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How Much Parking Do You Need?

Probably the single most common question that I’m asked is some variation of, “How much parking do I need?”

Sometimes it’s a question about a new development that needs to satisfy some archaic requirement: “How many spaces do I need to build, and is there any way to reduce that since they’re so unbelievably expensive to construct?” Other times, it’s related to what it might take to solve some existing parking problem: “How many spaces do we need to fix the mess on Southeast Division once and for all?”

My response, however the question might arrive, is always the same: “It depends. What’s the cost attached to that parking?”

See, the single most important thing to understand about parking is that, though it’s managed like a piece of civil infrastructure, parking behaves more like an economic resource. Like other commodities, parking is subject to the laws of supply-and-demand—this is essentially the plot of Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking”—and so the less the end cost to the user, the greater the demand will be. The latest research has made us more confident in this assessment than ever.

Consider, then, how silly it is to manage parking exclusively as civil infrastructure. Often, we require new developments to construct enough new off-street parking to meet its peak demand load, just as we require them to, say, build a big enough pipe to meet its peak sewage flow. One might argue that  requiring enough parking to serve the peak expected demand makes sense (at least empirically; it makes less sense once you start to consider induced demand), and it certainly has an element of fairness to it. But most of the time, there’s an important if unspoken caveat: No user will ever be asked to pay for that parking.

When we ignore cost as a parameter, we ignore by extension the commodity-like aspects of parking. Of course, parking still behaves like a commodity, so we’ve inadvertently created market conditions where oodles and oodles of free parking drive demand to irrational levels. Illustrated, it looks like this:

Of course, it’s important to consider the infrastructure ramifications of parking too; indeed, these have a drastic effect on all other aspects of the transportation system, and on the greater street culture and livability of a neighborhood. But it’s through studying parking through an economic lens that many of the most interesting management opportunities present themselves, and where the question of how much parking is needed starts to become rife with complexities and nuance…

Intersections in the Wild

If you want to understand transportation and its role in a city, and understand it deeply, the best way is to spend some time watching intersections.

To get the most out of it, you’ve really got to dig in and watch those intersections. You’ve got to go slow and be deliberate in your observations, so find yourself a comfortable place with a good vantage point to sit or stand. Start by looking at at the built environment around the intersection, noting land uses, densities, architectural elements, and the like. Move on to the physical infrastructure, and observe the curb lines, lane configurations, and traffic control. Note any signage, intersection-related or otherwise, as well as lighting, ambiance, and the overall sense of place. Are there any other functional or aesthetic objects, like hydrants, refuse bins, street trees, or planters? Note which travel modes utilize the intersection. How are various modes accommodated? Are there ramps and marked crosswalks for people walking and rolling, or some kind of protection for people cycling? If transit uses the intersection, is there a stop nearby or does it breeze on through?

When you’re satisfied with your diligence in observing physical aspects, move on to the real fun: Watching the intersection work. If there’s a traffic signal, start by watching that for a few cycles, noting how bandwidth is distributed, the length of yellow and all-red times, and how long it takes to cycle through the phases. Watching the car traffic, note volumes for each approach and each turning possibility. Observe the makes and models of cars, and the demographics of the occupants. How many people are driving alone and how many have company? Similarly, observe demographics and group dynamics of people walking, people riding bikes, people skateboarding and unicycling, or whatever. Look at desire lines, particularly for people walking or cycling, as they enter, traverse, and leave the intersection. Watch the modes interact. Look for safety issues, whether real or imagined by users. If possible, cross the intersection on foot yourself, or ride through it on a bike, or drive through it in a car. Since it’s The Future, look for Uber/Lyft tags on cars, and note the share of drivers who are distracted. And on and on. Then come back and do it all again on a different day, or at a different time of day, or at the same time in different weather.

Do this enough, of course, and you come to understand a lot more about an intersection than merely how the traffic moves through it. You also start to see it for its role in the neighborhood and the city in which it sits, and you understand the city itself better as a result. So the simple act of watching an intersection is one of the most fulfilling ways to satisfy your inner-urbanist, in all of its richness.

In this era of alternative facts, where narratives come first and reality is adjusted as needed to fit them, the art of shutting up and observing something seems to be fading. I’ve seen accordingly little writing on this sort of thing in the media or the wonkosphere, so it seems a ripe topic for expounding upon in the hopes that it can add to the broader transportation conversation. So you’ll be seeing a lot of posts exploring Intersections in the Wild (for lack of a catchier phrase or more obvious pun) on these pages moving forward, delving into the minutiae at varying depths. I do hope you’ll read along and join in when the spirit moves you. We shall start next week, with the first of many dispatches from the most interesting intersection in Portland…

Streets in the Trump Era: A Mission Statement of Sorts

I am beyond delighted to be starting 2017 with a new blog and website highlighting the work of the StreetLab, an upstart division of Lancaster Engineering that we launched late last year in order to better respond to the increasingly multi-disciplinary nature of transportation problems. As you might know, I’ve been writing about transportation issues for many years as a contributor to Portland Transport and before that on my old blog Half the Fun. One of my goals in launching this site was to get all of the writing under the same virtual roof as my professional practice, and I’ve been eager to use this forum to start some important conversations about transportation in Portland at a moment I see as a crossroads.

And then November 8, 2016 happened.

As important as I think topics like parking management, Vision Zero planning, and active transportation are to the future of cities, they certainly don’t seem as urgent now as they did a few months ago. As much as I’d love to think about optimizing parking pricing, my thoughts instead drift to my many friends who are frightened for their very existence. Consequently, I’ve struggled with what forms my work and my writing ought to take in the age of Trump in order to best create the change I want to see.

The transportation professions might well be less impacted than most because we’ve made so little progress over the last several decades. Even in Portland, a city that is ahead of the curve by any estimation, progress on the major fronts of safety and sustainability have come in fits and starts when they’ve come at all. The politics around many of these issues have long been toxic, and if you’ve ever been to a public meeting where parking or bikes came up, you were hearing your share of #alternativefacts well before Kellyanne Conway gave them a name. And lest we forget, it was barely a year and a half ago that a bunch of kids literally jumped off a bridge to keep the wildly missed former POTUS from letting Royal Dutch Shell pillage the Arctic. So Big Oil has been gettin’ it done for a while now; having one of their own in a Cabinet post is a mere formality. The path in front of us has always been steep, and Trump only serves to steepen it by a degree. Change will happen at the local level, as it always has, and it will happen in spite of massive systemic opposition from the state and federal bureaucracies, as it always has.

In that sense, Trump’s election might well represent an opportunity. His presidency is so threatening to so many that the levels of political engagement that are occurring, particularly among young people, are like nothing I’ve seen in my life. You know where I’ve really noticed that conversations were changing? On the bus, that fantastic mechanism that does double duty as both a mode of transport and a community gathering place. A year ago, conversations among millennial riders took up the Super Bowl or Grammys. Last week, by contrast, I overheard two young riders mistaking Lincoln Chafee for Jason Chaffetz until a third young rider interrupted to help sort it out.

This energy has manifested in some profoundly important ways on the streets. Taking to the streets in protest of politics gone awry is perhaps the most American activity one can engage in, and it’s been inspiring to see Portlanders setting an example for the country with frequent and boisterous protests. But I’ve been disappointed—appalled, really—at how our police force and our new mayor has reacted to them. The riot gear, the overzealous use of force, the arrests of children and seniors—that’s not who we are as a city. And one thing that really has grabbed my attention is the fact that the crackdown has taken place ostensibly out of a desire to keep traffic moving. Watching it all unfold, one might reasonably assume that it was unfettered mobility rather than free assembly that our Founders ensconced as a cherished and protected activity.

Though appalled, I am not surprised, because I have been fighting these battles throughout my career. The notion that streets—urban streets, even—are first and foremost meant for the conveyance and storage of automobiles is one that is so widely held that it has become the default starting point for all conversations. It’s a strange and temporary delusion owing to the fact that we’re right about at “peak car,” give or take, and so car culture is as prominent as its ever been and most decision makers grew up in an era where they were inundated with it. But this viewpoint has become so widely accepted that it hasn’t generated much thought or attention outside of the transportation wonkery. Since the election of Trump and the resulting protests, though, I’ve seen the purpose of our streets emerge as a prominent topic of conversation everywhere from my Twitter feed to my wine bar. I still disagree with more people than I agree with, but we’re having those conversations now, and widely.  In moments of crisis, opportunities abound.

It is thus more important and more relevant than ever to ask these questions: What are the highest and best uses of our streets, and how should we prioritize all of the myriad potential uses relative to one another? What sorts of designs and policies will it take to achieve these outcomes? With which metrics do we determine our successes and failures? How much is all of this going to cost, and how will we pay for it? And perhaps most importantly, how does our approach to our streets impact our larger public life? Which communities are we serving well, and which are we failing?

These are tough questions, and how cities answer them will go a long way to determining which ones ascend and which are left behind. I hope that we at StreetLab can help Portland and others approach these questions with sober, data-driven analyses that are properly focused on the intersections (ahem) of transportation policy with equity, economics, and livability. Though I’m terrified about the political environment that we find ourselves in, it’s clear that these politics make this sort of work more important than ever.


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