually intend to use transit, because their rents will still be higher. This scenario is repeated across the BeltLine and anywhere medium- to high-density housing is built.

As a city we have committed to building the BeltLine and the Streetcar – a testament to our desire to become a more walkable and transit-oriented city.

But these carrots are not sufficient to change our behavior or, ultimately, to change the shape of our city to become more walkable and transit-oriented.

We can’t wait until these projects are done. Wishful thinking won’t change anything. We need to start now to change our environment and reducing the amount of parking in our city is a good place to begin.

17 replies
  1. LeMondNewbold says:

    Well stated sir. I’ll add to your list of absurdity by pointing out that as the streetcar was built, on-street parking spaces were saved or created. Flying in the face of making Edgewood and Auburn “walkable.”Report

    Reply
  2. MattW says:

    You can’t just eliminate parking and expect people to instantly conform. If you do that, then build out the transit systems, you’ll make everyone go elsewhere before the transit is in place.Report

    Reply
  3. Harry Caul says:

    The biggest challenge we face is the one you don’t really mention:  Atlanta is one of the least dense cities in the country.  By way of comparison, New York City has 28,000 people per square mile; Atlanta has 3,000.  Even Miami, which doesn’t strike most folks as a particularly dense city, has three times the density of Atlanta.  This lack of density makes fixed rail transit systems extremely difficult to build and operate in an economical way.  Having helped to build the original financial model for the BeltLine transit over a decade ago, I can tell you from personal experience that transit on the BeltLine will be very challenging to deliver in the absence of (a) much greater density along the BeltLine route than is currently being contemplated and (b) a fully built-out Peachtree Street and east-west connector network in operation prior to any BeltLine build-out.  Even with those pre-conditions, given what has happened to street car economics in the past ten years, I am not convinced you can make the numbers work.  I could be wrong.  I’d like to see the most up-to-date ABI transit business case.

    Even if you can make the transit economics work, I am not sure that attacking the problem through parking policies is the best way to go about this.  It is hard to imagine our city ever developing a mass transit system that eliminates the need for personal car use (I lived in Manhattan for years without a car, but I was never more than a few blocks from a subway stop.)  Increasing biking and trail infrastructure makes more sense to me (I was in Amsterdam a few months ago where they have more miles of bike trails than roads.  More people commute to work on bikes than in any other mode of transport).  Once ABI gets around to extending their East Side trail to Lindburgh, I fully intend on biking to work in Buckhead from Inman Park.
    If you really want to be forward thinking, get educated about driverless cars.  I just left IBM where we were working on building the software that will manage fleets of these autonomously driven vehicles.  The town of Milton Keynes north of London has already begun to put them into operation.  Think about a future where a car becomes simply a piece of personal-public transportation: you don’t need to own one, you use them on-demand, and they are fully electric.  Since personal cars are not actually in use 95% of the time, the number of cars needed to support a given population drops enormously.  Who needs parking when there is nothing to park?Report

    Reply
  4. Bob Munger says:

    Mr. Garbett makes some excellent points. A recent study of parking by the University of California Transportation Center concluded that there are roughly 5 parking spaces for every car in the USA.  Other studies have estimated that cars are typically utilized approx. 4% of the time. Meanwhile the average cost of automobile ownership, on a monthly basis, is about $650/month (inclusive of depreciation, financing, maintenance, insurance, gasoline, etc.). See Consumer Reports or AAA for sourcing.
    More numbers: There are approx. 1 billion cars in the world, expected to double by 2030 (mainly due to China and other developing nations). In the USA auto ownership has leveled off, and total vehicle miles driven has declined about 7% over the last 10 years.
    The point is, we likely have more parking spaces now in existence than we will ever use. Many millennials are rejecting car ownership and auto-dependent suburbs, and many boomers are questioning their impending entrapment in their golden years in suburbia. Carsharing and ridesharing are soaring.  The rate of auto growth in Asia almost guarantees continued high oil prices.
    The coup d’état is that surface parking lots are environmentally unsound and a prescription for urban decay. Ask Downtown Detroit (now bankrupt), which surrendered it’s historically vibrant downtown to the almighty automobile.
    Bob Munger
    Augusta Greenway Alliance
    Sustainable Urban MobilityReport

    Reply
  5. health_impact says:

    Great article Matt, although I think you are being too
    modest about MARTA. For longer trips to popular destinations or during rush
    hour, MARTA can easily be as fast or faster than driving. I can also bike
    downtown trips under 2 miles as fast as I can drive them, when you include the time used for parking.

    Parking is a fun topic because people drastically
    underestimate its cost and impact. One reason Atlanta is lower density than
    other cities is because we developed after the introduction of minimum parking
    requirements. The enormous amounts of land needed to meet parking requirements
    virtually prohibited any kind of infill development other than fast food and
    shopping centers. Most developers chose to move to the edges of the region
    where land was cheap than try to recoup the cost of acquiring extra land and
    putting up parking garages. Heck, the Fox Theater almost became a parking lot.
    At an extra $50,000 per condo or apartment for the 2
    required spaces, intown living convenient to transit became upscale and
    unaffordable for the average citizen. A few of the densest parts of town have
    seen parking become a viable business during peak demand. But for the most
    part, property owners have to lose money on parking – since it is mandatory,
    there is an oversupply, and thus no one is willing to pay for it directly
    (although nearly every financial transaction you’re involved in has the cost of
    parking baked into it – your house, your groceries, your restaurant meals – if
    your bossdidn’t have to sponsor your
    parking space, she could pay you more and let you shop around for your own
    parking or save the money). Studies have found that anywhere from 25% to 40% of
    the land in cities is being used for parking. Is there nothing else we would
    prefer to do with that land? Is that the “highest and best use”,
    especially when we really do have alternatives to driving?
    Remember, around half of all trips taken in metro areas are
    less than 3 miles – a distance that you could bike in less than 20 minutes, or
    hop on a bus or streetcar. And if the parking at the end of that short trip
    were slightly harder to find and likely to be market priced, there would be a
    lot less traffic on the road, making your bike, bus, or streetcar trip much
    faster and more pleasant.
    In fact, parking is one of the biggest “big
    government” policies you will find. It’s the total antithesis of free market,
    hands off governance. Here is the government, telling you how to use your own
    land! And nearly destroying the parking market! After all, if parking is in
    demand and worth having, why wouldn’t the market be able to satisfy that need?
    The only thing government needs to do is maybe watch out for price gouging and
    manage parking on public right-of-ways. By meddling in parking and creating
    such an enormous oversupply, our own government is making our towns less
    livable, less productive, and less efficient.Report

    Reply
  6. Native Atlanta Boy says:

    I really love these “ideas” to get people to stop driving. “Make driving more costly”?  Why not make gas $50/gal. How about $100/gal.  We have already done this by not exploring our own fuel resources.  You see you all never care about the unintended consequences that increased fuel prices have done for everything we do and buy.  That is real money!  Look Atlanta is a drive only city.  This is not a bad thing.  Driving can be great, fun and relaxing even while yelling at slow people in their Smart cars!  We are a driving community due to the growth, topography, etc.  If you like to ride a bike or walk fine, but that does not mean you have to FORCE others to be like you.  Remind me of vegetarians!  You have to force people to do things they do not want then to do.  Please let the market decide.  Why not get your buddies in Washington to sign an executive order to outlaw driving altogether?  That would be better right?
    So now I have property and I can make money by building a parking lot and you don’t like it.  Wow!  You people spent way to much time in public school and in colleges.  Try the real world please.  Mr. Garbett please do not bring your brand of Socialism here as this is (or was) a Capitalist society.  I am sure you think that man is causing the planet to warm, however, we all know that is a lie.  Free parking is great and the convenience or driving is just fine.  When you are 80 years old you will thank me for building a parking lot so you don’t have to walk in the rain a half mile to get your groceries.  And then a half mile back to the car!Report

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  7. health_impact says:

    Native Atlanta Boy Oh honey, our current transportation and land use is a giant socialist experiment. In the mid-twentieth century, they passed zoning. Sure no one wants to have a factory built next to their house, but with zoning they legislated that you have to build all the houses over here and all the offices over there. Oh, and build the stores in that other place. So much for walking anywhere. And no apartments at all, we’ve decided where people should live. Then in the 40s and 50s they created a massive jobs program with GI loans, subsidies for new home construction, and subsidies for a nationwide highway system that bulldozed intown neighborhoods. No transit, no sidewalks, no bike lanes – now we will decide how people travel, too! Choices are not permitted! Subdivision ordinances that forced developers to design new streets a certain way. Parking ordinances that forced builders and businesses to pave an acre of parking for every new store or office. No exceptions, very few variances, one size fits all regulations in every town from coast to coast. Then when the giant market failure we had created was revealed, we had the great recession as no one could afford to live and drive 50 miles from work any more. Nor do they want to; they miss Main Street and real neighborhoods and walking their kids to school. No one is going to force anyone to get rid of their parking. In fact, I hope the parking industry will recover eventually. Just get rid of a lot of these mandates and hidden subsidies, and let people live where and how they want, travel how they want, and do business as they want.Report

    Reply
  8. John Hutcheson says:

    These are very sound suggestions — many of which were made in the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately the question boils down to who pays for what benefits. People in the surrounding counties are unwilling to help pay for the benefits (use of land in the city) and our political leaders have not been courageous enough to stand up for city residents’ interests. One of the few powers that are retained by local governments in GA is land use — use it!  Is the parking lobby really that powerful? From the deal between the City and ‘Park Atlanta’ it looks as through it is.Report

    Reply
  9. TheMichaelT says:

    I am currently living in Cleveland and boy do I miss MARTA.
    The fastest speed on the RTA Red line is 12MPH.
    Only poor people (with a smattering of urbanites like myself) use Cleveland RTA.
    Man I thought I’d never say this but I really miss the diversity of people that used Marta.
    Most Cleveland buses and rapid rail cars are really dirty and nasty, Marta trains and buses look immaculate compared to Cleveland’s.
    Treat MARTA w/respect and care.
    GA you do not realize what a treasure you have………..contribute you redneck legislators.Report

    Reply
  10. WMorg says:

    Newbold <——- Commenting on your ideology here, the proper way to go would be to add on-street parking that is enforced, either by payment or restricted by time, and eliminate parking lots.  Eliminate the lots and your eliminate much larger chunks of parking.  This elimination of parking lots push people to the street where they block parking spaces at businesses and does not allow for turnover.  As a result, on-street parking spaces must be made available and properly enforced.  In other words, take daily parking away and add hourly parking, albeit in lesser quantities than that which you are removing.  This way you create a parking demand that is friendly to short term, retail or business related, folks rather that those parking all day long.  In essence, you have reduced parking spaces (end goal), but, have helped businesses.Report

    Reply

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