Op-Ed: Zurich’s Parking Revolution

Parking policy and practice in a city is a marker, a litmus test  of its collective ws-parkingcommitment to an efficient and beautiful city.  More than that, the policy has to be carefully thought out, agilely negotiated and executed with long-term commitment.  Stop-and-start policies in such important areas are the mark of political immaturity. So if your city does NOT have such a policy, and is NOT applying it with continuity and consistency, then sorry to say you are far from the front rank of sustainable cities.

It’s a choice, a political choice, not only of those public servants and elected officials who are during their term responsible for transport, public space and life quality matters in the city, but above all, and ultimately far more important, the citizenry. The active citizenry. So with that behind us, let’s see what the fresh eyes of a visiting American academic and transportation engineer spotted and have to say about parking policy and performance in the beautiful city of Zürich.

Lessons From Zurich’s Parking Revolution

The first time I heard the term ‘historic compromise’ used with respect to parking policy in Zürich, I was taken aback by the grandiosity of the term. But as I learned, this term is more than apt in light of the contentious battles that ended in 1996 with a brokered agreement over parking. Even in a city known for its progressive transportation policies, a ‘historic compromise’ was needed to reverse the corrosive effect that parking was having on the city.

Parking is always a contentious issue and most cities have taken the path of least resistance – facilitating a relentless increase in parking. Ironically, complaints that there is never enough parking seems to grow in direct proportion to the amount of parking supplied. Since the late 1980s, Zürich has developed an alternative that’s worth studying because it breaks all the rules of conventional transportation planning, and yet has been vitally important to the success of that city. In contrast, the conventional approach has devastated most American cities, and many in Europe as well.

The essence of Zürich’s historic compromise of 1996 was that parking in the core of the city would be capped at the 1990 level, and that any new parking to be built would, on a one-to-one basis, replace the surface parking that blighted most squares in the city at the time. Today, almost all these squares are free of parking and have been converted to tranquil or convivial places for people to enjoy.

In America, the study and management of parking is held in such low regard that we might just as well be talking about garbage.

The regulation of parking spaces in Zürich only goes back to 1960s, when the city first implemented a parking minimum. Specifying a parking minimum is the conventional approach to regulating parking that is used in most cities in America and Europe. Such a policy specifies the minimum amount of parking that must be provided for each square meter of floor space of new construction. The rationale of a parking minimum is to ensure that enough parking is available to meet projected demand. In other words, minimum parking standards are a manifestation of the ‘predict and provide’ approach typical in transportation planning.

In 1989, the city turned this regulation on its head by adding parking maximums to their code. A parking maximum is a device for protecting the city from having too much parking that could degrade the urban character of the city. Having a parking maximum is much more in keeping with the ‘city friendly’ transportation planning approach that has been practiced in Zürich since the 1970s. As usual, changes in parking policy took awhile to catch up with progressive changes in other aspects of the transportation system.

In 1996, the parking maximums were adjusted to make them even more restrictive. These gradual changes over time set the stage for the current parking policy in Zürich, which was ratified by the public in a 2010 referendum which showed that 55 percent of the city’s population were in favor of strict parking maximums. The new policy maintains the structure of the 1989 policy in specifying maximums and minimums. But under this new system, there is a default parking level for the whole city, which is then reduced depending on whether or not a particular location is well served by transit.

As an example, the default parking level for small shops in Zürich translates to 0.75 parking spaces per 1000 sq. feet of floor space.  To put this in perspective, the minimum requirement for parking in American cities is rarely lower than 3 spaces/1000 sq. feet and is often as high as 5 spaces/1000 sq. feet. In the city center, the maximum parking allowed is 0.08 space/1000 sq. feet. In secondary centers outside of the downtown, the parking minimum is 0.30 space/1000 sq. feet, and the maximum is just 0.50 space/1000 sq. feet.

The Prime Tower complex at Zurich’s Hardbruecke Train Station, which includes the tallest building in Switzerland, at 36 stories, and three other smaller buildings, illustrates the real life impact of this policy.  This complex opened in 2011 with a total of just 250 parking spots. With over 700,000 sq. feet of rentable space, the parking is supplied at a ratio of just 0.35 spaces/1000 sq. feet.

In comparison, in a complex of this size built in most American cities, zoning would demand the supply of at least 2,000 parking spaces – eight times more that in Zürich. The social, economic and environmental costs of this difference is, to say the least, staggering. Construction costs alone for all that additional parking can run as much as $100 million. This would have been a substantial escalation to the cost of this $400 million project.

In our research at the University of Connecticut, we’ve found that cities with higher levels of automobile use generally supply more parking, perhaps as would be expected. But what is unexpected is the degree to which these cities also have a much lower density of what matters in cities, residents and jobs (see the figure below). American cities in our study with small numbers of parking spaces have two to four times more people per square mile. This seems to have a lot to do with the amount of space that is needed for parking. In other words, space used for parking is simply not available for more productive uses.

One of the things that surprised me in investigating parking in Zürich was that the city has an inventory of all parking in the city; even more surprising, this inventory goes back to 1908. In our research on parking in American cities, we had no such inventory to rely on. Instead, we had to labor for weeks over aerial photographs and other records to compile the data for each of the cities in our study.  This lack of basic information means that cities are operating blind when they try to understand the long-term impact of parking policy on the city as a whole or develop more effective policies.

The bottom line is that in Zürich parking is seen as a valued resource that is husbanded and marshaled for optimum benefit to the city as a whole. This is an irony because in America we claim to value our cars and, by extension, the parking where they live, yet the study and management of parking is held in such low regard that we might just as well be talking about garbage. Given this perspective, the waste, inefficiency and disruption that we have documented in terms of the impact of parking policy on American cities is not in the least surprising.

This article originally appeared in Atlantic Cities and is reproduced here with the permission of the authors. . You can access it directly here for full text, illustrations and a good body of comments.

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1 February 2013: Norman Garrick comments:

Since this article was published in August we have continued the work that Chris McCahill started in quantifying the level of parking in cities and how this relates to the vitality of cities. We have also looked at how cities have changed over the last 60 years in terms of the amount  of space devoted to parking.  Chris’s work was focused mostly on the supply of parking.  Since  August we have taken this work in two new directions.

First we have started taking a more detailed look at the urban fabric of the city that surrounds all that parking –  in other words how have the buildings in the city changed as the parking provision has increased. We  are still evaluating this data but one interesting finding is that the provision of parking in the cities we looked at is still well below the amount of parking that most cities demand in their codes.  So even though more than 20 % of the land in some of these cities is already devoted to parking they still have much less parking than the  code would require.  This to me indicates the absurd degree to which the codes are out of sync with reality.

The second direction we have been going to get a better handle on the financial implication of all of this  parking from the perspective of the city as a whole.  We have been looking at all things financial including all the cost of providing parking and the tax return to the city from parking facilities.  One thing that stands out for us is the extent to which taxing policies serves to provide a massive subsidy for the provision of parking.  For example, in one city, we found that the amount of taxes paid for a parking garage is a third of the amount paid for a comparable commercial or residential building when we take into account the size  and location of the building.  This is not just a massive subsidy but a highly regressive one that encourages the most ecologically destructive behavior.

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About the authors:

Norman GarrickNorman Garrick is Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Connecticut and a board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. This year he was also a Visiting Professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. {You will find a supporting PPT presentation by the author  on “Transportation Planning for Car Free Living: The Evolution of Zurich, Switzerland” at http://www.slideshare.net/TheLastMile/the-freedom-of-transit-living-car-free-in-zurich-switzerland )

chris mccahillChris McCahill is a postdoctoral research assistant in transportation and urban engineering at the University of Connecticut. He is also a 2012 Eno Fellow with the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C. More of his work can found at www.christophermccahill.com All posts »

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About the editor:

about-eb-1jan13 - larger text

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One thought on “Op-Ed: Zurich’s Parking Revolution

  1. One important question is who should have priority to use whatever parking space is provided. Surely the answer is people working on buildings who need to bring their tools or materials to the site. Yet in practice priority usually seems to go to residents to keep their own cars, even though they have the option, which needs to be encouraged, of relying on other modes of transport and using carshare as a last resort. To add insult to injury they are charged a fraction of what one has to pay to get a visitor’s permit to enable a builder to do work on one’s house.

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