Parking is in the news: the trend of cities rolling back zoning requirements for off-street parking

CC image from Peter Rosbjerg

CC image from Peter Rosbjerg

It’s hard to miss the discussion these days about parking, from sources as varied as Grist and the Wall Street Journal. Some links and brief discussion:

Each article highlights the challenges parking presents in an urban environment, and the additional challenges of inflexible rules requiring it. Matt Yglesias makes the case for the straight-up removal of all parking requirements as the simplest option, rather than the selective reductions in certain districts or reductions in the numerical requirement itself. He writes (quoting extensively):

First on a concrete level, this is a form of compromise that really fails in its goal of de-mobilizing opposition. If you are a street parker and your priority in parking policy is to defend your access to cheap street parking, then any reduction in parking mandates should spark opposition. Watering the reform down doesn’t lead to any genuine reconciliation of interests. What you need to do is recognize that street parkers have a real reason for wanting to keep mandates in place and find a way to buy them off. I think what I propose at the end of the column would do that. But once you’ve managed to configure reform as a win-win, then you should go whole hog.

The second is that gradualism, by focusing reform on the places that are most indisputably well-served by transit and pedestrianism, actually denudes parking reform of its main promise—transforming neighborhoods. If you imagine a neighborhood that doesn’t have great bus frequency or amazing neighborhood-serving retail and add some housing with less than one parking space per adult, then you’re going to get the additional customers that would be the basis for more frequent buses or new stores. Why would anyone in a neighborhood like that want a unit with no parking space? Why would a couple want a unit with just one space? Probably most people wouldn’t. But some non-zero quantity of people would do it for the main reason people everywhere put up with sub-optimal housing situations—to save money. But those initial people with fewer cars than adults become the customers for the services—whether that’s carshare or the bus or a walking distance store—that make the neighborhood more attractive down the road.

The way things work right now is that parking minimums risk destroying existing walkable neighborhoods through the reverse dynamic where subsidized car ownership leads to excessive car ownership leads to further auto-oriented development. Selective liberalization of parking rules can break that vicious cycle, which is nice, but only citywide liberalization drives the virtuous process forward.

The partial reductions in requirements are certainly due to political opposition to the idea. Even in places like Portland that had no requirements in some areas of the city have since re-instated limited requirements, ostensibly due to political pressure. However, while removing the offending language is unlikely to win any supporters, keeping it in might rile up even more opposition due to the inherent asymmetry to the procedures of changing regulations such as zoning codes.

On the merits of policy, removing the requirements would be a simple solution. Given that there is no ‘right’ answer to the number of spaces that should be required given the diversity of market segments a developer might build for, and given that in many cases, the ‘right’ number of spaces for a site and market segment could be zero, selecting any one number as the requirement (and getting it ‘right’) is an impossible task – unless that number is zero.


5 comments to Parking is in the news: the trend of cities rolling back zoning requirements for off-street parking

  • Kenny

    Depending on how these requirements are phrased, even zero as a minimum may be too high. One way to structure that requirement would be to say that any new development must not result in a net loss of parking spaces (that is, the number of spaces afterwards minus the number of spaces before must be at least zero). This would still require some sort of structured parking whenever you convert a surface parking lot into a tower.

  • Alex Block

    Good point, Kenny. In metropolitan DC, this is most evident in the redevelopment of WMATA park and ride stations. The standard requirement for TOD is that they will allow dense development of their property, but will require a 1:1 replacement of existing facilities.

    Some of this makes sense. They need to replace chillers and bus bays and other such station facilities. When it comes to parking, however, what was once just a land banking exercise with surface parking then becomes a large structure that needs to be provided. In the development of the Takoma station area, they are adjusting this requirement due to the underuse if their parking lot, but they are still requiring some park and ride parking to be provided in this adjacent TOD.

  • Tom West

    We have to get pas the idea that “no parking minimum” equals “developers will build no parking”
    If on-street parking is heavily limited or non-existent (as on many suburban arterial roads and in downtown areas), then developers will want to provide sufficient off-street parking, otherwise no-one will buy the land. (Residential buyers will find another home with enough parking; commercial buyers will realise not enough people can park to sustain their business).

    Or more simply: let the free market decide how much parking to provide.

  • […] Parking is in the News City Block (DC) – July 11, 2013 Each article highlights the challenges parking presents in an urban environment, and the additional challenges of inflexible rules requiring it. […]

  • Alex Block

    Tom, good point about the presence of on-street parking. This is part of what makes the LA example so interesting (see discussion here) is the fact that the de-regulation of parking there happened in Downtown LA, where all on-street parking is metered, making residential parking unfeasible.

    Yet, even with no possibility of spillover parking on to city streets, the diversity of new development from flexible regulation and the elimination of parking minimums shows the benefits of removing this kind of regulation. Cheaper housing, more housing options, and a greater variety of parking provided, both in number and in location.

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