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For over 60 years, cities have imposed minimum parking mandates for most land uses, mandates whose impacts, particularly on contributing to housing underproduction, are well established. Car parking is expensive to build and maintain, and these costs are passed on to residents whether they own cars or not. An above-ground structure can easily cost $30,000 per stall; below-grade stalls can be twice as much. The costs go beyond dollars, adding up in square footage as well. Each space averages about 300 square feet, including aisles and clearances, nearly as much space as an efficiency apartment. Parking requirements, with their high added costs and physical constraints on building sites, directly limit the amount of housing that can be built in a new development and represent a real lost opportunity for much-needed housing for people.
If our goal is to build abundant and affordable housing, then we must align our policies to encourage neighborhoods where people can live without a car if they choose to. Cities are increasingly repealing and reducing parking mandates, but to maximize the building of sustainable communities with abundant and affordable housing, we must go beyond these reforms. We must also advocate for demand-driven public parking fees and investment in infrastructure that discourages travel by car.
Parking mandates are locally determined and therefore vary from city to city. The most restrictive mandates require more than one parking spot for each unit of housing. While it’s easy to see how a one-to-one mandate limits the building of homes through high cost and loss of otherwise inhabitable square footage, it doesn’t take an excessive parking mandate to add to housing underproduction. Even seemingly progressive parking policies can discourage the building of new apartments. For example, Portland, Oregon, was in the midst of an apartment building boom along several commercial corridors in 2012. Many of these new buildings had no on-site parking since parking mandates in areas near frequent transit had been repealed in 2000. Concerned about parking spillover, homeowners near these corridors mounted a successful campaign to force the City to re-impose parking mandates for new buildings with more than 30 apartments. The mandates were comparatively low: in buildings with 31-40 units, one parking space was required for every five apartments, and in buildings with 51+ homes, the ratio was one space for every three units.
Nonetheless, even this relatively modest mandate slowed the building of homes at the worst possible time. In the years following these new requirements, we saw a surge of permits for buildings with exactly 30 housing units, a predictable outcome when the first 30 units require no parking but the 31st unit mandates six parking spaces. Buildings were still built, but the marginal loss of housing—five units here and eight units there—was something Portland could not afford as it slid into a housing affordability crisis.
Fortunately, we are seeing accelerating progress on parking minimums. According to the Parking Reform Network’s map of cities that have eliminated parking mandates, as of mid-August 2022, at least 31 North American cities effectively require zero car parking for new housing. Oregon now preempts its cities from imposing mandates in neighborhoods served by frequent transit. The State of California has followed suit with Governor Newsom signing Assembly Bill 2097 into law on September 22, 2022.
Parking reform, however, is about more than minimums and mandates. To prevent backlash to parking reforms like we saw in Portland in 2012, cities need to be prepared with a plan to deal with spillover parking. In his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, UCLA Professor Donald Shoup prescribes two additional and necessary reforms: pricing the existing public parking supply to manage demand and spending the revenue generated locally to build public support for that pricing, ideally on projects, incentives, and infrastructure that encourage fewer cars owned and miles traveled. The public right-of-way is a valuable municipal asset. While the actual demand for parking in most areas of any given city is low, the demand in business districts and city centers means that parking in those areas can command a high price. Permits and meters (increasingly, these are digital or app-based) are the primary tools to manage parking, but the implementation details are quite varied and can be tailored to suit the concerns and needs of any neighborhood. When a city undercharges for parking, be it overnight residential parking in dense neighborhoods or meters on Main Street, it’s not only encouraging congestion and reducing convenience for visitors who can’t find a space but also leaving valuable revenue they could be collecting on the table.
Increased revenues through appropriate and well-designed parking fees mustn’t disappear into the general fund or be allocated for building more parking supply. Rather, these funds should be used to reduce car dependency and offset the impacts of pricing on low-income households. Portland once again serves as an example. Parking fees in Portland subsidize a Transportation Wallet. The Transportation Wallet is a benefit system that gives deep discounts to residents and workers in permit or meter areas, adding up to hundreds of dollars of transit, bike share, and other mobility benefits. Free Golden Transportation Wallets are offered to low-income workers and households. Another example of appropriate reinvestment of parking income is Austin, Texas, where parking meter revenue is used to fund sidewalk and curb enhancements and to build new bus shelters and bike lanes. Ideally, cities or regions could provide direct cash payouts to low-income households instead of complicated rebates or discounts for tolls and fees. Cash payouts are more effective transportation demand management than discounts or rebates, as a commuter or patron is incentivized to take alternate modes of transportation.
The trend to abolish parking mandates is encouraging, but a concerted and sustained effort is warranted to build on this momentum and implement a holistic suite of reforms needed to truly transform our cities. The need is urgent: every time a developer builds a new parking space, it creates demand for more parking spaces where those residents work and play. The car congestion those trips generate slows the bus, makes bike rides more dangerous, and encourages expensive road-widening projects. These impacts are compounded by their longevity: a structured parking space will be around for decades. The owner or operator of that parking space needs someone to drive to it and park, or it’s a wasted investment. The financial goals of an organization that owns parking spaces are in direct conflict with climate and transportation goals for the life of the structure and the health of the community.
To build abundant and affordable housing, we must align our policies to encourage neighborhoods where car ownership is a choice. Developers, realtors, and investors who stand to benefit from zoning reforms and density-supportive infrastructure improvements are too often missing from the campaigns for safer streets and better transit. These stakeholders are influential and have access to resources sorely needed by activists and advocacy groups currently doing hard work at the grassroots level. Without this additional work, eliminating parking mandates will either be ineffective—developers will continue to build parking voluntarily—or short-lived as elected officials are pressured to water down or repeal hard-won reforms as we saw in Portland in 2012.
In these times, we must focus on opportunities that create multiple wins and parking reforms are a true multi-solving solution: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, enabling more abundant housing, encouraging economic activity, generating public revenues, improving water quality, preventing heat-island effects, and providing space for transit and micro-mobility.
The Parking Reform Network is advocating for just such solutions. We educate the public about the impact of parking policy on climate change, equity, housing, and traffic and are the only organization with a focused mission to accelerate the adoption of critical parking reforms through research, coalition-building, and direct advocacy. If your company or organization is not already engaged in parking reform, I encourage you to visit our website or get in touch to learn more. If you are currently active on this issue, join us. There is much to be done and it is easier—and more fun—to work together.