Pasadena, California, one of the first cities to reform parking regulations based on the research of Donald Shoup. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Parking is a national policy issue, thanks to Donald Shoup

A growing number of cities and states are reforming their parking regulations, and Donald Shoup, this year’s winner of the Seaside Prize, deserves considerable credit.

Once the exclusive topic of poorly attended planning meetings in local town halls, parking requirements have now become the unlikeliest of national issues. Nolan Gray, author of the zoning book Arbitrary Lines, says that parking has become “an incredibly influential policy area that no one thought was important.” 

The New York Times wrote a substantial article on parking reform on Tuesday, reporting that San Jose, California, with one million residents, became the largest city in the US to eliminate minimum parking requirements in December of 2022. The Times described the problem:

“The United States has about two billion parking spots, according to some estimates — nearly seven for every car. In some cities, as much as 14 percent of land area is covered with the black asphalt that engulfs malls, apartment buildings and commercial strips.”

That oversupply is largely the result of 20th Century regulations to ensure parking is plentiful everywhere—a pillar of an auto-centric planning system that made walking and bicycling difficult in most US communities. But a wave of parking reform has grown over the last decade, notes the Times. Author and longtime UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup is the key figure in that trend. In late February, Shoup received the Seaside Prize—honoring individuals who have made a major contribution to the quality of the built environment.

Shoup is a rare academic who has made a big impact beyond the ivory tower, notes civil engineer Norman Garrick, a professor emeritus of the University of Connecticut. “Local officials have heard of Donald Shoup—they are implementing his ideas,” Garrick explains.

Shoup’s influence is a credit to persistence and focus in academic research. He began with articles in the late 1970s on the problems associated with parking requirements in zoning ordinances. His engagement with the topic has lasted more than 40 years. For a long time, few people listened. The breakthrough came from a 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking, which despite its 800 pages and dry subject, has become a classic in planning literature. 

A large part of Shoup’s appeal is a folksy humor that resonates with many audiences, according to CNU President Mallory Baches, who attended the Seaside Prize ceremony. “His approach to educating both academics and everyday folks about the costs of parking seems to give the impression that he’s letting you in on the joke of ridiculousness,” Baches said wrote week in a message to CNU members. “It’s led to his loyal fan base, of which many of you reading this are surely members just like me.”

A watershed year for parking reform was 2017, when two cities—Buffalo, NY, and Hartford, CT—completely abolished parking requirements nearly simultaneously. “Not only have these reforms not fallen, but they have spread like wildfire across the US,” reports Gray. Now, California has adopted statewide legislation that bans off-street parking requirements where there is frequent transit service. Effectively, that eliminates parking minimums throughout most of the southern California metropolitan area. Oregon has also adopted parking reform legislation, and Washington and Arizona are considering similar laws. 

And yet, as the Times reports, the battle is ongoing. “In South Boston, mandates were increased in 2016. Last year, Miami reinstated minimum parking requirements. “This is not a pedestrian and bicycle city,” said one commissioner who complained of people parking in front of his house.”

Pushback on parking reform may arise from scarcity of curbside parking in specific areas of cities. Shoup has long advocated for market pricing of curb parking in places where it is scarce. This ensures that some on-street spaces are always available, even when off-street parking is not mandated for every property. Cities like Pasadena, California, overcame opposition to parking meters from merchants with a promise to spend the money on public improvements downtown (the deal was brokered by former CNU executive director Rick Cole when he was a Pasadena government official).

Many Seaside speakers discussed how parking reform shapes the built environment, in ways that favor cars and make walking difficult. “Gray talked about the ways that minimum parking requirements have gravely inhibited the kind of urbanism that we advocate for as New Urbanists, and are a central piece of the code reform that the YIMBY movement advocates,” notes Baches. “CNU Fellow and co-founder Stefanos Polyzoides offered a perspective on the significance of the fundamental fact: that the reduction of parking is the generator of walking.”

Parking reform is likely to be a topic of debate for a long time. As Shoup notes in an introduction to his 2018 book Parking and the City, “Thinking about parking seems to take place in the reptilian cortex, the most primitive part of the brain responsible for making snap judgments about flight-or-flight issues, such as how to avoid being eaten.” Journalist Henry Grabar, who wrote a book soon to be published called Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World, notes that there are prayers for finding a parking space. “Hail Mary, full of grace, help me find a parking space,” Grabar recited. In a more Buddhist approach, I have a friend who relies on “parking karma” to quickly find a curbside space near where she is going (The method may work because curb parking is less scarce than it appears, rather than through cosmic justice). 

Parking is a deep emotional issue because we desperately want to get out of cars—at least when we have reached a destination. When you are not getting anywhere, a car is a steel trap. Parking regulations are also a trap, when they generate a built environment that requires more automobile travel, which generates more need for parking, and so on. Many people don’t realize that that when parking regulations are eliminated, parking is still provided in a free market. Developers (and cities) build it to meet demand.

The Times reports that 15 cities repealed minimum parking regulations in 2022, and many more curtailed them. “This is a movement that is catching on, and the more examples there are the stronger this movement will become,” according to Bill Fulton, former mayor of Ventura, California—one of the earliest cities to adopt Shoup’s approach to parking.

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