Shifting gears: Parking reform gains traction
Columbus, Ohio, invented the first known off-street parking requirement for an apartment building in 1923. After nearly a hundred years, the results are in, and they’re not good. Last year, an assessment of the local zoning code—commissioned by the city as part of a comprehensive code revision process—concluded that off-street parking requirements were “not effective” and “often poorly matched to true parking demand.”
That mismatch has gotten worse over time. Today’s parking requirements in Columbus are far higher than their cousins from the city’s mid-century zoning code. In 1954, an apartment building with 100 one-bedroom units was required to have 100 parking spaces; today it has to have 150. For a 2,500-square-foot restaurant, nine required parking spaces became 34, in the 90 percent of the city not covered by special overlay districts. These ratios are out of step with the local market, leading builders to request parking reductions more than any other type of zoning variance. City and regional plans have recommended reducing parking requirements and making them more consistent.
Columbus is not alone. Across the United States, decades of similar parking requirements have led to a glut: researchers estimate that for every car in the country, there are at least three parking spaces—and some have suggested the number is closer to eight spaces.
This oversupply has created a host of problems: parking requirements can inflate housing costs, block buildings from being adapted to new uses, and contribute to sprawl, making additional driving (and parking) necessary. They create an administrative burden. And the impervious surfaces of parking lots increase the risk of flooding and contribute to the urban heat island effect.
But there is good news: of all the harms traditional zoning has inflicted on communities, parking requirements are the easiest to fix, said Sara Bronin, former chair of the Hartford, Connecticut, Planning and Zoning Commission. Bronin was at the helm in 2017, when Hartford became one of the first cities in the United States to eliminate residential and commercial parking mandates. The year before, city leaders had tested the waters by eliminating requirements in the downtown area, a move that yielded new development projects and new proposals for reuse. “Every community should be eliminating their parking requirements,” Bronin said.
Each year, more cities are eliminating or reducing such mandates. In 2021, cities from Minneapolis to Jackson, Tennessee, eliminated minimum parking requirements from their zoning codes. In the week that this article was drafted alone, cities from Spokane to Chicago to Burlington, Vermont, rolled back parking mandates.
Communities might reduce their parking requirements because they are trying to reinvent themselves by attracting new businesses and development, accommodate population growth with space-efficient infill, or focus more on transit and walkability. Regardless of the reason, parking reform advocates say this land use regulation could finally be on its way out.
“We’re going to look back at this as just this weird, late-20th century aberration,” predicts Patrick Siegman, an economist and planner who has been studying parking since 1992, including as a partner at the national transportation planning firm Nelson Nygaard. “We created something wildly inefficient.”
“When city staff manage on-street parking properly, they can prevent that on-street parking from getting overcrowded with a 99 percent success rate,” said Siegman, who has spent much of his career studying spillover parking concerns. The problem, he said, is that almost no one has training in how to manage street parking in a way that is both effective and politically popular. On-street parking management is not part of the core curriculum for planners or transportation engineers.
“What you’re essentially doing with on-street parking spaces is taking a valuable resource that belongs to the public and setting up rights to determine who gets to use it,” said Siegman. Any hotel manager knows that once the keys are gone, there is no vacancy. Yet cities often hand out multiple residential permits for every street space, and wait until the problem is so bad that neighbors have to petition for curbside management. When a neighborhood has more drivers seeking permits than there are on-street spaces, there are a number of ways to ensure balance. Boundaries for a parking district could exclude new buildings or households with driveways, or restrict the number of permits to the street frontage of the lot—forcing developers and incoming residents to make a plan for storing cars off-site.
Left to the market, how much parking gets built?
In Buffalo, New York, which struck down parking requirements in April 2017, a review of 36 major developments showed that 53 percent of projects still opted to include at least as many parking spaces as the previous code had required. The developers who did propose building less parking averaged 60 fewer parking spaces than the old minimum required, avoiding over eight acres of unnecessary asphalt and saving up to $30 million in construction costs.
Seattle saw similar results after eliminating parking requirements near transit in 2012. A study of 868 residential developments permitted in the following five years found that 70 percent of new buildings in areas not subject to parking requirements still chose to have on-site parking. Collectively, the new buildings included 40 percent fewer parking spaces than would have previously been required, saving an estimated $537 million in construction costs and freeing up 144 acres of land.
Siegman estimates the costs of setting up an effective parking permit program could be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000—a bargain compared to the cost of building parking, which can run as much as $50,000 per space. “There are all kinds of different feelings about what’s fair,” Siegman said, “but you can often come to a solution that has durable majority political support.”
That’s what officials in Vancouver, British Columbia, did in 2017 to resolve crowded curbs in the West End. Despite 94 percent of residents having access to an off-street parking space, many still preferred to park on the street. Over 6,000 drivers had opted for the $6 a month permit for the chance to park in one of the 2,747 on-street spaces. When the city raised permit prices to $30 per month—more in line with what private garages charged—and installed more parking meters, curb congestion cleared up. Before that change, only one out of five blocks met the city’s standards of being less than 85 percent full at the busiest time of day. Within two years of the pricing adjustments, all of the blocks measured below that threshold, making it far easier to find a parking space.
The next wave of parking reform
More and more, champions of eliminating parking mandates are getting elected to offices and planning commissions, according to Jordan, of the Parking Reform Network. “One person can really get the idea and push it through,” he said. The growing number of cities that have taken this deregulatory action provides political cover for policy makers who have been hesitant to go first.
But parking reform advocates say change should and will happen beyond the local level. Since “the perceived benefits of instituting parking regulations [have been] almost entirely local,” Siegman said, he thinks almost all of the productive reform to get rid of minimum parking laws is going to come from regional, state, or national governments.
A wave of legislation against parking mandates has been gathering momentum on the West Coast. In 2020, Washington State quietly capped excessive parking requirements near transit for market-rate and affordable housing. California’s third attempt to limit local parking requirements near public transit succeeded in September with the signing of AB 2097. That came on the heels of another statewide rollback in Oregon, where a state land use commission struck down parking mandates for projects near transit, affordable housing, and small homes across the state’s eight largest metro regions, which house 60 percent of Oregon’s population.
By July 2023, nearly 50 cities in Oregon will need to choose between wholly eliminating minimum parking requirements or implementing a suite of other tools to manage parking and comply with the new administrative rule. They are sure to have lots of company, as municipalities and states across the nation weigh the harm these regulations have caused against the 20th century dream of free and easy parking.
Aaron Gill, of the Hartford Planning and Zoning Commission, has some simple advice for jurisdictions considering removing parking minimums: “I would say just do it. Don’t waste time having a discussion as to if it’s going to work or not. The reality is we have way too much parking in this country.”
This is Part One in a special four-part Public Square series that highlights the growing wave of parking reform. © 2022. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. From Shifting Gears Why Communities Are Eliminating Off-Street Parking Requirements—and What Comes Next, Catie Gould. Land Lines October 2022. Find the original article here.