350_parking_coverParking Management for Smart Growth
Richard W. Willson
Island Press
2000 M Street NW, Suite 650
Washington, DC 20036
2015. 256 pages. Paperback, $40.00.

A quick reading of Parking Management for Smart Growth leaves even the casual reader with an overwhelming sense of the compelling logic for more rational parking policies to support better development. It is surprising, therefore, that communities with significant implementation of such policies can be counted on one hand—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and possibly Washington, D.C.

The author is Richard Willson, professor and chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, who also wrote the 2013 book Parking Reform Made Easy. He is one of the few researchers on parking policy—a field critical to implementing smart growth yet until recently ignored by most researchers.

How did American communities end up in this situation? Willson attributes the inertia to a “set it and forget it” mentality: local parking regulations were established a long time ago, during a period of growing automobile ownership and suburban development, and never revisited.

Parking spaces in prime locations are often provided at great expense by developers and given away free. The result is excessive land and investment devoted to parking, higher development and business costs, and subsidized driving—all contrary to expressed public policies in most places. Transit-oriented developments often fall under local codes requiring parking ratios so excessive as to make them financially unfeasible.

Fixing this requires a strategic approach that recognizes the existing policies of communities and their comfort level with changes, as well as engagement with the stakeholders needed to make changes.

Where should communities and local businesses start? Willson’s approach to strategic parking management recognizes that most communities have little sophistication in this field and offers a range of ideas to improve efficiency.

One of his most important ideas is to engage critical stakeholders—planners, traffic engineers, developers, businesses, and residents—with the goal of creating a centralized authority determining parking policy and a consensus plan for a specific district. The aim is to improved efficiency and user satisfaction, not to punish drivers.

A starting point involves better regulation of time limits for different groups of motorists using parking for different reasons; it may not even deal with pricing—the holy grail of parking management because it applies basic economics demand curves. Basic pricing decisions focus on which spaces—on and off the street—should be metered, when they should be metered, and what the charges should be. Advanced strategic management emphasizes providing parking at the right prices at the right times in order to avoid having drivers cruise for spaces. This can be done by ensuring that there will be a few spots in almost every block, and perhaps even offering information technology to help link drivers and spaces.

Who would be against such meritorious approaches? No one, it would seem, which is why Willson emphasizes implementation, especially engaging individual citizens who show up at city council meetings to complain about parking and threaten to avoid merchants if there is no free parking. He offers the example of Ventura, California, which proposed a curb pricing program—a free-market approach to manage scarce resources by charging prices that would reduce demand to manageable levels. However, it was opposed by the Ventura County Patriots Tea Party as “big government” taking away freedom, and the plan was subsequently dropped.

This book should be on the shelves of any planning department and local traffic department that has a parking problem, and probably those that do not.

Robert T. Dunphy is a ULI emeritus fellow, Georgetown University adjunct professor, and transportation consultant.