Calculating your parking needs
In the early 1990s, Spokane wanted to revitalize its downtown to attract more visitors and businesses. Planners hired consultants to evaluate the city’s parking situation and to study the feasibility of expanding downtown parking.
Based on the consultants’ recommendations, the city decided to expand a downtown parking structure by 75 percent. The non-profit Spokane Downtown Foundation sold $31 million in bonds to pay for the renovation, and the city guaranteed the bonds.
Spokane expected the parking structure to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars above cost each year, and it planned to deposit the money directly into city coffers. Instead, the garage failed to recoup the cost of the debt service.
When the Spokane Downtown Foundation asked the city for help, the city balked. The result was a huge legal, financial and political mess that led to the firing of the city manager and, eventually, to Moody’s Investors Service downgrading the city’s bond rating, a move that could end up costing the city millions of dollars on future bond issues.
What went wrong? There are several possible answers, but it appears that planners relied too heavily on national planning data in drawing usage conclusions and largely ignored factors such as local usage patterns and area parking prices. As a result, when the renovations were completed, the garage offered more parking spaces than were warranted and at too high a cost. Parkers stayed away from the garage, and the city is paying the price now.
Consult many sources
Parking planning can play a direct role in the success of a city’s traffic management, the health of its businesses and the level of satisfaction experienced by residents and visitors. Poor parking planning can have disastrous results: Traffic can become gridlocked, urban businesses may have trouble competing with suburban companies, in-town residents can get fed up with searching for parking spaces every time they return home, and, in the worst cases, municipal credit ratings can suffer. Conversely, cities that can provide sufficient parking spaces will create satisfied residents and businesses.
Calculating where to locate parking spaces, how many spaces are needed, and how much to charge parkers is a complex process involving multiple variables. To determine the values of those variables, planners can draw on a number of resources.
Some national data is available that can provide a general idea of parking needs across the country. The Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) produces data that can prove invaluable as a starting point for parking planning. However, the ITE resources clearly state that the guidelines are based on limited samples, and they should not be considered the final word.
The most definitive research parking planners can conduct is on the local level. The first step in gaining a better understanding of parking needs is to break the city into zones. In many cases, those zones already exist as separate entities, such as neighborhoods or business districts.
Once separate zones have been established, planners can collect information, including both empirical and scientific data. To gain the necessary information, planners can:
Survey business owners. Business owners have a better understanding than anyone else of who their customers are and what their customers’ parking needs are.
Evaluate local mass transit and determine how it affects parking needs. It is not enough to know how many business customers or employees come into a particular section of the city each day; planners also must understand how they are getting there. Mass transit is intended to reduce the number of drivers, and planners must be able to quantify its impact on parking requirements.
Understand how climate affects parking needs. Does the city have predominantly warm weather that permits shoppers and employees to walk to certain parts of town? Or does the city’s frequent inclement weather force them to drive?
Evaluate the types of drivers. Shoppers are more likely to be short-term parkers, while employees of local businesses are more likely to need long-term parking.
Evaluate usage times. In areas where various businesses and organizations are located, parking can be shared. For instance, churches experience their greatest parking needs on weekends, while businesses need parking on weekdays. A partnership between the two could offer an opportunity to share parking facilities. As a result, fewer parking spaces are needed, and the city can save money.
Determine how much parkers are willing to pay. There is no single formula for calculating how much patrons will be willing to pay for parking; circumstances and driver behavior differ from city to city. As a rule, planners should consider the elasticity of demand when pricing parking. Additionally, they must consider the difference between projecting prices for stand-alone structures and parking facilities that are part of a larger system.
Cities should not set prices with an eye towards filling municipal coffers. The goal should be for the parking structure or system to be self-sufficient. Any surpluses from parking operations should first be earmarked for a repair and replacement fund, even if such a fund is not mandated. Remaining surpluses should then be placed in a parking improvement fund.
Success in Charlottesville
|Land Use||Charlottesville Model||Charlottesville Zoning||Institute of Transportation Engineers|
|Residential (per unit)||1.70||1.00-10.00 (varies)||1.21|
|Hotel (per room)||0.88||1.00||0.52|
|Special 1 — Community Use||0.45||13.33||0.43|
|Planners studying Charlottesville’s parking needs have relied on locally gathered data (1) to determine how many parking spaces are needed for different types of buildings. The data varies significantly from the data provided by the Charlottesville Zoning Ordinance (2) and the Institute of Transportation Engineers Parking Manual (3). Calculations are based on 1,000 square feet of gross floor area. For example, a 10,000-square-foot office building with a ratio of 3.2 needs 32 parking spaces.|
In stark contrast to Spokane, Charlottesville, Va., relied heavily on locally gathered data to design a new parking structure downtown. In 1993, the city hired a parking planning firm to conduct a parking study specific to one site. The study examined the parking requirements of the downtown area to determine how much parking was needed and what type of parking structure would be most successful.
The Charlottesville study hinged on two key factors: past parking demand within the city and local economic analysis. The study included analysis of existing data in conjunction with interviews of area business owners and civic leaders.
Based on the findings of the study, the planners developed demand and revenue projections that greatly enhanced the prospect of success for the new structure. The results of the study led planners to develop a 624-car, mixed-use parking structure featuring retail and office space.
The development and subsequent operation of the mixed-use parking structure has been so successful that Charlottesville has undertaken a comprehensive parking demand analysis for the entire city. The study, which is currently under way, includes the analysis of approximately 100 blocks of the downtown area, and it is examining the likely impact of new parking areas in sustaining economic growth and the vitality of downtown Charlottesville. When the study is completed, planners will be able to recommend sites for future parking facilities and provide guidelines for the development of new garages.
As Charlottesville shows, municipal planners can avoid parking problems by carefully studying all aspects of the city’s parking needs. Relying on cookie-cutter solutions can create repercussions as extreme as lowering a municipal bond rating or causing a city to default on debt. Parking plans must reflect a municipality’s distinct characteristics and requirements.
John Revell is a parking planner for Southfield, Mich.-based Rich & Associates, and Richard Rich is the firm’s director of parking planning.