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Parking in Atlanta: why it matters to our urban design

As mundane of a topic as it may seem, parking is often a contentious part of our local conversations about developments and urban design. Here’s a primer on the connection between parking and good urbanism.

Parking affects transit quality and ridership.

In a comprehensive study of light rail systems built over the last 30 years, the number one factor correlating with reduced ridership was the availability of cheap or free parking along the route. Why ride when it’s easier to drive?

When gas prices rise, MARTA ridership increases, by as much as 6 percent. Once gas prices lower, do these additional riders who have used MARTA remain on the system? No. As soon as the cost of driving decreases, most return to their automobiles.

As long as it’s cheaper to drive than to take transit or walk, people will continue to do so. Therein lies the problem with the idea of continuing to build for cars while we wait for the transit and walking infrastructure to catch up: parking lots and the built environment they create and parking decks will not simply disappear because the BeltLine (or whatever else) is completed and transit in the city is expanded.

The availability of cheap, convenient parking spurs car trips.

Parking-fronted grocery store near the Lindbergh MARTA Station

Every parking space that’s cheaper than transit fare and closer to the door of our destinations actively gives people a reason not to ride transit. It’s a factor that actively undermines our investments in biking, walking, and mass transit. Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor, put it succinctly in his book The High Cost of Free Parking: The more parking you build, the more people drive.

The phenomenon is called induced demand, and it’s very real. A recent study on rail systems in the United States over the last 30 years found the availability of low-cost parking to be the second strongest indicator of the lack of success of a line. The first was how much the streetcar runs alongside automobile traffic.

What can be done? Three suggestions for positive change.

Here are three suggestions for making reforms to parking in Atlanta in an effort to put other modes of transportation, like transit and cycling, on a more level playing field with driving.

1. Remove surface parking lots as a permitted use. This does not mean we send crews out to be begin de-paving existing lots. It simply means no new ones can be constructed and existing lots will be phased out as their lifecycle expires. The prohibition against surface parking lots is not as radical as it sounds; the city’s own Comprehensive Development Plan of 2011 recommends it.

2. Remove minimum parking requirements. It makes no sense to recognize the harmful impacts of parking while at the same time requiring their construction. These minimums impact the city in many ways, including the ability of smaller stores to open in mixed use neighborhoods without having to spend extra money to provide required parking spaces.

3. Increase the price of business fees for park for hire lots in the city. These fees, lower than $3 a space in most cases, allow institutions to bank land for far lower than the cost to the community of having a sea of parking lots. Increasing the fees would generate revenue which could be used for transit expansion and the redevelopment of the lots, while discouraging the long term holding of land that the current system allows.

This is not about aesthetics — it’s about the future of Atlanta.

Parking deck at Underground Atlanta
Parking deck at Underground Atlanta

Less parking is not merely some aesthetic or lifestyle preference. If we want to continue to grow as a city and to fill the vacancy and blight that is rampant, we need to make our city more desirable to live in. We need to start measuring transit projects, such as the streetcar and Beltline, in numbers of cars taken off the road, not development dollars spent nearby.

We need to stop competing with the suburbs and their big-box stores and start competing with other cities that offer walkable neighborhoods and transit. If we want to continue to grow, we need to have the capacity to accommodate up to 500,000 new citizens. We cannot accommodate all their cars.