Bozeman should follow the lead of cities like Billings, Boise, Fort Collins, or Fargo and scrap its downtown parking minimums, allowing the allocation of private parking to be chosen by the market rather than being bureaucratically assigned.

Limiting development to prevent parking shortages puts the proverbial cart before the horse, yet this is currently how downtown Bozeman’s parking needs are managed. To create anything “new” downtown requires providing parking in accordance with the arbitrary minimums and maximums written into the city’s development code, resulting in oversupplied parking and diluted urban density and tax revenues. Policies that manage parking proactively (rather than by restricting development) can better prevent both parking shortages and oversupply, and do so with fewer unintended consequences.

During the busiest hour of the busiest day studied, Bozeman’s 2017 Downtown Parking Study found only 61 percent of total downtown parking spaces to be in use, even while certain blocks were completely full. The remaining unoccupied 2,320 parking spaces would cover 10 full-sized football fields.

Such imbalances between demand and supply arise from Bozeman’s arbitrary parking ratios. For example, consider that a five-bedroom penthouse requires no more parking than a studio apartment, or that offices must provide more parking space than actual office space. Bars require parking area at least four times their serving area (for whom, exactly?), and bowling alleys must provide two parking spaces per billiard table (a 10-to-1 ratio of black asphalt to green felt).

While the parking ratios could be made less arbitrary, the bigger problem is that current minimums essentially require each business to provide its own parking. A church, a bank, and a bar could logically all share the same parking lot, if not for Bozeman’s minimums, which make this sort of sensible sharing agreement extremely difficult.

Policies that proactively manage parking as a shared resource can prevent parking shortages at a lesser social cost. As an example, Montana State University serves its 19,500 students, faculty and staff with fewer parking spaces than downtown Bozeman offers. To do so, MSU actively manages its parking needs by promoting alternative transportation through investment in bicycle infrastructure and the Streamline transit system, charging users for parking and building new capacity as required.

Similar policies could be applied downtown to replace our parking minimums, especially if augmented with a permit program to keep new developments from pushing parking into nearby residential areas. Like MSU, the city could manage future parking needs through investment in alternative transportation, expanded use of pricing and by building additional capacity (especially by replacing existing surface lots with garages).

If some of downtown’s underutilized private parking was allowed to be converted to more productive uses, the resulting increase in property tax revenues could be used to construct additional public parking structures or to lower taxes elsewhere. A 2014 study of Hartford, Connecticut, found that Hartford lost approximately $1,200 per year per parking spot in foregone tax revenues. In Bozeman, the buildings and land between 104 and 128 East Main Street generate $186,000 in annual property taxes. The adjoining similarly sized, 58-space parking lot generates only $6,700 per year—a difference in annual tax revenues of $3,095 per parking space. Acre for acre, the land with buildings is 3,200 percent more productive for Bozeman’s tax base than the parking lot.

More broadly, the conversion of underutilized surface parking into places to shop, dine and live would increase downtown’s vitality and attractiveness. As Bozeman revamps both its Community Plan and its Downtown Plan, now is a perfect time to tell Bozeman’s City Commission and planners that it’s time for proactive parking management to replace development minimums.

Mark Egge is a transportation planning consultant and a member of Bozeman’s Parking Commission citizen advisory board. The views expressed in this column are the author’s own.