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Analyzing the requirements of both free and pay parking lots, this reference reveals the best practices for planning, designing, financing, building, and operating an efficient facility. Parking studies and expert practitioners provide insights and solid how-to information on a bevy of topics, including zoning requirements, automated structures, spacing geometrics, drainage and ventilation systems, and security considerations.
Sep 1, 2009

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The Dimensions of Parking - Urban Land Institute





ADEQUATE, CONVENIENT, AND AFFORDABLE PARKING is a concern for nearly everyone who uses an automobile—or is affected by the use of automobiles. First, automobile parking is essential to most land uses. Second, parking affects property values and influences the economic return on public and private sector investments. Finally, on a broad scale, decisions about parking influence travel behavior, including choice of travel mode, and land use and development patterns.

The development, construction, operation, and maintenance of parking facilities represent a significant expense and usually call for both public and private sector involvement. Public involvement can range from the typical permitting and regulatory actions to full responsibility for developing and operating parking facilities. Most parking, however, is developed and operated by the private sector.

Regardless of how responsibilities are allocated, the intricacies of parking warrant careful analysis and coordinated decision making. As a result, parking consultants are now typically involved in all aspects of the development and operation of parking facilities. The parking consultant’s role is to provide technical assistance to those who are in decision-making positions: public and private sector managers; elected officials and their staff; investors; and real estate developers. Parking consultants are familiar with the parking characteristics associated with most land uses, and understand that proper data collection, careful analysis of site-specific circumstances, and experienced judgment are crucial to the successful development of parking facilities.

Some parking consultants offer highly specialized services; others provide comprehensive services, including the following:

planning and site studies;

traffic studies and engineering reports;


construction management;

The rules of designing and developing parking garages are changing. For example, the John P. McGovern Texas Medical Center features six levels of parking (four above ground and two below) in addition to a food court, a conference center, and office and meeting spaces.

financial analysis;

operations consulting; and

recommendations for maintenance and repair.

Whether the problem is how to meet current or future needs, how to improve operations, or how to evaluate the need for maintenance and repair, the first step is often a parking study. There are as many types of parking studies as there are parking problems to be solved. In general, however, the consultant undertaking the study evaluates a parking problem and its causes, analyzes alternative solutions, and develops recommendations on the basis of site-specific evidence. The consultant may also identify opportunities for coordinated actions, detail the probable ramifications of implementing those actions, and provide an estimate of financial and other costs. No parking study should be more voluminous than necessary, and it should communicate in a way that is easily understood by nonspecialists; ideally, the client should be able to use the data to arrive at the same conclusions as the professionals who performed the study.

Parking can be an essential tool in urban revitalization. The 905-space, seven-level South Spring Street Garage in Greenville, South Carolina, was developed as part of a larger strategy to bring new life to the city’s downtown.

Typically, a parking study includes three components: a parking supply/demand analysis; a site alternatives analysis; and a financial analysis. Some studies include only one of these three components; others include additional components, such as an analysis of traffic impacts or of parking management and operations. The following list describes some of the elements that may be included in parking studies.

Parking supply/demand analysis. An evaluation of the current and future amount of parking space in relation to demand; identifies shortages or surpluses.

Market study. A projection of the number of users who may be captured by a facility on a particular site, given demand, competition, and prevailing parking rates.

Shared-parking analysis. A projection of parking demand in mixed-use areas that takes into account (1) variations in demand by season, day of the week, and time of day, and (2) the relationship between parking needs and planned land uses.

Alternatives analysis. An evaluation of the alternatives that can be used to increase parking capacity and perhaps reduce parking demand; typically undertaken where there are documented parking shortages.

Schematic design. A functional design for a proposed parking facility, developed to a sufficient level of detail to obtain consensus among interested parties. (Normally, design documents are not prepared until the first phase of a design contract, but they may be necessary during the study phase to provide the background information needed to obtain consensus and proceed with design and funding.)

Traffic impact analysis (TIA). The application of standard methods of traffic engineering analysis, with the goal of identifying current and/or future traffic conditions and recommending improvements. Although the TIA generally focuses on determining the effect of a proposed parking facility on traffic conditions, it sometimes addresses existing traffic problems that should be considered simultaneously with parking needs.

Financial analysis. A projection of the operating expenses, revenues, and sometimes the debt service associated with a proposed new facility or with the expansion of an existing facility; includes an assessment of the owner’s ability to fund the improvements through parking income.¹ The financial analysis may include some or all of the following elements:

estimates of development costs;

estimates of use and rates;

projections of revenue and operating expenses;

financing costs, including interest rate and terms;

analysis of the ability of a parking facility to service debt on its own; and

analysis of the viability of adding a new facility to an existing system.

Financing method analysis. A study of available financing methods and their legal ramifications: evaluates the interest rate and terms; insurance; debt reserves; and other requirements. Financing options may include public/private partnerships; federal, state, or local financing programs; private ownership and financing; and nontraditional funding sources.²

Parking management study. An identification and analysis of parking problems that can be corrected through changes in policy, management, or operating strategies.

Organizational and administrative review. A detailed study of the administration and operation of the parking system as a whole; considers issues such as use and allocation of resources, staffing needs, assignment of responsibility, and general organization. The review is often needed to establish an authority or agency that will run an entire parking system.

Parking revenue controls and operations study. A review of current revenue collection systems and other policies and procedures to ensure that revenue is maximized and that theft, fraud, and evasion are minimized.

Equipment acquisition analysis. A review of current operations for the purpose of determining the appropriate type and number of access and egress lanes and recommending control equipment. The study phase usually includes cost estimates and an outline of specifications; detailed construction documents are developed later.

Parking facility evaluation. An evaluation of the extent of deterioration in a parking structure floor and frame; includes repair and cost estimates, and may include recommendations designed to maximize revenues and mitigate theft, fraud, and evasion. Construction documents for repairs are not part of a parking study.


1. In most cases, a client who engages a parking consultant already knows how the parking project will be financed. For example, a city that plans to use general-obligation bonds will have financial experts in house or on retainer who will provide information on the interest rates and terms of the financing instruments under consideration.

2. For a detailed discussion of financing, see Chapter 6, Financial Feasibility and Financing.





FOR MANY LAND USES, THE AMOUNT OF PAVED PARKING area is as great as, or even greater than, the occupied area of the buildings being served. For example, an office building may have a 1:1 ratio of parking area to leasable space; a shopping center may have approximately 1.5 square feet (0.14 square meters) of paved parking area for each square foot (0.09 square meters) of gross leasable area. The number of parking spaces provided for a site, complex, or district is thus a key determinant of its character. In the words of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Form follows parking.¹

Because parking is so crucial to the success of the development it serves—whether that development is commercial or institutional—developers and property owners want to be sure that parking is adequate. Local governments, for their part, want property owners to provide enough off-street parking to prevent tenant or visitor parking from overflowing to public streets or adjacent private property. Nevertheless, it is not in the interest of either the private sector or the public sector to require an excessive amount of parking. Because parking is a necessary component of development, the land area and/or resources devoted to parking may constrain the amount of development that a given site can support. Moreover, excessive parking requirements often lower the density of development; reduce land values; reduce the economic viability of public transportation; undermine the walkability of the site, complex, or neighborhood; and damage the natural environment.

Parking is a key component of transportation demand management—a set of strategies that are designed to make more efficient use of transportation resources.² When parking is oversupplied, it is likely to be undervalued. As Donald Shoup notes in The High Cost of Free Parking, drivers park free for 99 percent of all automobile trips, which means that the cost of parking is almost never a factor in transportation decisions.³ Shoup also notes that planning education provides no instruction on how practicing planners should set parking requirements and textbooks offer no help.

In recent years, three separate but related planning approaches have focused attention on the negative impacts of the more is better philosophy of parking: smart growth, transit-oriented development (TOD), and new urbanism. All three approaches strive to use land more efficiently, contribute to the availability of affordable housing, reduce dependence on automobile travel, and create more livable communities. All three also rely heavily on the same things: mixed use, higher density, buildings at the sidewalk, less private and more public open space, smaller blocks, narrow streets with wider sidewalks, street trees and lighting, lower parking ratios, shared parking, parking behind buildings, and on-street parallel parking.⁵ Carefully crafted parking requirements support the values that underlie smart growth, TOD, and new urbanism.

This chapter describes the basics of analyzing parking demand: the first major section describes the principal estimation methods; the second discusses issues in demand estimation; the third examines the use of recommended ratios; and the fourth describes how to refine demand estimates. Estimations of parking demand are used for multiple purposes: by developers, tenants, and lenders who wish to ensure that adequate parking will be provided; by local officials, to determine parking requirements for zoning ordinances; by developers who wish to obtain reductions in the amount of parking required by local ordinances; and by financial planners, who must project usage levels for facilities where paid parking is contemplated. Chapter 3, Shared Parking, discusses demand estimation for shared-parking situations, and Chapter 4, Zoning Requirements, addresses the development of parking requirements for zoning ordinances.


Parking demand is defined as the number of spaces that should be provided to serve a particular land use, given factors such as the price of parking and the availability of alternative travel modes. There are two basic approaches to estimating parking demand. The first approach begins with recommended parking ratios, which are then adjusted to reflect local characteristics. The recommended ratios are based on industry standards—which, in turn, are typically based on free parking in locations where virtually 100 percent of the arrivals are by private automobile.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a seven-level parking structure located next to the 12,000-seat Van Andel Arena provides 794 spaces for arena patrons and monthly parkers.

The second technique, which bases the estimate of parking needs on a forecast of person-trips or vehicle-trips, or on the number of people expected to be present at peak hours, is often used for event facilities, such as performing-arts centers, arenas, or stadiums. (It is important to note, however, that when parking demand is estimated on the basis of person-trips or vehicle-trips, it is generally converted to a ratio of spaces per unit of land use, so that the resulting ratio can be compared to industry standards and to zoning requirements.) Parking demand for a particular event can be estimated on the basis of three pieces of information: the number of seats, the modal split (the percentage of attendees who arrive by private auto), and the number of persons per car. Employee parking needs can be estimated similarly, on the basis of the number of employees on duty, the modal split, and persons per car.

Both approaches—those based on parking ratios and those based on estimated person-trips, vehicle-trips, or seating capacity—yield fairly accurate forecasts of parking demand, as long as the proper amount of research is conducted and strong consideration is given to local conditions. Industry standards—whether for parking ratios, person-trips, or vehicle-trips—cannot be applied without attention to local characteristics.

The key is to gather as much information about the site as the client can provide, to compare that information to standards established by industry organizations, and to adjust for differences in various factors, including density, availability of public transportation, local policies, the price of parking, and economic vitality. It is important to note, however, that budgetary limitations may prohibit extensive field surveys and analytical work, restricting analysts’ ability to collect detailed data.


The next five sections consider a number of issues and practices with which parking analysts and their clients must be familiar: (1) the units used to express parking ratios; (2) the impact of the size of the land use on parking ratios; (3) the delineation of the study area for parking-demand analysis; (4) the determination of design day and design hour; and (5) the impact of effective supply.


Parking requirements are generally stated as a ratio of spaces per unit; the particular unit varies by land use, but is usually square footage. Other units that may be used are per dwelling unit, bed, hotel room, seat, or person. Ideally, the unit will be something that can be calculated during project planning. Thus, demand ratios based on the number of employees, which often varies over time, should be avoided. However, parking requirements for certain land uses, especially institutions such as hospitals and schools, are so variable that per employee, per student, or per patient may be the only reasonable units. In some cases, particularly for spaces such as auditoriums, the maximum legal capacity can serve as the basis for parking requirements.

In the past, parking ratios tended to be stated as one space for X number of square feet. But most industry groups now prefer to state the ratio as X number of spaces per 1,000 square feet (or Y spaces per 100 square meters), because it is easier for the average person to multiply than to divide. When the number associated with the unit is consistent, the magnitude of the requirements—and the differences between them—are easier to grasp. For example, 1 space per 200 square feet (19 square meters) and 1 space per 250 square feet (23 square meters) are equivalent to 5 spaces and 4 spaces per 1,000 square feet (5.4 and 4.3 spaces per 100 square meters), respectively.

When ratios are based on square footage, how the square footage is calculated is an important consideration. Because there is wide variation among both industry standards and zoning ordinances on this issue, the following modifiers are often added for clarity: gross floor area (GFA), gross leasable area (GLA), net floor area (NFA), and net rentable area (NRA).

While older ordinances and references tended to use NFA, most industry standards today, including those of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) use GFA—or, for multitenant buildings, GLA.⁷ The adjustment of square footage to reflect leasable or rentable area has become particularly important because of the trend toward large developments with multiple tenants: merely enclosing the space connecting the tenant spaces does not add to parking demand. Because the difference between GLA and GFA is negligible in smaller buildings, many standards use GFA for single-tenant buildings but GLA for multitenant buildings.


Higher parking ratios are often appropriate for small concentrations of a specific land use than for larger buildings in the same land use category. The reasoning is simply a matter of probability: among 50 small office buildings, a number will have demand that is high enough to justify a 3.8/1,000 parking ratio. But if the tenants of those 50 buildings moved into one large building, some of the tenants will regularly have an unusually high concentration of employees and/or visitors, while others will have few visitors, or will have employees who are often on the road; a 2.8/1,000 supply will therefore be sufficient. Different ratios for the same use are therefore entirely appropriate.

Definitions of Square Footage


1. Thus, in relation to exterior walls, GFA is calculated out-to-out, and NFA is calculated in-to-in.

2. These elements are excluded because they do not contribute to parking demand.

It is important to note that parking demand does not always decline as the quantity of a land use increases. For example, it is well established that parking ratios for shopping centers increase as the size of the center increases.⁸ This pattern is caused by the fact that the larger the center, the more likely patrons are to visit multiple tenants—which lengthens their stays and increases demand.

Study Area

The study area should be defined to include all sources of demand and supply that affect the land uses for which demand is to be estimated. For example, a freestanding development in a suburban location may not interact with other uses, and the study area would therefore be limited to the tract of land to be developed. In other cases, however, land uses and parking supplies may interact. For example, on-street parking near a hospital or university may meet some of the institution’s parking needs. In a study of overall parking demand in a central business district (CBD), the study area should encompass all parking generators and parking supplies within the generally accepted boundaries of the CBD. In a more focused analysis known as a market study (see Chapter 1, Parking Studies), the study area should include (1) the land uses that will generate demand for the facility and (2) the competing sources of supply. To determine the potential for use of existing spaces, the analyst should obtain data on occupancy patterns for all land use types in the study area.⁹

Design Day and Design Hour

In any discussion of parking demand, it is critical to identify the level of parking activity that recurs frequently enough to justify providing parking spaces. In the industry, this level is often referred to as the design day or design hour. For many land uses, parking demand is defined as the demand associated with the peak hour on a design day. For example, a facility designed for the peak hour on the median day would have an insufficient supply for the peak hour on 50 percent of the days of the year. Although this is obviously not a desirable outcome, it is equally inappropriate to design for the highest conceivable demand, particularly for a single hour.

Many references, including Shared Parking, recommend setting parking requirements using the 85th percentile of the peak-hour parking accumulations in a statistically reliable data set.¹⁰ Unfortunately, Parking Generation, the most widely available compilation of actual parking-accumulation data, includes very few statistically reliable data sets: the counts may not have been taken at peak hours, and may have been taken at inconsistent times (for hotels, for example, some counts were taken at midnight and others at midday).

Other references, such as Shoup, recommend using the average rather than the 85th percentile, primarily as a means of limiting parking and facilitating paid parking—which, in turn, encourages more sustainable development and alternative travel modes. But for some uses, even the 85th percentile approach would not be acceptable. For example, because the holiday shopping season accounts for 25 to 40 percent of total annual retail sales, adequate parking during this time period is essential to their viability. Therefore, the shopping center industry has adopted a design hour that is significantly higher than the 85th percentile: the 20th-highest hour in the year. Designing for adequate parking on a Saturday in October-much less an average weekday—would not be acceptable for retail tenants.

Office developers, as well as their lenders and tenants, usually want to provide at least as much parking as other competitive buildings have—a pattern that tends to perpetuate parking requirements based on wants rather than needs. Over time, however, changes in parking ratios have been accepted and widely implemented when well-researched and carefully documented studies support such changes. In 1965, for example, the standard for the shopping center industry was 5.5 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet (93 square meters) of GLA.¹¹ According to research reported in the May 1977 issue of Urban Land, 5 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of GLA was, by then, a valid national maximum for regional shopping centers with GLAs of at least 800,000 square feet (74,300 square meters). By 1982, a ULI-sponsored study had concluded that the recommended ratio was slightly less than 5, and was even lower for smaller centers. When ULI repeated the same study in 1999, it recommended yet lower ratios:

For centers with between 25,000 and 400,000 square feet (between 2,320 and 37,160 square meters), the recommended parking ratio was 4.0 spaces per 1,000 square feet (93 square meters) of GLA.

For centers with between 400,000 and 600,000 square feet (between 37,160 and 55,740 square meters), the recommended parking ratio was 4.0 to 4.5 spaces per 1,000 square feet.

For centers with more than 600,000 square feet (55,740 square meters), the recommended parking ratio was 4.5 spaces per 1,000 square feet.

These ratios are appropriate for centers in which less than 10 percent of the space is occupied by dining and entertainment uses; however, for each percentage point over 10 percent occupied by these uses, the study proposed an adjustment in parking requirements. (Shared Parking simply recommends conducting a shared-parking analysis whenever more than 10 percent of the space is occupied by dining and entertainment.) Center developers, tenants, and lenders have accepted the recommended declines in requirements for shopping centers because experience has confirmed that fewer spaces are required.

Effective Supply

Effective supply is an important element in the evaluation of parking need. Simply put, effective supply is the number of spaces needed to avoid the perception that, because of the difficulty of finding the last few available spaces, the parking supply is inadequate. The effective-supply cushion—the difference between the actual number of spaces and the effective supply—reduces the need to search an entire system for the last few available spaces; provides room for vehicle maneuvers; takes account of operating fluctuations; and makes up for spaces that are lost for various reasons. It also provides for unusual peaks in demand—at least on some, if not all, peak days. The parking facility may not operate as efficiently as desired on such days, but it can absorb somewhat higher demand.

The level of occupancy at which optimum efficiency is achieved varies; generally, however, a parking facility operates most efficiently when occupancy is somewhere between 85 and 95 percent. Key determinants of optimum efficiency include the size of the system and the types of users. Generally, recommended parking ratios in industry publications incorporate an effective-supply cushion.

Using the Data in Parking Generation

Planners and other analysts who rely on data from Parking Generation, a publication of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, need to be aware that the data are simply observed parking accumulations; they are specifically not intended as recommendations.¹ Where enough data are available, Parking Generation lists the 85th percentile, the average, and the 33rd percentile as ratios of spaces per unit of land, but does not recommend any particular ratio. Unfortunately, when Parking Generation is used as the primary source of parking ratios, the tendency is to interpret the average of the reported parking ratios in a given category as a recommendation.

Moreover, although Parking Generation is the best available source of data on parking accumulations, many of the figures are statistically unreliable. As Donald Shoup notes, half of the 101 parking generation rates are based on four or fewer studies, and 22 percent are based on a single study.² And even where the sample is reasonably large, many of the studies were not well designed, and the volume provides only a brief summary of the extent, season, and time of day of the surveys. It may not even be clear whether a study actually captured the peak accumulation of vehicles on the survey day. For example, at least some of studies of hotel parking seem to have been undertaken during the day, when demand may have been driven by meeting rooms and convention facilities, while other hotel studies were conducted late at night. But the resulting report converts the peak parking accumulation to an average number of spaces occupied per room, regardless of what time of day the survey was conducted.


1. Institute of Transportation Engineers CITE) Parking Generation, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: ITE, 2004).

2. Donald C. Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (Chicago: American Planning Association, 2005), 25. Shoup also criticizes the very idea of starting from the data found in Parking Generation, because it is based on free suburban parking that exceeds demand on most, if not all, days of the year, and includes little or no public parking.


It is important for the analyst to obtain a detailed accounting of the land uses that will generate parking demand. For example, a developer may tell an analyst that there will be 500,000 square feet (46,450 square meters) of retail, without noting that 15 percent of the space will be restaurants of various types, and that a 2,000-seat cinema will be included. Equally important, the restaurants may include a wide range of facilities—from a food court, to casual restaurants with very active bars, to a nightclub, to a gourmet restaurant open only for dinner—each of which will have a very different parking-demand profile.

After the analyst identifies the land uses to be considered, the next steps are (1) to select base parking ratios from a reliable source; (2) to try to understand all the underlying assumptions used to prepare those ratios, such as the design day, number of persons per car, and modal split; and (3) to adjust the ratios to reflect local conditions.

Shared Parking discusses available data sources, including Parking Generation, and recommends parking ratios for some of the most common land uses found in mixed-use developments. As is noted later in this chapter, Shared Parking also discusses adjusting these base ratios to reflect transportation characteristics, season, time of day, automobile occupancies, and the effects of transit and of captive markets. The Parking Consultants Council (PCC) recommends the same ratios as Shared Parking, but includes some additional ratios that the council

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