The Peculiar Puzzle of Parking

The Charlottesville City Market officially opened last Saturday, and I made the mistake of hopping in my car to enjoy an afternoon on the Downtown Mall. As soon as I hit Water Street I knew that I had made a mistake – nearly everyone in Charlottesville had decided to take advantage of the good weather and visit the market. If I had walked, biked, or even decided to take the trolley I could have happily joined the carefree throng of families and students. But I had chosen to drive, and that meant finding parking. I was not the only Charlottesville resident to drive downtown that morning, so every on-street parking spot in the surrounding area was already occupied. After about ten minutes of searching, a harrowing attempt at parallel parking and a long, sunny walk back to the Market, my parking adventures came to a fruitful conclusion.

Image obtained from
Charlottesville’s City Market was packed this Saturday! Image obtained from

Although I succeeded in finding a parking spot, my misadventure reminded me about the conundrum of free parking. As a student of urban planning, I naturally tend to question an oversupply of parking spaces. An ample parking supply favors automobile travel over other, less polluting forms of transportation. Sprawling parking lots literally create gaping holes in the built environment, making streets less appealing to pedestrians, and diverting valuable real estate away from commercial and residential uses. Plentiful supplies of free parking also contribute to water pollution via stormwater runoff, which is directly compounded by the presence of vast impervious surfaces.

Not a pretty picture. Image Courtesy of
Parking lots rarely have much to offer where aesthetics are concerned. Image Courtesy of

While I am the first to question the necessity of huge parking lots, I also understand the anxiety that comes with searching for free parking spaces. The process of cruising for parking wastes time, money and patience, and in a country where cars serve as the most common mode of transportation, we simply cannot do away with parking. Luckily, there is a way to simultaneously improve parking availability and mitigate the negative impacts caused by parking lots – remove minimum parking requirements.

In most of today’s cities and suburbs, legally mandated parking spaces lower the market price of parking, often to zero. These minimum parking requirements subsidize parking to the point where free parking basically outweighs many of the other costs of driving, including the gasoline tax.  Free parking encourages people to drive more and stay parked longer, while developers tend to overuse land for cars.

A parking study by Architect Sam Goodman illustrates the unbalanced relationship between American cities and parking spaces. Image obtained from
A parking study by Architect Sam Goodman illustrates the unbalanced relationship between American cities and parking. Image obtained from

There are many benefits to charging the right price for parking, including decreased congestion (reductions in time spent cruising for parking paces), higher transit use, and more tax revenue for cities and towns. These benefits have been realized in San Francisco, where an innovative new parking management system, SFpark, has already led to a 50% drop in cruising for parking spots. While our current system of allocating parking provides cars with an unfair advantage, new pricing strategies present the opportunity to mitigate the negative impacts of parking and make it easier for all of us to find a free spot!

Want to learn more? Check out the following reports and articles…


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