Flap lock paid parking systems (Japan’s coin parking lots)
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Brief summary of this reform
Numerous small surface parking lots are not the best feature of Japan's cities.
But at least they are priced, and one of the keys to that is "flap lock" parking systems. These enable self-service (unstaffed) paid parking. They do not require on-site staff and have low enforcement costs. Operating costs are therefore very low, making parking fees feasible even on tiny parking areas.
Why should you care?
Japan fails to regulate small vacant-lot parking areas tightly enough, which causes various problems.
Nevertheless, the flap lock parking approach to pricing in Japan does demonstrate the feasibility of charging fees for parking even on very small parking areas (some as small as a single parking space).
This or similar systems might enable self-service pricing of small parking areas in many other countries too.
One possible application is for the small parking areas in front of small commercial buildings. This ‘frontage parking’ arrangement is common across Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, Colombia and probably many other countries too. This parking is often private (customers-only or tenants-only). Typically, each business controls the spaces directly in front of it. This is extremely inefficient. Flap lock parking might perhaps be part of a better approach to managing such parking spaces. This would probably require local government help with negotiations to enable solutions that benefit all of the businesses involved.
Key actor type
Not applicable. Arose as an business innovation in response to a need.
Is it a model or a warning?
Main parking category
Main parking paradigm shift
Off-street commercial open-to-the-public
Towards park-once-and-walk AND more responsiveness to context/market
Adaptive Parking thrust
P: Price parking in the right ways and with the right rates for each place and time
Goals of the reform
Coin parking systems using flap locks arose as a business innovation to enable parking fees even on very small parking areas.
Impetus (what problem, campaign, opportunity or event prompted action?)
In the period after Japan’s 1990 real estate market crash, Japanese cities had numerous small plots of vacant land that could not be economically developed in the post-crash market conditions.
The ability to charge for parking on small pieces of land presented an opportunity for land owners to get at least some return.
The large number of vacant plots is also an artefact of various land, tenancy, and taxation policies. For example, planning rules do not treat conversion to a small parking lot as a development (Kanemoto, 1997).
Detailed description of the reform
Japanese cities have numerous small vacant-lot parking areas. In many ways, these are a blot on the landscape and are part of an oversupply of parking in small Japanese cities.
But at least most are priced and open to the public via so-called ‘coin parking’. This refers to self-service (unstaffed) paid parking using ‘flap lock’ systems.
These flap lock parking systems do not require on-site staff and have low enforcement costs, which keeps operating costs very low.
In the areas in Japanese cities that have high market prices for parking, the low cost of coin parking makes such systems feasible on even tiny parking lots with as few as one or two spaces.
Flap lock parking systems involve a flap lock device installed across each parking space. When a car parks on the space, a flap rises after a short delay (such as 2 minutes). This prevents the vehicle from driving off. Upon returning, the motorist makes payment (usually at an on-site kiosk or via digital payment app). This causes the flap to lower again, allowing the vehicle to be driven away.
In the past, only coins were accepted in most coin parking lot kiosks. However, other payment methods, such as payment by digital app, pre-paid contactless cards and credit cards, are increasingly accepted.
Coin parking using flap lock systems arose as a business innovation with no government involvement. However, the system did arise to take advantage of the lack of government regulation over small parking lots in Japan and from Japanese parking policies that made paid parking a viable business in most areas of most Japanese cities. These policies include having parking mandates (minimums) that are set at very low levels and which exempt small and medium-sized buildings and allowing very little on-street parking (and none at all overnight).
Results or impacts
Flap lock parking technology has enabled the cost effective implementation of priced parking even on tiny plots of vacant urban land in Japan. This has enabled the owners of this land to gain at least some return while waiting for market conditions to be attractive for development. It also adds depth to local paid-parking markets across Japan.
On the negative side, together with other perverse incentives in the tax code (Kanemoto 1997), coin parking is enabling many vacant lots to remain underdeveloped for longer than it otherwise might be. Furthermore, the coin-parking phenomenon has played a role in an oversupply of parking in some parts of Japan, especially the urban cores of small Japanese cities and towns.
Sources and acknowledgements
How to Park a Car in Japan 14 Mar 2017
Wheels in Japan (13 May 2016) Where can I park in Japan?!: Coin Parking, https://wheelsinjapan.wordpress.com/2016/05/13/where-can-i-park/
Reinventing Parking (August 2010) Tokyo’s coin parking lots
Reinventing Parking, (4 December 2019) Learn from Japan!
Net searches for ‘flap lock parking’ yield various sources of these systems, especially in China and Japan
Kanemoto, Yoshitsugu (1997) The housing question in Japan. Regional Science and Urban
Economics 27 (6), 613-641.
Images of coin parking in Tokyo are from:
23 Jul 2021