More on parking requirements and impacts to the city

Portland parking meter. CC image from Ian Broyles

Several tangentially related articles on parking over the past few weeks: 

In a previous post on zoning and unintended consequences, I linked to an Oregon Public Broadcasting piece on zero-parking development in Portland, OR – taking advantage of a clause in the zoning code that removes the requirement to provide off-site parking in developments around high-frequency transit corridors.  The key word is in removing the requirement, as the developers are free to provide on-site parking if they wish, but are no longer required to do so.  And may have decided to forgo off-street parking entirely.

Portland’s Willamette Week followed with a feature piece on the same issue a month later. Unfortunately, the writer frames the rule as letting developers off the hook for something they ought to pay for, like they were building bathrooms without toilets:

The Portland City Council more than a decade ago created this exemption—a huge financial benefit to developers—to increase density and discourage people from owning and driving cars.

If there’s a single fragment in the zoning code that encapsulates the ambition of city planners and the ethos of Portland, this may be it.

But the policy has its costs, and nearby residents such as Gold-Markel are paying for it.

Throughout the article, the ‘problems’ of this policy are presented in terms of spillover parking – that is, the residents of the new parking-less developments did not get rid of their cars entirely, and now park them on the street.  One obvious solution would be to manage parking on the street via pricing, permits, and many other available tools – rather than the blunt instrument of parking space requirements in the zoning code.  The zoning code works best when roughly governing broad land use and built form.  It is not a particularly strong management tool.  Nothing is mentioned about the cost to residents and to the city as a whole of requiring this expensive construction.

Along the same lines in DC (which does have some residential parking management programs in place), a local ANC recently signed off on a parking-free development near a metro station – but only in exchange for the promise that residents of the new building would not be allowed to get Residential Parking Permits for their vehicles.  On the one hand, the existence of a management program ought to help mitigate the impacts of such construction; on the other, the fact that the DC project had to negotiate to build without parking in the first place opens the door to “excessive localism” in Matt Yglesias’ terms.

Back in Portland:

Hales tells WW that when the city was rewriting the zoning code in 2000 to eliminate the parking requirement, he never thought developers would actually build apartments without parking.

“We were trying to get developers to put in one [parking] spot instead of two,” he says. “I certainly wasn’t smart enough to anticipate that banks would finance projects with no parking whatsoever.”

The simple fact is that parking doesn’t always pay.  Often, the economic case for it is quite weak if it isn’t seen as an absolute requirement (in either the legal sense or in terms of feasibility).  Another interesting (but very different case) is Yankee Stadium, where several large new parking garages adjacent to the new ballpark have defaulted on their bonds thanks to low utilization.

This situation is different from a run-of-the-mill zoning case, but it dramatically shows the cost  (and the lack of a return) in building too much parking.  With that kind of cost in providing parking when demand is low, it’s no wonder that one of the developers in the OPB piece made the claim that “Parking a site is the difference between a $750 apartment and a $1,200 apartment.”

In a more quantitative analysis of parking reforms, the Atlantic Cities looks to London:

In an upcoming issue of Urban Studies, researchers Zhan Guo and Shuai Ren of the Rudin Centre for Transport Policy and Management at NYU consider two core questions when it comes to London’s reform. First, does the parking minimum truly create more parking than people want? Second, is a parking maximum necessary to promote sustainable transport, or will the market alone take care of it?

On the first question, Guo and Ren returned a pretty definitive yes. They examined parking supply at 216 residential developments in London approved from 1997 to 2000, when the parking minimum was in effect, and then roughly 8,250 developments approved from 2004 to 2010, after the minimum was removed and the maximum imposed. Before parking reform, developers created 94 percent of the required minimum; after it, they created just 52 percent of the old minimum.

Those parking spaces that were formerly required obviously were not free to build.  As for parking maximums (that is, a requirement that a development not build more than a given amount of off-street parking):

Onto question number two: the effectiveness of the new maximums. Since the purpose of London’s parking reform was to promote alternative transportation, the researchers looked at how parking supply fluctuated in areas with high density and transit access after 2004. What they found is that that the actual parking supplied was higher in Central London, where density and access are greatest, compared to adjacent outer areas.

Guo and Ren call this finding “unexpected.” They suspect that local authorities may want to keep a high maximum (and therefore allow more spaces) to avoid a parking spillover onto already crowded streets in Central London. Another explanation is that the market simply wants more spaces there: people who can afford to live downtown are willing to pay a premium for parking.

I can’t see much problem in allowing parking to be built where the market is willing to bear the cost of construction and operation.  Likewise, a developer of a non-residential property could easily see value in providing a great deal of parking as a draw to their development.

None of this changes the fact that a robust system for managing on-street spaces will likely be needed in any case.   Such a program in Portland could easily soothe the concerns of nearby residents (though many of their concerns seem to be about the very existence of the newer, dense development in the first place); and a more market-responsive system in DC (hypothesis: most of DC’s RPP stickers are far too cheap relative to the demand for on-street spaces) might have avoided some of the negotiations in Tenleytown.

5 comments to More on parking requirements and impacts to the city

  • charlie

    Alex, you make some good points but:

    1) The opposition to the Tenleytown development wasn’t about parking in the end, any more than a lot of the fake historical designation fights. The residents of leafy NW DC don’t want apartment buildings.

    2) The cost for parking in inherent in the type of structure. If you’re building a 200+ unit building and NOT going deep enough for underground parking, I am a bit worried. Now, for a 10 or 25 unit building that is different.

    3)You hit on the real issue again: financing. Are banks (right now) willing to finance a building w/o parking. Yes. Is this necessarily a good idea?

  • Alex Block


    Good points. On 1), I did note that a lot of the opposition in Portland was indeed just opposition to development, period. I do think the same can be said for Tenleytown, but that doesn’t mean the parking discussion isn’t an important one.

    On 2), yes. And I would completely expect a large footprint building to at least build some structured parking, though there is a huge difference between having to do one level or two plus levels below grade. The other issue is that on smaller parcels (the kinds that hold 10-25 unit buildings), adding that parking and the ramps required to access it takes up a huge amount of space, either making below-grade parking infeasible at a 1:1 ratio or even more expensive (since much space is ‘lost’ to ramps and access).

    On 3), yes, they are – and yes, I think that’s a good thing. It’s not really different from how we built cities before. Even so, the banks are the ones assessing risk – why should the zoning code do it? I would argue that it should not.

  • […] that bike infrastructure — especially protected bike lanes — makes city cycling safer. City Block highlights Portland’s abolition of parking minimums in certain transit-rich parts of the […]

  • charlie

    In terms of #2, we have argued about this before but digging deep for residental is not always a bad thing. There are time where you want something smaller, but that should be the exception not the rule.

    On banks, we’d both agree banks did a terrible job of assessing risk in terms of spread out housing estates in Arizona and Vegas. And again, I think we’d both agree that we don’t want banks determining our urban forms (the example of Spain comes to mind).

    We are in a highly speculative phase in apartment rentals (look at Equity Apartments) and while overbuild sometime has benefits it also throws a lot of costs on to local communitities.

  • Alex Block


    In the Portland case, the total unit numbers of the no-parking developments in the article are: 15, 21, 23, 27, 27, 29, and 81. Point being, those 15-30 unit buildings would look a lot different if a) the site had to allow the space for 15-30 parking spaces below grade, and b) the developer had to add that cost into his pro forma.

    Parking takes up a lot of space, and the geometry required to maneuver a car in and out of a space therefore governs the minimum lot sizes for an effective garage, which tends to be a lot bigger than many lot sizes allow, particularly in a place like DC.

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