Parking Wars: Ignoring the Parking Problem Without Studying It Is Foolish for Philadelphia’s Future

Pine buffered bike lane blocked on a Sunday evening creating a safety hazard every weekend for Philly cyclists.

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There is perhaps no issue that stifles Philadelphia’s public space & real estate development more than parking. Parking and loading is the reason why it took 9 years to install a pedestrian plaza at the Grays Ferry Triangles. Parking is the reason why the city in partnership with the Bike Coaltion is spending 250K worth of signs and paint for sharrows that don’t do anything (heaven forbid we actually create a protected or buffered bike lane by removing a parking lane). Overflow parking for churches and synagogues is the reason the Spruce and Pine bike lanes aren’t protected bike lanes. Parking is why we don't have clean streets via regular street sweeping. Parking dominates real estate development discussion. 2300 South, a project that would have added 19 new apartments and much needed density to an important commercial crossing was nixed because politically-connected people didn’t want their on-street parking for their private vehicles affected by a project to be built on a plot not economically capable of providing parking. 

This would have happened much sooner than 9 years had parking not been such an issue to contend with.

For 2300 South, if we assume one resident per 19 apartments making $30,000 a year that is $1200 per resident per year in wage tax (4%) the city just threw away by not approving the project. Multiplied across 19 residents that’s $22,800 per year. Forgive me if my math is not perfect but you get the idea by this illustration. Of course that doesn’t include the property tax on a new building, the sales tax those residents would be paying when they shop at nearby stores or the cumulative affect density has in ensuring commercial districts succeed. 

Rejected because of parking.

We are flushing countless dollars down the toilet every year in Philadelphia by mandating parking for development. Cars don’t pay taxes, people do. More people means an economically more vibrant city with a stronger tax base. We are also increasing the cost of housing by reducing the area that could be devoted to additional units of housing and replacing them with storage for private automobiles. 

The notion of free or cheap parking is flawed. We all pay for it in some form or another, either by having to pay a proportional higher tax burden since less people can live and pay tax in a city that makes lots of room for cars and with increased housing costs since less marketable units for a developer mandated to provide parking in the place of them means those remaining units are more expensive. We pay for it in lots of intangibles too. Philadelphia will not improve personal mobility and public health with increased cycling unless we create better biking infrastructure on our narrow streets. Philadelphia will not have success stories like the Grays Ferry Triangles that is improving business and creating new social spaces for community building unless we remove a requirement that 100% of nearby residents have to agree on a plan to potentially remove some parking on a street they don’t actually own. Philadelphia will not progress environmentally if creation of bioswales for water department runoff filtering requires residents to weigh in on whether they want a legal or illegal (de facto loading area) removed to make way for it. Our quality of life and economic viability as a city is tied up in parking.

So why do we know so little about it? Here’s what we do know about parking supply and access:

  • There are 32 Parking Districts in the City of Philadelphia

  • There are no detailed digital/interactive parking maps showing which specific streets in a Parking District are restricted/permitted areas vs. free-for-all streets.

  • There is however an overall map of parking zones for the city, which is great and can be found here.

  • In restricted/permitted areas, the annual fee for parking is $35 for the first car in a household. Roughly, the cost of one tank of gas for a small car. That cost goes up per car, but not by much. 

  • Temporary permits for visitors are available for purchase from the PPA and can be hung in the rear view windows of visiting cars. They are scratched off by day of use.

  • Local registration of a vehicle and proof of insurance is required to receive an annual permit. (We’ve written about the low rate of car insurance in Philly before)

  • There are portions of city that don’t require permits anywhere. 

  • Pennsport, an area that has egregious parking violations like parking on corners and hostility to development and density along Moyamensing Ave, has NO dedicated Parking District.

  • At least 70% of block residents must agree to new permitting on their street within an established zone. This is done via a standard process.

In preparation for this article the Parking Authority was contacted and so far no responses have been received. Some of the information we are seeking is:

  • For each of the 32 Parking Districts, how many permits are issued annually by district?

  • For each of the 32 Parking Districts, what is the number or proportion of streets in each district that consists of permitted areas? This will also tell us what proportion/number of streets that are free-for-all.

  • What is the overall supply of parking in each of these districts? Assuming a standard for average curb length of each space, a rough number can certainly be ascertained.

  • What is the overall supply of loading areas, taxi stands or ZipCar stations in each of these districts?

  • How many temporary permits are purchased from the PPA each year?

  • Has there been increased demand for permits in certain areas over time?

  • What percentage of households that hold permits hold multiple permits?

Understanding parking issues at a more granular level helps community organizations and elected officials make better planning decisions. It could also help organizations like the (Zoning Board of Adjustment) ZBA see actual parking issues and metrics going on in a particular neighborhood where variance is being requested. Better information leads to better decisions.

If you think its simply too difficult to collect better information, meet Amber Goldberg, the planning student SOSNA worked with to create a detailed report of parking in Graduate Hospital. The area has rapidly developed in the last 15 years and along with it parking issues. Yet if we don’t understand what portion of Graduate Hospital’s streets require permits and where they are, how can we make recommendations like converting additional free-for-all streets to permit streets? How can we see which streets, due to their configuration and proximity to higher density areas, may be underperforming in providing parking to residents?  

This chart shows how many Graduate Hospital Streets are free-for-all streets. If residents want less parking issues, more permit restricted streets would help.
The darker the blue, the greater the capacity for parking.

We can’t and that’s why we needed better data in Graduate Hospital and better data for the city. We need open parking data across the city. Future bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, bike corrals, parklets, cleaner streets and the golden calf of real estate development all depend on it. The parking mob and their pitchforks aren’t going away any time soon. Our political and administrative leadership needs to be armed with information, not guestimates and vague ideas.


DISCLAIMER: I sit on The Board of SOSNA. None of the views presented here represent the views of SOSNA. Use the Contact Us section in the footer below if you'd like to reach Amber for professional opportunities. We'll put you in contact.

Here are some ways to make parking and car ownership more, not less difficult as a means to reducing parking demand across the city.

Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July 2014 @ 12.55
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geoff's picture Geoff Kees Thompson Founder + Urban Planner Website: About the Author:

Other than time away from Philly studying his masters in Urban Planning in the Netherlands, Geoff has lived here since 2005. He founded This Old City to advocate for better public space as a means to economic development, improved public health, lower crime and a more environmentally sustainable future. He currently sits on the Executive Board of SOSNA and is the head volunteer gardener for Saint Mark's Church at 1625 Locust Street.


He is also Chair of The 5th Square PAC, an organization committed to voter education and the funding of progressive urbanist candidates for Philadelphia's future. 


Follow This Old City on Twitter @thisoldcity and Facebook or Geoff individually @geoffkees

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