To reduce traffic, reduce parking

I’m a member of a local residents association, and we regularly discuss new planning applications in the area. One of the most common complaints on any new development is that there won’t be enough parking. New flats two minutes walk from the station? Not enough parking. New stadium for Luton football club? Where will everybody park?

It’s a legitimate concern for people who haven’t got a driveway and can’t find anywhere to park when they come home from work, but parking provision is a controversial topic wherever it comes up. And it matters, because plenty of research shows that if you want to reduce traffic in a city, you should make it harder to park. It will be deeply unpopular of course, but it works.

The Economist did a great article on this recently. When city councils provide lots of cheap or free parking, drivers will be delighted. And so they will drive. “Because parking is so plentiful, it is free, and because it is free, people invariably overuse it. One study of Washington, DC, found that the availability of free parking is associated with a 97% chance somebody will drive to work alone.”

If it’s hard to park, and parking is expensive, people are far more likely to take the bus or cycle. So if cities want to incentivise a shift to sustainable transport, it’s one of the easiest things to do. Of course, you want to do that alongside measures that make it easier to use better transport – raise parking fees while introducing a bike scheme, or a rapid bus transit system.

If you can get people to leave their cars at home, you also avoid the cruising for a car parking space that makes up a surprising amount of urban traffic. If there’s a limited amount of free parking available, a lot of drivers will be content to roll around the block waiting for a space. It’s sometimes reported that 30% of urban traffic is cars looking for somewhere to park. A little digging shows that to be a rather out of date and flawed number, but it’s still a hidden form of congestion.

A report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy has some great examples of cities that have successfully reduced parking and cut traffic – and emissions and pollution with it. Here are just three of them:

  • Barcelona’s public bike scheme is funded by parking fees, tying together the problem and the solution rather elegantly.
  • Paris scrapped on-street parking in some areas to make more room. This made space on the street for bikes and trams, while incentivising people to use them.
  • Residents’ parking is particularly politically charged. Camden council in London pioneered CO2 emission based parking fees for residents. The smaller and cleaner your car, the less you pay for the right to park on the street.

One thing that’s worth noting on this whole issue is that European cities had pursued car-centric policies for decades. Parking provision was tied into development and planning policy. It has taken years to work out that this was making traffic worse, and now it takes a concerted effort to fix it – especially since voters really resent being told not to drive.

That should be a warning to emerging world cities: plan for high quality public transport from the start, limit the parking spaces available in town centres, and leapfrog the decades of mounting traffic, noise, pollution and carbon.


  1. This is a matter for business districts and developments. When I was involved in developing science parks and innovation centres, we tried to tightly limit parking spaces. But that led to a lack of entrepreneurs / businesses renting units and made the schemes financially unviable…so more parking space had to be created. Now all the nice footpaths are covered in parked vehicles as well.
    The solution seems to be to integrate business space with residential, leisure and retail to create live / work communities.

    1. It’s important for these things to be joined up, and also to consider who will be using them. Luton built a new business park on the edge of town a few years ago. It wasn’t on good enough public transport routes to survive without plentiful parking, and it would be professionals from all around the area that would be driving in – not well sited, in my opinion. More recently, a huge amount of new industrial space has been made along the corridor of the Luton to Dunstable busway. That’s mainly warehouse workers, students and so on coming to work – often people on lower incomes and without cars. They all use the busway, and far less parking is needed.

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