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How to Fix Parking Problems

Posted on Nov 01, 2018 in Urban Design , Mark Schnell , Parking , November-December 2018

In honor of the “rock star of parking” visiting Seaside in the near future, it’s time to look again at the issues surrounding parking.

“Rock star of parking” may seem like a questionable nickname. After all, how can one be both a rock star (or maybe superstar, for a better term) and an expert in the supposedly mundane subject of parking? The answer is surprisingly simple: make people think differently about an important subject that affects nearly all of us. That’s exactly what Donald Shoup has done, and that’s why he’s the rock star of parking.

Dr. Donald Shoup is Distinguished Research Professor of Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. He is the author of two influential books on the subject of parking: “The High Cost of Free Parking,” which was published in 2005, and “Parking and the City,” which was published this year.

In “The High Cost of Free Parking,” and in many speaking appearances since then, Shoup made three primary recommendations: local governments should eliminate off-street parking requirements, charge fair market prices for on-street parking, and spend the revenue to benefit the metered neighborhoods.

Shoup’s approach has jump- started a nationwide movement to reconsider parking regulations. One by one, communities are implementing his recommendations. Some communities implement all of them, and others implement some of them. Some local governments have changed parking policies for certain areas — often their historic downtowns.

Should the Walton County government, as well as some of the county’s larger communities, implement his recommendations? Absolutely. It’s at least worth a try. I think we’ll find that it’s a much better way to regulate parking.

There is an idea about parking that seems to be engrained in the American psyche (or, more specifically, the American psyche outside of our most dense cities): people think that a parking space should always be open and available to them at every destination. (And, of course, it should be located directly in front of the door.) I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. This expectation shapes the way that we regulate parking, and those regulations have had a terrible effect on our communities.

This effect is most pronounced in a place like Seaside. I’m perpetually amazed at a driver’s response when they can’t find a parking space. Never mind that they chose to visit a very popular place. Never mind that they visited at a busy time of day (such as early evening) or time of year (such as spring break). No, if one cannot find a parking space, then there is simply “not enough parking.”

I’m not trying to downplay the frustration one experiences when searching in vain for a parking space. It’s not fun, and it’s fair to be disappointed. But here’s the thing: you don’t have a God-given right to a parking space.

So what constitutes “enough” parking? This is the question that fuels the very imprecise parking minimums in place in most communities.

How to Fix Parking Problems

Donald Shoup and his book Parking and the City

Government-mandatedparking minimums on private land are based on the maximum parking scenario: the day of the year when the maximum number of cars will need to park in a given place. This is most infamously apparent at shopping malls, where the parking minimums target one day of the year: Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. Most of that parking sits empty the rest of the year. It’s an incredibly wasteful policy, and it favors national chain retailers who can afford to build expensive parking lots versus the small businesses who cannot afford such an expense.

Most importantly, those giant empty parking lots prevent everyone involved from building a place that anyone wants to inhabit. They create a destructive cycle where pedestrians and cyclists abandon a place in favor of cars, and this of course, creates the need for more parking. These “parking craters” (as they are called sometimes in our downtowns) nibble away at the edges of good development, because nobody wants to spend any time within or adjacent to a giant parking lot.

And here’s the especially interesting part: Those shopping mall parking lots are not even full on Black Friday any more (and many, if not most, never were). This is, in part, because people are not spending as much time or money in malls. Retail is changing, with more and more people shopping either online or in mixed-use Main Streets where the experience is much better.

The places that are extremely popular and desirable are almost always those without giant parking lots. They are the great walkable mixed-use streets and neighborhoods. These places find ways to spread out the parking in a less offensive way: on-street parking for the most part, along with small parking lots. The design of Seaside is a model for how to do this. The major concentrations of parking around Central Square and Smolian Circle feel more like streets than parking lots. Residential parking is largely in the form of on-street parking and narrow driveways.

Several communities around the country, including fast-growing Seattle, have eliminated parking minimums in certain areas or circumstances.

So, if the plan is to park more cars on the street, or in public parking lots and structures, what are people doing in these popular places to deal with the flood of drivers looking to park? In the most successful cases, they are doing exactly as Donald Shoup suggests.

Here’s one example: San Francisco has tested, and is now fully implementing, a demand-based system for on-street parking. In this system, parking meter rates go up or down based on demand. Meter rates run between 50 cents per hour and eight dollars per hour. The intention is to encourage faster turnover in crowded streets and areas, and push some of the drivers to use other parking that’s slightly less convenient. The goal of the demand pricing is to always have some available parking spaces. It helps to reduce the congestion caused by people circling to find a space. Interestingly, San Francisco found that average rates went down by 10 cents per meter, which is proof that the system was truly aimed at parking management rather than revenue generation.

Of course, parking has always been free in South Walton, so there would be some initial shock among visitors and residents of South Walton on the day they started to pay for parking. (It’s worth noting, too, that there’s really no such thing as free parking. We all pay for it indirectly when a business or residence is required to provide off-street parking.)

But, if it works as well as it has in San Francisco, I’m confident that people here would be willing to pay the cost. At some point, paying a dollar or two for parking beats circling and circling for a parking space. The details of such a system would need to be worked out, but it’s certainly viable for South Walton, or at least parts of it.

And thanks to Shoup’s third recommendation, the revenue could go back into improvements in the immediate vicinity. The parking fees should fund new sidewalks, bike lanes, street trees, parks, and so on. The end result would be a more beautiful and livable place.

Thanks to my experiences as an urban designer, I can attest to the damaging effects of parking on our communities. The current requirements for parking truly drive urban form, and not in a positive way. Parking is a necessary evil, but it doesn’t need to wreak havoc. It’s time that we take some advice from the “rock star of parking” and make parking work better for all of us.

Mark Schnell is an urban designer based in Seagrove Beach. Among his most prominent projects are three New Urban beach communities on the Texas coast: Cinnamon Shore, Palmilla Beach, and Sunflower Beach. Learn more about his firm Schnell Urban Design at