Choice architecture and zoning

Parallel parking on-street. CC image from Eyton Z.

Following up on the previous post, two pieces showing the limits of the zoning code in structuring choice architectures in urban environments:

Parking. Zoning code provisions that require adding off-street parking seriously distort both the urban fabric as well as the decision-making of individuals using those buildings – and thus those parking spaces (some previous thoughts on this here and here).  Portland has eliminated minimum parking requirements under certain circumstances (and has had this regulation on the books for many years – only recently have both developers and financiers been on the same page about parking-free development).  Of course, a parking-free development is nothing new – huge swaths of our cities built before the imposition of such codes function just fine without the ‘benefit’ of such codes guiding their maturation.

The most recent news about these parking-free developments in Portland is that those living in the parking-free apartments are not car-free themselves:

But a city of Portland study released this week suggests that no-car households are the exception, not the rule, even in apartments that don’t provide parking. And those vehicles have to go somewhere.

But it also found that 73 percent of 116 apartment households surveyed have cars, and two-thirds park on the street. Only 36 percent use a car for a daily commute, meaning the rest store their cars on the street for much of the week.

Point being, rescinding parking requirements from zoning codes alone is not enough to change behavior.  That doesn’t mean that changing parking requirements isn’t a good idea – it is. As the quote above also notes, very few of these residents use their cars for a daily commute.  However, there is a limit to what zoning can do.  Parking requirements in the zoning code are a crude form of parking management; rescinding those rules likely warrants better parking management programs.

Portland appears stuck in between market equilibria here: people complain about more parkers on the the street, but those people are only parking there because it’s cheap and available.  Likewise, off-street spaces are available for rent, but many are unwilling to pay the price to do so:

But developers can’t count on tenants to pick up the tab, particularly when there is street parking easily available nearby.

“The market is the market,” Menashe said. “If the guy down the street has no parking and he’s able to get $800 a unit, that’s probably all we can get, too.”

Great news for the city, and for consumers who value market-rate affordability in their apartments.  This suggests that a) the old requirement for parking was indeed too high, and b) moving some of those cars to the street hasn’t put too much strain on on-street parking.

Nonetheless, the lesson is that zoning can only do so much.  Zoning is a blunt instrument, it can regulate form well.  To the extent that use and form are tied together, it can regulate use.  But you can’t dictate behavior with a zoning code – and trying to do so will likely bring unintended consequences.

The excellent Portland Transport blog takes note of these findings and asks: what policies would get you to go car-lite or car-free?  Options within this realm – things like charging for on-street parking permits, encouraging car-sharing services, enabling additional dense development to thus provide more ‘stuff’ within a walkable distance, thereby reducing the need for car ownership, etc.  Those kinds of policies are the ones to build into the choice architecture to reduce car use and ownership, and also to reduce the tension from good policy changes like the removal of minimum parking requirements.

Restaurants. Writing at Greater Greater Washington, Herb Caudill calls for the removal of a zoning restriction on restaurants in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of DC. The rule is a part of an overlay zoning district and limits restaurants from occupying more than 25% of the linear storefront footage in the area.  The goal is to require a diversity of retail uses in the area. The effect, however, has been for a lot of longstanding vacancies as well as some rather odd tenants (such as a vacuum cleaner repair shop).

Here again, zoning can only do so much.  Once you step outside the physical purview of what zoning is good at regulating, all bets are off. Zoning can require that buildings provide retail space, for example – but exactly what type of retail is a lot harder to regulate.  Leaving aside the wisdom of even trying to regulate such a thing (rather than allowing the market some flexibility to operate), the goal of diverse retail uses is probably better met with other types of policies than changes to the zoning code.

3 comments to Choice architecture and zoning

  • charlie

    As I’ve said before, car-lite, not car-free.

    In any case, not a surprise. The Shoupian version of parking restrictions was always more about promoting performance parking than about changing lifestyles. And it turns out the problem (parking related cogestion) is pretty minimal in most areas.

    I’ll give you that street parking is harder than parking in a garage, and maybe you’re less likely to use a car. And there are lot of advantages to having parking cars on a street — it narrows and slows traffic down. Not great for bikes because of the stopping/dooring issue, but better for pedestrians. Much worse for street cleaning/snow removal.

    In terms of the restaurants issue, a lot of it is really about keeping undesirables out. In DC that means young black men — see recent killing at Woodly Park. Once you move to a point where that isn’t happening — i.e. cleveland park — the restaurant ban is kind of silly.

  • Alex Block


    I think you oversell Shoupian performance parking – that’s about metered spaces, not residential spaces. Indeed, that problem is minimal in residential areas, but that’s not the problem that needs to be solved in this case.

    Point being, these Portland ‘hoods complain about parking on the streets, but it appears as if that parking was and still is plentiful. So, the problem doesn’t really exist. Even if it did exist (as it does in DC), then the solution requires active management, not zoning code amendments.

    I don’t agree about the motivations of the restaurant restriction, but that’s beside the point: if you want to regulate businesses, regulate the businesses – don’t do it through the zoning code that governs physical development.

    Zoning for use can work in broad terms (e.g. this space should be retail, while this space should be residential), but not in any sort of fine-grained way (this space should be a restaurant, and this space should be a yoga studio). However, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  • […] study on the impacts of parking requirements on housing affordability. (This study was linked to in a previous post)  To illustrate the point, the city looks at a hypothetical development and considers a number of […]

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