National Geographic News
Bicycles in Amager Square in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Copenhagen has been a leader in parking reform, and now some cities in North America are latching on to the idea of reducing or capping parking for cars.

Photograph by Marco Cristofori, Alamy

Josie Garthwaite

For National Geographic News

Published July 13, 2011

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Bit by bit, for the past 40 years, the city of Copenhagen has done something revolutionary: The Danish capital has reduced its parking supply. Cutting the total number of parking spaces by a small percentage each year stands in stark contrast to the more common pattern of cities adding more and more parking to accommodate private cars.

But in a few pockets around the world, momentum is growing behind efforts to bump out large parking lots, curbside parking, and garages in favor of services and infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transportation.

“There’s no demand for parking, per se,” said parking policy expert Rachel Weinberger, assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. “There’s demand for access to a location.” If a private car is the only way to access a given restaurant, shopping center, workplace, or neighborhood, she argued, then “that translates to demand for parking.”

Cities around the world are recognizing that managing parking is an effective, if indirect, means of addressing concerns about energy and traffic congestion—indeed, climate change. In fact, according to research from the Paris-based firm Sareco, people choose their mode of transportation for urban trips based on the parking conditions at their origin and destination.

(Related: “With a Deep Dig Into Its Past, Perguia Built an Energy-Saving Future”)

A Funeral in Paris

Of course, parking restrictions are far from universally popular, especially at first. “Developers would like more parking rather than less,” said Ross Moore, who since 2001 has headed up research for the influential annual parking survey from commercial real estate firm Colliers International. “There’s a mood, especially on the public sector side, to limit parking and discourage cars downtown.”

Cinching the belt around parking “generally increases the cost of doing business,” Moore added. After all, parking is “one of the purest markets around.” When a garage operator sees a facility fill up, “rates go up almost immediately.” And somebody has to foot the bill, said Moore—either employers, or employees, who will in turn demand higher compensation.

The fact is, in North America at least, “we live in a car culture,” said Moore. That can change, and indeed, is already changing due to higher gas prices, he said. But the “infrastructure, or lack of infrastructure,” for getting around without a car “has to be addressed.”

In one of the more colorful examples of opposition to parking reform, locals in Montparnasse staged a “funeral procession” for the Paris neighborhood a few years back. Believing that the loss of parking spots (to make room for a bus corridor) would kill local businesses, they waved flags reading, “Le Mort de Montparnasse,” or “The Death of Montparnasse,” according to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).

Just last year, as New York City rolled out new bike lanes between the sidewalk and parked cars along two miles of a couple avenues, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration drew fire from local merchants who complained the new setup interfered with deliveries and made it harder for customers to find parking.

Still, few tools are more effective for steering citizens to public transit, biking, and walking than making it impossible—or prohibitively expensive—to stow their cars while they are at work or recreation.

(Related: Global Personal Energy Meter)

Circling for a Spot

Years ago—in 1976 and 1996, respectively—Zurich and Hamburg capped the parking supply in their urban centers. For every new parking spot created off-street in these urban zones, a spot on the street is repurposed for things like bike paths and wider sidewalks.

(Related: Bike-Friendly Cities)

Since 2003, Paris has reduced its supply of street parking by about 14,300 spots, or 9 percent (like other French cities, it shifted parking to underground facilities), and started charging for 95 percent of spots that were previously free. That’s according to a recent report from ITDP called, “Europe’s Parking U-Turn: From Accommodation to Regulation.”

Policies like these require a tricky balance to be effective. “On the one hand, a shortage of car parking supply,” can motivate people to get out of their cars and onto the sidewalk or bike lane, Sareco researchers Eric Gantelet and Christophe Begon explained in their report. Yet an imperfect system can also increase traffic congestion caused by circling for on-street parking.

And the possible repercussions don’t end there. As Gantelet and Begon noted, if parking is tough to find in a downtown shopping district, people might simply opt to drive out to a shopping mall with a large parking lot instead. And businesses, according to Moore, may decide to locate their offices in the suburbs, where employees can park for free.

Gantelet and Bergon argue that the solution is a combination of carrots (importantly, improved public transportation) and sticks, such as enforcement of parking regulations in a wide area.

To Weinberger, Copenhagen is still the “bright shining star” when it comes to reforming parking policy. Yet at long last, she said, a “real conversation” is beginning across the Atlantic about integrating parking policy with larger decisions about transportation and blueprints for greener cities with more active streets.

In the United States, San Francisco and New York City have over the past year begun setting up “parklets,” temporary mini-parks that occupy the space of a couple parking spots. Where cars once filled metered spaces, residents now sit at brightly colored tables or on wooden benches, reading, chatting, sipping coffee and enjoying lunch from local cafes.

Chicago, Washington, D.C., and famously car-centric Los Angeles are also “starting to think differently,” she said. Washington, D.C., notably, has been piloting pay-by-phone and “performance-based” metered parking systems.

The idea of these “smart” parking schemes is to “eliminate cruising for parking,” Weinberger explained, by making the metered rate just high enough to encourage rapid turnover, discourage nonessential driving, and leave some percentage of spots constantly available. But it has not been easy in practice, as the U.S. capital’s manual system for tracking occupancy has not been fast enough to provide relevant data.

San Francisco has also taken the rare step of instituting parking maximums instead of parking minimums for new development projects in some neighborhoods. While in decades past cities have moved to manage parking (and thus car use) as a way to address air pollution under the U.S. Clean Air Act, Weinberger believes that part of what’s driving change today is mayors’ heightened concerns about climate change.

Climate concerns are also a factor on university campuses, where some administrators are shifting resources away from new parking garages in favor of incentives for cycling and other programs. Jeff Abernathy, president of Alma College in Michigan, commented recently to Inside Higher Ed, “The campus should not be a monument to the automobile. You want to have the community coming together face-to-face in an active, thriving social space. And the automobile tends to deaden that.”

(Related: 360° Energy Diet)

Electric Car Spots

And it’s not just the number and location of parking spots facing new regulations, but also the type of vehicle that can occupy a given space. Cities like Stockholm, London, Copenhagen, Paris, and Amsterdam offer free parking as an incentive for electric cars or motorcycles, for example. Other governments are carving out space for car-sharing companies.

As ITDP noted in its recent report on European parking reform, a limited amount of on-street space is set aside for car sharing clubs in Amsterdam and in London’s Westminster borough.

In parts of the United States where the first electric vehicles are being rolled out, throughout California and around Detroit, some stores have set up dedicated EV parking spaces. But EV drivers have complained in online forums that the spots are often commandeered by drivers of ordinary internal combustion engine cars. At this year’s Aspen Environmental Forum sponsored by National Geographic, one General Motors executive noted that the problem with the spots is that they are outside the jurisdiction of city meter enforcers.

At this point, said Weinberger, the parking reforms that are gaining the most traction do not reduce the number of spots, but rather make them more expensive, through systems like Washington, D.C.’s new meters.

Of course, the private car and the ideal of cheap, plentiful parking are hardly going extinct. In fact, they’re just coming to life in rapidly motorizing cities like Beijing, China, where the number of cars ballooned to 5 million in December 2010, from 1.57 million in 2003, while the parking supply grew to accommodate only 1.3 million vehicles, up from 650,000, according to the state-funded China Daily.

(Related: “China’s Electric Car Drive: Impresive, But not Enough” and "Guangzhou, China, Wins Sustainable Transport Prize")

Nowhere, said Weinberger, will it be easy to change the parking paradigm. “It’s an emotional issue.” We all know there’s no free lunch, but it’s harder to let go of the idea of (nearly) free parking.”

(Related: "On China's Roads (and Rails), a Move Toward Greener Transit")

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