Between the White Lines: How much parking is enough, and how do we know if we are overbuilding?
- June 1, 2017: Vol. 4, Number 6

Between the White Lines: How much parking is enough, and how do we know if we are overbuilding?

by John Dorsett

There is a debate occurring across the United States about whether we are building too much parking. For decades, communities have mandated parking minimums as part of new developments. The concern among city planners traditionally has been that if commercial and residential developments are built without sufficient parking to serve their needs, adjacent property or the city’s parking resources will be overtaxed. If a developer builds a commercial complex without sufficient parking, for instance, where else are employees of businesses in that complex supposed to park except local streets and adjacent parking facilities? That is why cities have been so adamant through the years about requiring developers to build adequate parking. It is a property rights issue. Owners have the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor and not be burdened by an adjacent property owner who might not have built ample parking.

However, over the past decade or so, because of environmental and health concerns and the volatility of fuel sources (not to mention the political implications of relying on certain types of fuel), we have seen a major push to promote public transit and alternate transportation modes such as walking and bicycling. Moreover, transportation network companies, such as Uber and Lyft, have grown in popularity. At the same time, urban planning approaches such as New Urbanism and Complete Streets have led many communities to rethink how they approach transportation and parking planning. Many communities have transitioned from auto-centric planning, where urban plans accommodate widespread commuting via automobile, to encouraging more pedestrian traffic and alternative transportation through their downtown urban plans. These changes have led to a call among some planners and many in the press to stop building parking — or at least to cut back on how much parking we are developing.

Most recently, the impending advent of the self-driving vehicle promises to change the way Americans mobilize. Private vehicles tend to be used in bursts. We drive cars to work or to shop or other activities, park them, and do not use them again until it is time to go home. In fact, it is estimated that our vehicles sit unused up to 94 percent of the time. Experts expect self-driving vehicles to change the way we get around, anticipating that many will give up their vehicles — at least their commuting vehicle — in favor of taking car services such as Uber and Lyft. Others will continue to own their cars, but will send them home or to inexpensive satellite parking lots after getting dropped off. As a result, it is estimated that by 2040, demand for parking could drop significantly.

Clearly, all of these factors will influence parking planning and how much parking we should be expecting developers to build. In fact, they already are. The question is, for developers or investors who are active in the development market, how can you know how much parking you need?


One thing that is clear is that there are no universal solutions to parking development. Just as mandating the same levels of parking development for every new building or complex is overly simplistic and detrimental to effective urban planning, so too is not permitting sufficient development. A half-century of parking planning has taught us that cookie-cutter planning does not work because each development is unique, with its own challenges, opportunities and resources. Rather than rely on static formulas for tying parking development to the overall square footage of a project, developers should be permitted to work with local planners and regulators to determine their actual parking needs.

Parking is an essential element of any development. It does not just affect commuters, residents and other users of a building or complex. If improperly developed, parking can have a ripple effect on local roadways and residential communities. Ultimately, it can affect the quality of life for area residents and the economic vitality of the community in which the development is located.

Clearly, whenever a large development is contemplated, there are many stakeholders. The most obvious are the developer and his or her investors. But local legislative and regulatory leaders, residents and business owners also have a huge stake. As with any type of development, local leaders and developers need to be willing to work together to make sure the entire development benefits all stakeholders. Parking planning is not different.


How can regulators and developers figure out how much parking is the right amount for a given development? For most projects, the following three-step process will suffice.

Step 1: Identify the proposed types and quantities of land uses. For example, note the proposed number of hotel keys, residential units, square footage devoted to office, retail, etc., and make sure the quantities are consistent with those specified per industry standards (e.g., gross leasable area versus gross floor area). For residential developments, determine the distribution of residences by one-, two- and three-bedroom units since different living capacities of units lead to different parking generation rates. Also, determine the breakout of commercial space, distinguishing between retail shops and restaurants, including types of restaurant (e.g., fast food, family, sit-down casual, etc.). This is a particularly important distinction that is missed in some project planning efforts; it is important because restaurants can generate four to five times the parking demand that a retail shop can generate.

Step 2: Identify any reserved parking space requirements. This includes parking spaces not available for use by other land uses. For example, if 0.5 spaces per thousand square feet of office space are being reserved, 24/7 or even part of the week, for office building tenants, then these spaces must be set aside as reserved spaces. Residential uses are another frequent example of a use that can require some reserved parking spaces.

Step 3: Perform shared parking analysis recognizing that a mix of land uses can often share parking and reduce the overall parking space requirement, with the goal to right-size the parking and not build more spaces than are needed. Each use has different hourly and monthly parking patterns (e.g., hotel parking demand typically peaks at night, while office parking demand typically peaks during the day). Where appropriate, shared parking also includes downward adjustments to base parking requirements, considering the impacts of captive market effects and reliance on transportation modes that do not require a parking space. This strategy is not limited to users within a single development; there may be neighbors or adjacent developments with dissimilar parking needs, as well, and in these cases, sharing parking resources can benefit all parties. Shared parking is a particularly important strategy for reducing excessive parking development, but it often goes overlooked.

It is important for developers and their investors — not to mention the regulators with whom they are working — to remember that it is impossible to know whether we are developing too much or too little parking without evaluating the unique characteristics of the property and the area in which it is being developed. Planning approaches that are not based on specific conditions or the particular needs of developments and the communities in which they are located are unproductive. However, by following this three-step process for determining developments’ actual parking needs, developers can ensure that they are building just the right amount of parking to serve their complexes — and the surrounding community.
John Dorsett ( is a senior vice president at Walker Parking Consultants, and senior director of the firm’s Consulting Resources Group.

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