5 Tips for Tackling Local Parking Debates

Jim Charlier, President of Charlier Associates, Inc., is a transportation planner based in Denver. He is known for innovations in community-based planning that directly links land use and transportation in a strategic framework driven by community objectives. His municipal transportation master plans serve as national prototypes for addressing economic vitality, quality of life, public health and sustainability in transportation programs and projects.


“Gimme control of parking and I will rule the world!”

This 1988 quip, by a popular South Florida elected official, exemplifies how many of us feel about the outsized role vehicle parking plays in local planning and community development. Parking frustrates municipal efforts to develop affordable housing. Parking prevents us from installing bike lanes on certain streets, even when the need is clear. Parking is the reason we can’t walk to the grocery store without crossing an unpleasant, dangerous sea of asphalt.

Cities and towns struggle to make progress on parking issues. That’s not because they lack technical expertise. Just about any local planner can go to a website, download a shared parking manual, and do a good job of calculating a shared parking reduction. It’s a little complicated, but it’s not rocket science.  The reason municipalities struggle with parking management is they are too focused on details and fail to establish a sound policy platform to work from.

Here are five principles that cities and towns can use to lower the temperature of parking debates, facilitate actual implementation of technical solutions, and improve public perceptions of municipal government.

1. Show Me The Data

Most debates about parking take place in fact-free settings.  Perceptions rule the day. (Perceptions are like pets: you have yours and I have mine.)  It can be almost impossible to have a rational discussion about parking in the absence of current, relevant data.  Yet, few cities or towns set parking objectives or monitor parking system performance. The result is few municipalities are able to accurately describe what is actually happening with their parking supply. Routine, properly-conducted parking audits (more on this below) are inexpensive and provide the public, staff and leadership with a coherent set of facts, setting the stage for informed, productive discussion. There always will be disagreements and controversy, but having reliable data reduces unnecessary debate and facilitates decision making.

2. Nobody Likes Enforcement

The driving public has been trained to see parking rules and enforcement as rude intrusions into personal freedom. And the municipality itself is often conflicted. A police chief will say: “We are fighting crime and you want us to take time to issue parking citations?”  Merchants survive on narrow revenue margins and may be worried about driving customers away. Finally, city council members have to run for office every two years and may be fearful of angry drivers.

So, for once, we can all agree on something: we don’t like parking enforcement!

But rules (time limits, no parking zones, etc.) that are not enforced are a public nuisance and damage municipal credibility. Enforcement is essential and should be:

  • competent (if you violate, you definitely will get a ticket);
  • friendly (we don’t need a law officer carrying a gun to write tickets); and,
  • technology-enabled (chalking tires and hand-writing tickets is so 1960s).

 3. Focus on Solving Problems

Managing parking often requires solving site-specific problems. Common examples:

  • “We have time limits and effective enforcement. But, where are our employees supposed to park? It’s hard enough to recruit and retain good employees without forcing them pay for parking tickets.”
  • “We have visitors driving RVs and SUVs towing trailers and boats that take up multiple spaces in front of stores. We want their business, but how do we get them to park elsewhere?”
  • “People park on this street to ride the bus to work. We want them to take the bus, but they are occupying parking spaces we need for customers. What do we do?”
  • “We have 2-hour parking limits, but some people want to shop and have lunch, which takes longer than that. Those are our best customers. How can we accommodate them and still ensure adequate parking for all shoppers?”

Such problems can drown out other parking issues and discourage progress. But they all have solutions: other communities have solved them. Many cities and towns debate parking issues for years without committing to solving them. To overcome these barriers, work with city council to adopt formal policies of: “bias for action” and “willingness to experiment.” To lower risks associated with trying out solutions, identify several potential solutions and test them logically. Explain clearly to the public what you are trying to do and why. Look for low-cost and temporary measures. Collect before and after data and report results. Resist hasty decisions to increase parking supply.

4. It’s a Multimodal System

Public parking cannot be managed as a stand-alone issue. Parking is part of local circulation and local circulation is a process, not a thing. Research shows that availability of ample, free parking at work reduces transit commuting dramatically. Trying to have robust transit ridership and lots of convenient, free parking at the same time is expensive and ineffective.

Similarly, if customers don’t feel safe walking or if they have to cross a barrier street to get where they’re going, they’ll get back in their cars and drive to the next destination – even those only a block or two away.  Shopping and employment areas without convenient bicycle parking (most places in the Western states) are actively discouraging bicycling, which leads to more driving, which increases parking demand.

This is not just an idea, it’s a management principle. Reconciling parking demand with your overall transportation program is good planning. Funny how seldom we do it.

5. Be Realistic and Strategic

Parking management benefits from clarity about expectations. There is no set of parking “solutions” that will make all the people “happy.”  Complaining about parking is a birthright and national pastime for us. Keeping average turnover rates above 1.25 vehicles/hour and peak utilization below 85% may be reasonable objectives. Making certain that everybody is pleased is not.

It is important to discuss this, frankly, with city council up front. Once you have established objectives, you can design your action plan, experiment and implement, and monitor your results. Most cities and towns have steady turnover in their elected bodies. An annual presentation—“here is our plan and here is how it is going”—can help you stay on course.

Public parking is like any valuable asset: we can’t just build it and walk away. It must be managed, strategically and proactively.

Coming Soon: The DIY Parking Audit Toolkit

Community Builders, working with Charlier Associates, is developing a Parking Audit Toolkit. Parking audits include three elements that any municipality—even small towns with limited resources—can conduct without having to hire consultants.

These are:

  • preparing inventories (up-to-date, mapped inventories of parking spaces);
  • conducting utilization counts (measuring how many vehicles are present); and,
  • developing action plans.

We will provide a set of text and spreadsheet tools, including protocols for setting up parking space inventories and conducting parking utilization counts. In a future phase, we will develop and make available a mobile device app for use in conducting the utilization counts.

Watch the Community Builders website for more information in the future as the Parking Audit Toolkit comes together. If you have comments or suggestions for the Parking Audit Toolkit, please send an email with your ideas to Bud Tymczyszyn at: with “Parking Audit Toolkit” in the subject line.

  • Transportation