Parking Policies Can Reduce Car Use

Does parking determine your transportation choices?

Parking Meter

While putting together an analysis of gasoline consumption, I have been trying to figure out just why Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the Northwest has been dropping. Part of the challenge of explaining downward VMT is that it has typically never happened in a sustained way. But, in the last year or so it has been sustained, defying the conventional wisdom of transportation planners. One factor that comes to mind is how easy (or difficult) it is to park.

But before I talk about how parking might affect VMT I have two confessions.

First, for a few years, back in the 1990s, I used to drive to work everyday. Home was in Seattle and work was in the state capitol—Olympia.  That was a commute of 120 miles—a day. My car was my second home.

Second, later on in my career, while I was working at Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, I was a champion of a neighborhood parking garage in Seattle’s Admiral Neighborhood. Many people in the sustainability crowd opposed the project. I still think the project had the best intentions even though today I would likely be opposed to it too.

I’m just sayin’, we all struggle with transportation choices in our lives. We do what’s convenient. Lucky for me, I was able to get rid of my car almost four years ago. And frankly, one of the things I enjoy the most about not having a car is being free from the hassle of finding a place to park it. 

If there is one thing that motivated me to change my driving habits it was the increasing challenge of parking. I used to think that there was a conspiracy to eliminate, one by one, every last available on-street parking spot.  There actually is a plan. A major part of Seattle’s strategy to deal with parking is to reduce demand by encouraging people to choose convenient options for getting around besides cars. And beyond my intuition that it works there is some evidence to back up the idea.

According to a review of regional modeling studies done a few years ago by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute parking has a significant impact on reducing VMT.  Their review showed that land use and transit policies have very little effect on VMT by themselves unless they include complementary policies that put a price on parking. Free or cheap parking tends to support more driving.  From the review:

Increasing auto costs by 400% reduces VMT and emissions about one third. (Note that making workers pay for parking or providing cash-in-lieu-of-parking incentives in the U.S. increases “felt” travel costs by around 400%, without actually increasing costs, as the parking costs are merely being unbundled from wages.) All pricing scenarios decreased travel delays.

It’s a little like what I learned about smoking rates when I worked in public health; the one scientifically proven way to reduce smoking rates is to raise cigarette prices. Indeed if there were only one health intervention available to tackle smoking increased price would be the best bet.

Parking is the third rail of neighborhood politics in most cities in the Northwest, so it isn’t easy to increase price to reduce VMT. In the last week in Seattle there have been twostories and one in Vancouver focused on frustration about parking policies. People often feel entitled to a place to park their car. If you drive you have to park somewhere, right? But price signals combined with ample convenient alternatives for getting around help everybody spend less time in their cars—sitting in traffic, circling the block looking for parking.

Increasing the costs of parking, including reducing supply, can encourage less driving and lead to less traffic—as well as fewer times circling the block looking for a spot. I learned this the hard way. The chore of moving my car around every few days to avoid getting tickets started to take its toll on my nerves. When I got rear ended a few years ago and the car was totaled, I took the keys to the insurance agent, got my check and never looked back. But I did it for convenience, not to save the world. I am pretty sure that if I had a parking spot that was free and nearby I would still own a car.

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!

Read more in ,


  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    This has affected me personally. It costs $8 a day for my wife and I to take the bus (on-peak, total round trip distance: 5 miles). Carpool parking downtown was $100/month. That means it would have cost us up to $60 more each month to take the bus than to drive. But then they doubled the price of carpool parking, and we found ourselves compelled to take the bus. The reduced convenience is worth the money savings.What else would have converted us to bus travel? A more reasonable fare system – perhaps distance-based.

  2. Alan Durning says:

    I’ve long felt that parking and insurance are the automobiles’ Achilles heals. We love our cars, but we hate parking and insurance. And each of them is very expensive and, at present, paid in ways that obscure costs. In the case of parking, costs are often paid by someone other than the driver; in the case of insurance, the costs are like an all-you-can-eat meal plan.Interesting post, Roger.But I doubt that parking has suddenly become harder to find and, therefore, VMT has dropped. Isn’t it more likely the result of soaring fuel prices and, then, plummeting income?

  3. Roger Valdez says:

    Absolutely. I don’t want to scoop the report in the comments section of the blog but I think it is true that even though prices are down unemployment, for example, is up. Way in up especially in Oregon. So people may be sticking to their frugal ways on gasoline consumption they learned last summer because they have to. Usually I am a pessimist, a tank-half-empty kind of guy. But for some reason I have the sense that people really are changing their driving behavior in some fundamental way. There is no evidence that delivers a knock out punch on that. But I am looking forward to watching what consumption and VMT does if, as some economists suggests, we are starting out of our recession. The parking policies many cities are adopting might just be part of what might keep those driving behaviors changed for the better when the economy recovers.

  4. Roger P. says:

    One of the major factors in falling VMTs is unemployment; with no job to go to, you’re not driving to work and back every day.And I’d be cautious about depending too much on rising parking costs. It works in a location that you HAVE to get to like work, but for discretionary trips such as shopping, costly or unavailable parking simply means motorists go elsewhere, where parking is available and free (e.g. Bellevue Square).

  5. Jeremy Faludi says:

    While it’s good to give incentives against driving, they must be coupled with incentives FOR transit / biking / walking: better bus service, more bike lanes, etc. By itself, expensive parking just hurts people. In my particular case, it has caused me to be less sustainable in transportation.I live in San Francisco, and used to own a biodiesel Golf. I only actually used it to get somewhere 2 – 3x per month (for instance, going from San Francisco to Stanford, which is a 45-minute drive but a 2-hour-and-fifteen-minute BART/train/bus ride. Pretty much a nightmare.) However, because reserved parking is so insanely expensive (about $300/mo) and street parking is so hard to find (takes 20 – 30 minutes each time, two to three times every week), it just became untenable to keep my biodiesel car. I sold it, and now use Zipcar, but I don’t drive any less (driving is only required for long distances badly served by transit, as mentioned above). I just drive less sustainably now, because I have to use normal gas in the Zipcars rather than biodiesel.Truly successful long-term strategies win by making the green alternatives better, not making the status-quo solutions worse. The latter just pisses people off and costs them more money, without actually giving them new options. You can do that, but you have to combine it with positive solutions.

Leave a Comment

Please keep it civil and constructive. Our editors reserve the right to monitor inappropriate comments and personal attacks.


You may add a link with HTML: <a href="URL">text to display</a>