Guest Post on Parking Policy – Livability and Choices

The following post is the third in a three part series by BTA’s Parking Policy Intern Aaron Brown. Aaron is a BTA Member and citizen activist living in North Portland who is interested in affordable housing and active transportation. He tweets about bikes, our fair city and the Portland Timbers at @ambrown. As the City of Portland takes up the issues of parking, density, transit, and land use we thought it would be helpful to take a step back to think about the context and goals for our parking programs and how they relate to bicycle policy. Enjoy!

Livability – How Can we best use Portland’s Public Space?

This article looks at contemporary automobile parking policy in Portland and it’s relationship to creating a healthy, livable, equitable community where current and future Portlanders can live with safe, affordable and attractive access to a low-car lifestyle. We first touched on the opportunities to build more low-car housing, and then touched on the explicit relationship between parking costs and active transportation. Today, we’re taking a broad look the tremendous impact that automobile parking places on shaping our community, and how we could reallocate this space to make Portland more livable.

If you had thirty-two acres of open land in Portland’s downtown core, what would you propose we do with it to make our city more livable?

While downtown Portland may feel bustling, busy and compact, it may surprise you to learn that the city of Portland currently owns and maintains 32 acres of asphalt that it uses for providing heavily subsidized automobile parking in our public right-of-way. This figure does not include the 3800 parking spaces in Smart Park garages, or the numerous parking spaces provided at market-rate by private parking lots throughout our Central City. This is the equivalent of 21 Powell’s, nearly 2 US Bancorp Buildings, more than one entire Laurelhurst Park and ninety percent of a Waterfront Park full of public space in the Central City that is currently going to use by providing heavily subsidized automobile parking.  If you lined up these parking spaces in a row, they’d stretch over 32 miles, from Vancouver Washington all the way to Wilsonville.

The update of the Comprehensive Plan, the current financial restraints on PBOT and the revival of interest in public space all as great opportunities to discuss ways in which we can build Portland to be more friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians. Portland is already a national leader in thinking of new, innovative ways that highlight different ways of rethinking how we use public space:

  • BIKE CORRALS: As of March 2013, 97 automobile parking spaces (nine in the downtown core) throughout the city have been converted into bicycle corrals, which are able to park upwards of 20 bikes in one car space.  A 2010 study by PBOT noted the positive benefits of these facilities, stating that “Businesses recognize the value of the bike corrals for their improvement to the street and neighborhood identify, the benefits that improved bike amenities provide for patrons and employees, and the potential for increasing their customer base.” On-street bicycle parking has been shown to make street intersections safer as well.
  • STREET SEATS: PBOT’s studied the feasibility of “Street Seats” in 2012, allowing businesses to purchase the right to rent the city’s right-of-way for an extension of their establishment.  This innovative program, currently widely used in San Francisco and New York, allows local businesses the opportunity to become more profitable and to use the existing right-of-way for a more productive economic development opportunity than just existing as subsidized, on-street automobile parking. Portland’s also recently successfully leasing an entire street to businesses, judging by the consistently packed tables on Carfree Ankeny over the past two years.
  • FOOD CARTS: While most of Portland’s food carts are currently located on traditional empty parking lots, their success and contributions to our urban form could certainly be replicated by allowing these small, mobile businesses to operate on our public right of way.  These scrappy, entrepreneurial businesses have proven to be conduits for significant economic development in Portland, particularly among women and recent immigrant populations (51% of food cart owners surveyd in 2008 were born outside of the United States) , and have won Portland international awards for our street food scene.

These examples, a result of innovative thinking about new ways to use the vast amount of public space we currently use to store private automobiles, highlight the exciting ways that we can make Portland’s streets more livable, vibrant and engaging by rethinking how much public space we use to store private automobiles. These alternative uses for on-street parking are also viable on our streets outside of our central city as well. While we are surely not advocating to remove every on-street parking space in the city of Portland, it’s helpful to realize just how many exciting new opportunities to develop urban space we are giving up in the most valuable, highly-trafficked part of our city. Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, our celebrated civic “living room” and most-lauded downtown public space, replaced a two story parking garage in 1981; Portland’s on-street public parking represents over 34 Pioneer Courthouse Squares across the city awaiting to be transformed into public space.

PBOT should also look into the policies that discourage the development of off-street, private automobile parking lots.  Many other cities levy a Commercial Parking Tax on The city can also institute a Commercial Parking Tax on private parking lots, which, in Seattle, raises revenue from the customer at 12.5% of the parking fee charged by the private parking company. PBOT’s aforementioned Financial Task Force Report notes that these taxes are common in American cities, including as high as 31% of parking revenues in Pittsburgh and 27.8% in Miami, Florida. The Victoria Transport Policy Institute notes this policy  may reduce the total parking spaces offered and encourage land-owners to develop their vacant lot, encouraging local economic development.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how much money we’re spending to keep our on-street parking so cheap, and other ways that we could spend these government funds to keep our streets safe, maintained and functional for all of Portland’s road users.


  • There are 32 acres of Downtown Portland currently dedicated to providing heavily subsidized, on-street automobile parking,  larger than the acreage of SE Portland’s Laurelhurst Park, nearly two times as large as the US Bancorp Building, and almost the size of the Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
  • There’s high demand for space in downtown Portland; we should continue to explore opportunities to redevelop/reallocate some of these 32 acres of downtown Portland  to encourage more opportunities for food carts, more restaurants and businesses that open to the street, and more bicycling and walking.
  • The city should continue to explore options to lease automobile parking spaces to alternative uses for new revenue opportunities and to continue to use this public right of way in our town centers to make our communities more friendly to people walking, biking and taking transit.



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