Parking, misunderstood

CC image from Atomic Taco

Let’s take a trip up and down the Northeast Corridor and look at recent parking news.  All three show some misunderstandings about parking, cities, and markets. Time for some Shoup reading assignments!

New York:  Looking to discuss changes to the zoning code parking requirements in downtown Brooklyn, the New York Times comes down with a severe case of windshield-itis:

In traffic-clogged New York City, where parking spaces are coveted like the rarest of treasures, an excess of parking spaces might seem like an urban planner’s dream.

Yet city officials, developers and transit advocates say that in Downtown Brooklyn, there is this most unusual of parking problems: There is simply too much of it.

Admittedly, many urban planning principles seem counter-intuitive at first glance.  When you add in the challenge of altering a regulatory status quo (such as modestly changing the zoning code, as is proposed in Brooklyn), the weight of conventional wisdom is enormous.

Still, it’s interesting to see a parking glut framed as an “urban planner’s dream.’ (particularly when compared against later articles from DC) It’s sure not my dream, either in terms of result (excess parking) or process (via the unintended consequences of regulation).  Building parking is expensive, so we don’t want to build too much of it.  Requiring us to build too much means that those costs just get passed along to the rest of us.

It’s worth noting that New York is not proposing to eliminate these requirements and rely on the market to determine how much parking to provide, they are merely reducing the requirement from mandating 40% of new units have spaces (in a neighborhood where only 22% of households own cars!) to 20%. Why not reduce it to zero?

Likewise, there are likely opportunities for new developments to make use of the excess parking already built. Hopefully, those kinds of arrangements would allow for new buildings to still be parking-free if the market so desires.  Nevertheless, a reduction in the requirement is moving in the right direction.

Philadelphia: A few miles south on the NEC, Philadelphia might be backtracking on parking, rather than moving in the right direction. Philly has already altered their zoning code to eliminate parking requirements in the city’s dense rowhouse neighborhoods.  Now, members of the city council want to roll those changes back. The council’s interference in a code change that’s only been in effect for a few months is troubling, as is the lack of reasoning.  From the Inquirer’s article on the topic:

“Most developers wish that they didn’t have to get approvals from anybody,” says Clarke. “I have to be responsive to the needs of the residents. They don’t have enough parking.”

Perhaps this is where a dose of that counter-intuitive planning wisdom would be useful.

The reasoning put forth for changing the rules back is equally troubling, particularly given the Philadelphia Planning Commission’s charge in rewriting the zoning code: reduce the need to grant so many variances.  Attempting to graft a comprehensive zoning ordinance onto a pre-existing (and pre-automobile) cityscape is bound to be a challenge no matter what; but pushing a code to require elements so geometrically opposed to the pre-code fabric is foolhardy.  Such changes, often made in the name of providing more parking only end up inducing unintended consequences.  From the Next American City article:

Gladstein said the bill’s proposed changes could set Philadelphia back on the path back to when the city issued more variances than nearly any other big city in America because of unrealistic demands in the zoning code.

“There are many instances in rowhome neighborhoods where you simply cannot provide parking by right because of factors like narrow lot lines,” she said. “We thought these changes would send too many cases to the zoning board.”

Gladstein also noted that lack of a parking requirement in the original code was intentional, as on-site parking, which often manifests itself as a front-loading garage, actually diminishes the supply of public parking spaces.

A code that doesn’t respect geometry, doesn’t reflect the city’s history, and achieve its stated goals is a bad code. Here’s to hoping those changes do not go into effect.

DC: In the District, the parking conversations aren’t focused on zoning (yet! – but they will be, and soon), but rather the management of on-street parking spaces. Policy changes take a different tack than in Philadelphia – instead of providing parking for residents via zoning code requirements, the city is strengthening on-street protections for residents with parking permits.

The reaction is all over the map – Ward 1 Councilmember says this is about a future that “discourages car ownership,” yet the goal of enhanced residential permit parking protections is about “striking a balance in favor of those who are residents with stickers who paid for them.”  Did those residents pay enough for a scarce resource?  If the price reflected the scarcity of spaces, would there be as much of a parking problem?  And how does making on-street parking for residents easier discourage car ownership?

Other elements of the Post parking article talk about the difficulty of parking for non-residents visiting the city, as well as the city’s efforts to re-purpose some curb space away from parking and towards other uses (such as protected bicycle lanes) – but fall into the trap of equating all things parking together.  Metered, permitted, for residents, for visitors, using curb space for parking or for other uses – these are all big differences, and conflating them all together is problematic, and increases the chances of misunderstanding.

3 comments to Parking, misunderstood

  • John

    You say “take a different tact” when you mean, “tack,” which is a sailing term. It means which direction you’re sailing relative to the wind (and “tacking” is the process of zig-zagging to make forward progress into the wind).

    Parking policy makes perfect sense once one has read Shoup–or at least has considered the relationship of price, supply and demand in the same train of thought with parking. There is still a lot of work to be done to get more people to put these concepts together, as your article expertly points out.

  • Alex Block

    Thanks for noting the error, it has been corrected.

    I fear that education on the topic is more challenging than just getting the word out, as the issues are complex enough that they do not allow for quick, bumper-sticker kinds of explanations.

  • [...] a few spaces at a reasonable cost), but if the zoning code requires more than 0.25 spaces per unit (as it does in Downtown Brooklyn), that method would not be allowed by the zoning code.  Podium parking is also reasonable, but [...]

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