Let's Do Parking Right: A Look at the Evidence

Parking, like traffic, is a recurring theme in local conversation about growth and development. We often hear from some community members that there is nowhere to park in downtown Chapel Hill/Carrboro, that a lack of parking is hurting local businesses, and that the parking minimums required for the Ephesus-Fordham renewal district are insufficient.

But the facts simply don’t support these claims. The reality is that providing more parking – especially surface parking – is fundamentally incompatible with urban land uses.*

Numerous urban planning scholars have researched parking, and their research has consistently confirmed that more parking is not desirable on any metric – unless, that is, you want more people to drive and create more traffic.

For example, a 2012 study published by researchers at the University of Connecticut (CityLab coverage) found that cities which added more parking saw the number of people and the number of jobs in their cities fall – and in some cases, the area median income also fell. But in cities such as Berkeley, Arlington and Cambridge, which reduced the supply of parking, the number of people and jobs increased, along with incomes.

Underlying these findings is the key takeaway here: parking eats up a huge amount of land – land that could otherwise be used for more productive uses, such as restaurants, cafés, bars, and other types of stores and businesses. In a place such as Chapel Hill/Carrboro, with our rural buffer preventing us from growing outward and taking up more land, making the most of the land we have is of vital importance to creating a vibrant and sustainable local economy and close-knit community. Adding more parking, especially if that parking is free or priced too cheaply, is simply incompatible with that vision for our community.

Furthermore, parking minimums, especially high parking minimums, create spaces that will never be used. They also make parking easier, which encourages more people to drive rather than utilize another mode of transportation, which again, makes traffic even worse. A 2012 report from the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy analyzing parking minimums in New York City supported these findings.

And, of course, if you make parking free, the rules of basic economics take over and you get much higher demand for parking. This discourages people from taking transit or biking and instead encourages the use of cars to get downtown, making parking lots even more crowded, which some will perceive as a call to dedicate even more unproductive space to cars. (For example, just try to find a parking space in Carrboro when there’s a big concert at Cat’s Cradle.)

The thing is, none of this information is new or revolutionary. A 1998 report published in the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia Business Review talked about parking in downtown, urban areas this way:

[I]f enough people and firms still find that the dense development found in [central business districts (CBDs)] is as valuable as ever, adopting policies to increase parking is likely to be counterproductive. Rather, policies should seek to provide high-quality alternatives to driving and parking while accommodating those potential visitors and commuters who must drive, but at prices reflective of both the high value of CBD land and the costs of increased congestion associated with cars in the CBD. Basically, this means improving transit access to the CBD by broadening markets served and improving the price and quality of transit. Note that improving transit service will reduce the demand for parking, and if nothing else changes, parking prices will fall.

Another complaint I hear often at local government meetings, especially when a new student housing proposal is being heard, is that the development includes too much parking, and that students in our community shouldn’t bring cars and contribute to traffic congestion. If we don’t want students to bring cars to Chapel Hill/Carrboro, then we should be actively promoting policies that (1) make it possible to live in Chapel Hill/Carrboro without one, and (2) make it less desirable and more costly and difficult to have a car in Chapel Hill/Carrboro.

Doing this means increasing the density along major transit corridors so that access to basic goods and services, such as groceries and household necessities, becomes possible. It means enhancing our transit system to provide more frequent, reliable service during all hours of the day. And it means making parking more difficult by providing less of it – and pricing parking appropriately. If the concern is that there aren’t enough parking spaces at, say, Ephesus-Fordham for new developments, straightforward on-street parking restrictions (hour limits, residential permits, or pricing) can be implemented.

Getting parking policy right is critical to moving Chapel Hill and Carrboro forward toward a more urban, walkable future. We can’t let an obsession with driving and parking and traffic limit the vision for what our community can be in the future and paralyze us with fear – especially given the empirical evidence that clearly says denser, urban areas with less parking perform far better on nearly every metric than automobile-dependent areas. Downtowns 15 years ago were different from downtowns today, so let’s recognize that and chart a path forward for downtown rather than get stuck on how it used to be.


* When I talk about urban places and land uses, I don’t mean a huge city with skyscrapers and millions of people like New York City. I use the same definition for urban as Patrick McDonough has eloquently described on his blog: If you live, work or visit somewhere that numerous people regularly walk from one place to another for a variety of reasons other than recreation or exercise, then you are living in, working in, or visiting an urban place.



I've long thought the main problem with parking in downtown Chapel Hill is discoverability. There are enough spaces, but they're split among many different lots, and once you get into a parking lot looking for a space, you can get caught behind other cars waiting for people to pull out. Some sort of real-time parking availability display would be helpful. Charging different prices for different lots — more for those closer to the core of Franklin Street, less for those on Rosemary — might help as well. The plethora of private lots don't help either, as they make things confusing for more casual visitors to Franklin Street.

Also, with respect to the underground parking at 140 West Franklin, one of the key problems is that there's public parking there in the first place. Subterranean parking is by far the most expensive to build and maintain, and there's no way that it could be financially sustainabile given the rates the Town charges for parking downtown. The surface parking there simply shouldn't have been replaced.


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