Parking Free – by Charlie Hinkley

Cincinnati is caught up in the nation-wide paradigm shift concerning what makes a community attractive. Like many other older American cities, ours is growing with new residents and businesses for the first time in two generations. Nowhere are our improved fortunes—and new challenges—more evident than in our urban basin, home to both Fortune 500 companies and crushing poverty.

Elected officials and community leaders all talk about the need to maintain a mixed-income, racially diverse, inclusive Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Mostly they have focused on the creation or retention of low-income housing and rent-control policies, often as a prerequisite when building new, market-rate units. While these approaches can do much for many, they are not fully effective at reducing total housing costs, because rent is only a part of the problem.

My argument is simple: eliminating the absolute need for car ownership and the requirement to provide off-street parking will have the immediate effect of reducing the cost of living in the Downtown and Over-the-Rhine areas. Smaller housing costs mean that the neighborhoods are more affordable for a wider range of people.


I am frustrated with every announcement of new construction in Downtown or Over-the-Rhine, and the inevitable inclusion of off-street parking. I am frustrated because car ownership is a huge expense, and the cost of building all this parking is a huge expense.  In the context of creating a mixed-income neighborhood, then, we aren’t putting our money where our mouths are. The typical American household spends almost $10,000 a year on automobile-related expenses. And as a society, we have failed horribly at capturing the cost of negative externalities associated with all our driving, such as: urban flooding, pollution, psychosomatic illness, and the 30,000 Americans who die because of cars each year.

How do we adequately move around our city while also reducing the need and expense for costly car-related infrastructure? By funding a better public transportation system and changing the rules.

20160206_161853Cincinnati Metro already does a lot on a shoestring budget; the organization is regularly lauded for the creative ways it stretches each dollar. It could do a lot more with even a modicum of increased funding.  First, Metro should work to eliminate stops and increase the frequency of core routes. Transit is a constant trade-off between access and ridership. Does the system touch the greatest number of people at an infrequent rate?  Or does it focus on frequency and therefore ridership numbers along core routes? Metro should tip the balance of this equation toward ridership, an easy goal in hilly Cincinnati. Second, it should focus on building more defined stops and transfer points. Bus stops with more effective shelters—including cover from the elements and a bench—would increase route visibility and provide needed protection for its riders, as well as a space to post route maps and timetables. Providing faster, more frequent service between our neighborhood business districts (NBDs), primary jobs locations, and shopping destinations is the smart way to move people for work and pleasure.

While transit funding can be affected by City Hall, our local government’s major 20160206_162210contribution to the creation of more broadly affordable housing should be to eliminate minimum parking requirements near the city’s NBDs, particularly within the urban basin. Note that this move would not forbid the creation of off-street parking; it merely removes the government mandate that parking must be built. Thus, the market can take over and developers can decide for themselves how much parking is required for a project. Two underlying policies must change for this to happen. One: the City must stop viewing parking as a primary source of income. Instead, City Hall should focus on boosting income, sales, and property tax receipts through increased economic activity in our NBDs. Two: developers and their bankers must become more comfortable with quality access to transit substituting for proprietary parking. This will take time and clear signals from City Hall.

When seeking to create a racially and socio-economically diverse community in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati’s leaders fail to take a holistic approach.  Rather, they seem to focus solely on the flawed metric of physical housing costs as a means to fight increasing rents and to maintain financial diversity. Their failure to design and fund a superior transportation system imposes unnecessary costs on those at the bottom and middle of the economic ladder.  The government policy of mandated minimum parking requirements distorts the market, reducing the efficacy of Metro while costing developers – and the taxpayers who inevitably subsidize them – millions of dollars. Our current policy may have been applicable when first designed, but it is no longer relevant. Indeed, it has failed for everyone, both those with cars and those without.

It is time we design a new transportation system to reflect our changed values and needs.

9 thoughts on “Parking Free – by Charlie Hinkley

  1. Chip Kussmaul

    I don’t think that it’s too soon to start contemplating how autonomous cars are going to influence the process. When (not if) cars pick you up where you are and drop you off where you want to be, and you need not concern yourself with where they park, it will be a game changer. Parking lots and garages will not need to be close to where people live, work, and congregate. Cars will be able to park much more densely, because there will be no need for space between them for passengers to get out.

    Such cars have existed for years. It is becoming less a problem of technology, and more a problem of implementation and legalities. Again,it’s not too soon to make plans that anticipate a future that is right around the corner.

    1. Charlie Hinkley

      I appreciate the comment, Chip. I’d caution you to be too optimistic about the ways that autonomous cars could end up changing our cities. Jarrett Walker, who is far smarter than I, has an excellent piece on their effect here: Basically, autonomous cars would lead to a huge increase in congestion due to an increase in trips taken, which would lead to more gridlock, resulting in more space needed on highways and city streets.

    2. cathleen

      Chip, I am thinking along the same lines as you. We have no way to predict what the future of autonomous cars will look like, but they are coming. I work in the tech sector and with people that are focused on self-driving cars. This movement has the backing of national governments as a way to decrease vehicle deaths ( and improve traffic flows ( Predictions show that 20 million self-driving cars will be on the road in 10 years – some of these completely autonomous. There are a number of obstacles to overcome (some that are currently unforeseen), but with better public transportation/home delivery on everyday items such as groceries/telecommuting/etc., we can hope to one day stop building more parking lots and instead start ripping them out.

  2. Nina Johns

    I just posted a bit of a rant on Urban Cincy’s FB page a couple of days ago, on this very topic, although yours, not being a rant, is a much more useful tool for analyzing this situation; thank you. I believe that the unspoken truth is that people are both hooked on the convenience of driving and also leery of contact with the general public in the urban core in an enclosed space; better known as fear of crime, inappropriate public behavior, etc. It becomes a chicken/egg toggle, so, indeed, government has to lead to start this process, but I fear that the idea of yield management parking is going to steal the attention of those with the entrenched idea that parking should generate revenue: a pricing model I’ve heard of, driven by apps which tell you which parking places have opened as you circle, looking, And there are many privately owned garages taking prime real estate which probably have City Hall’s ear too. Anyway, your analysis is absolutely right: fix Metro, creates more ridership, logically, extends the hours of operation, filling buses, creating an atmosphere of safety, etc etc.

  3. Mark Skelton

    Illuminating and informative. Seems to me that nothing stunts and impedes growth and harmony in a neighborhood ( or for that matter, a world..) more than those who are hell bent on trying to impose outdated solutions and planning models onto an ever changing, burgeoning environment. I believe that those folks and/or entities who are hell bent on maintaining a “status quo”, do so, sometimes out of a lack of vision, but more often than not, for self-serving political and/or personal gain and power. As wide as the divide may seem , between the cultures of the Fortune 500 companies and those struggling in crushing poverty, all trying to inhabit the same city blocks, that divide can be lessened, or even bridged, when smart, innovative and organic solutions are implemented, that enrich the daily lives of ALL of the neighbors. Throughout history, be it locally, or globally, we have all witnessed the stark, contrasting results of the “us and them” model, versus the “we the people” philosophical approach. Thank you, Charlie Hinkley, for your fantastic piece, featured on cincyopolis.

  4. cathleen

    In my current city (not Cincinnati) a couple of the bus routes function much like Charlie is proposing. I’ve taken them, and they are very efficient. The stops are spaced every mile or so. The buses are electronically monitored to know exactly where they are, and the drivers can tell precisely if they are ahead of or behind schedule and adjust accordingly; in the case where buses are behind schedule they automatically send a beam to the upcoming traffic signal to hold it green a few seconds longer – allowing them to eliminate a traffic stop ( The bus stops all have benches and are protected from the elements. Perhaps even better, the stops have electronic displays notifying passengers, fairly precisely, when the next bus arrives. As well, they offer a phone app that lets you know the arrival time of the buses (the app also serves as your electronic buss pass on all bus lines, plus a lot more).

  5. Zachary Schunn

    Parking minimums were reduced in the CBD/OTR in 2013, and were discussed thoroughly during the FBC charettes. City officials were afraid completely abolishing parking minimums would lead to a tragedy of the commons type effect, in which every new development relied on existing parking until not enough parking existed to sustain the new development. It’s actually often public outcry–not planning policy or developers’ sentiments–that leads to overbuilding parking.

    That all said, I agree completely with the sentiment of improving public transit to ease the car-based culture.


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