Norman Garrick

By implementing stricter parking maximums over time, Switzerland's largest city recaptured its public spaces for its people.

The first time I heard the term ‘historic compromise’ used with respect to parking policy in Zurich, 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, Zurich 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 Zurich'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. 

The regulation of parking spaces in Zurich 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 Zurich 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 Zurich, 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. 

Above: Zurich's Limmatquai before (top) and after the removal of 20,000 cars per day (Courtesy: Daniel Sauter)

As an example, the default parking level for small shops in Zurich 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 Zurich. 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 Zurich 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 Zurich 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.

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