Build cities for people, not parking
Reforming antiquated minimum parking requirements can stimulate more affordable, walkable, and sustainable cities.
When cities remove or reform minimum parking requirements, they create space for more affordable, walkable, sustainable cities (and people still get the parking they need). Read on to learn more about why we still have these restrictive laws, what it costs us, and what cities are doing about it.
For decades, American cities have been built around cars. The onset of suburbanization and the boom of the automotive industry created a demand for local governments and urban planners to design cities for the car-centric lifestyle promised to every American family. City officials introduced minimum parking requirements to zoning laws in the 1920s, and by the 1950s they were ubiquitous in American urban planning. These laws, known as parking minimums, prescribe the specific number of off-street parking spaces required for every new development.
How this exact number is calculated remains ambiguous and inconsistent, oftentimes resulting in excess parking spaces, more traffic congestion, higher emissions, and limited affordable housing. A notable, but not uncommon, example: The Parsons Transportation Group investigated peak parking demand against minimum parking requirements for 17 Home Depot stores. The study uncovered that the number of required parking spaces was based on flawed data, resulting in parking requirements that are twice as much as actual peak usage. This type of misinformation can have a widespread impact, as it is common practice for cities to use these inaccurate estimates from other cities as benchmarks for their own parking laws.
The true cost of parking
Parking requirements come at a high cost. Factoring in land, construction, and operating expenses, a typical urban parking space could cost up to thousands of dollars annually. Though drivers don’t necessarily see that cost when they park, they take on those expenses as renters, customers, business owners, taxpayers, developers, and homebuyers; for example, the City of San Diego estimated that these requirements drive up development costs by up to $90,000 per unit. And even though the cost burden is carried by everyone, minimum parking requirements do not benefit everyone — especially renters, lower income families, or people who cannot drive or choose not to own a car.
In addition to direct costs, minimum parking requirements carry a high opportunity cost: These spaces cannot be used for affordable housing, creative business ideas such as outdoor seating, and support for greener forms of transportation. In some cases, these restrictions can be outright dangerous, as in the case of bars, where parking requirements result in the government actively subsidizing driving under the influence by enforcing these establishments to provide parking.
In today’s world, minimum parking requirements define transportation options within a community. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: huge parking lots push buildings farther apart, making walking and biking more difficult and taking up real estate that could be used for public transit — hence furthering our reliance on cars.
It’s important to note that eliminating minimum parking requirements does not mean eliminating parking. Developers can still build parking spaces when these requirements are lifted — they just have the opportunity to build the right number of spaces for their market and business model, rather than being forced to build more than residents and businesses might need. This in turn allows for more flexible and creative use of land.
Optimizing space for modern cities.
Just as current minimum parking requirements impose a cost on every member of the community, eliminating these requirements offers broad-ranging benefits:
- Improve housing affordability: Minimum parking requirements reduce available space for housing developments, which leads to less housing stock and higher rent for all tenants, even if they are not using the parking. A 2016 UCLA study suggests removing parking mandates could reduce rents for some residents by up to 17%. Because minimum parking requirements apply even to subsidized housing, removing them would allow cities to direct these public funds to build more affordable housing units for low-income families — rather than creating more parking spaces these families may not need or use.
- Drive economic growth: Large parking lots limit what developers can afford to build. For example, LA’s parking requirements increased the cost of a shopping center by 67%. Parking reform would allow developers to make use of valuable urban real estate for additional retail, housing, and restaurants that could grow into more employment opportunities for the entire community.
- Support small businesses: Current small business owners are most familiar with the needs of their customers; reforming restrictive parking requirements could allow them to better meet those needs. Allowing more creative uses for unused parking spaces, such as outdoor dining or extended retail, would help local businesses build stronger connections with customers while driving additional revenue.
- Meet climate goals: Minimum parking requirements are a roadblock for cities working towards crucial climate goals. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that transportation accounts for the largest share (29%) of 2019 greenhouse gas emissions. An oversupply of parking provides an incentive to drive more and depresses environmentally efficient transportation options. Investing in reliable and sustainable public transit and freeing developers to design for walkability and biking can make cities more accessible to residents while also making significant strides towards net zero.
A growing number of cities are stepping up to reform parking requirements
From densely populated Boston to sprawling San Diego, more and more cities are making meaningful progress towards repealing antiquated and counterproductive parking requirements. Through education, collaboration, and negotiation, these cities are proving that parking reform is possible — and powerful.
- Grounded in the core values and commitments identified in the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, Saint Paul presented two high-impact policy options to the City’s Planning Commission and City Council using a detailed parking and TDM study that aligned with these key goals. In doing so, the City secured a resounding 6–1 council vote to fully eliminate off-street parking minimums, which also includes strong incentives to encourage walking, biking, and transit use in new developments. Developed in parallel with a comparable policy in neighboring Minneapolis, both Twin Cities successfully eliminated minimum parking requirements within months of each other.
- Collaboration was key for San Diego, where an unlikely alliance of developers, small business owners, and environmental groups supported parking reform and investments in walking and biking. In addition to eliminating minimum parking requirements for both housing and commercial development near high-quality transit, San Diego passed the Mobility Choices ordinance, which encourages new developments to invest in safe and convenient transportation options, like biking, walking, and public transit, that will make more of the city accessible to everyone. Doing so would increase foot traffic for businesses and help the city reach its climate goals. Furthermore, advocates for low-income and historically marginalized communities won the commitment from the city that at least half of the benefits would go toward underserved neighborhoods.
- The coalition for Honolulu looked a little different, with environmental groups, social justice organizations, affordable housing proponents, and the Mayor voicing full support for removing minimum parking requirements for residential developments. The bill established new design standards that required parking structures to be set back from sidewalks, prioritizing pedestrian traffic and urban amenities for main streets. However, developers were not in favor of the more walkable design standards and also opposed passing on the savings from the reduced parking to residents in the form of unbundled parking. Ultimately, community leaders and advocates helped to pass sweeping reforms updating decades-old parking policies, which have made progress in advancing the City’s affordability, housing, climate and mobility goals.
- By rightsizing parking for new developments over 50,000 square feet and encouraging more transit options, Boston is tackling this issue from both the supply and demand side. The city is now requiring parking maximums based on location relative to public transit, grocery stores, and other walkable amenities. In addition, developers are required to reduce car usage by supporting more transit options like bikes, carpooling, and public transit.
Explore how other cities across America are taking on parking reforming on the Parking Mandates Map here.
A framework for progress
How local government can work to remove or reform parking minimums:
- Identify city goals to create strategies that align with these priorities. Framing parking reform as a means to support these goals, like housing affordability, environmental targets, or economic growth, will further incentivize elected officials to take action.
- Focus conversations and education around the harmful impacts of these regulations to draw additional support from key stakeholders, even those who hesitate at first. Though this process of building a supportive coalition may seem daunting, the fact that parking is regularly a heated issue at city meetings will motivate this leadership to act quickly. Strong city leadership is highly valuable to navigate the technicalities of the zoning code and to amplify the harmful effects of these minimum parking requirements.
- Some amount of opposition is inevitable, but advocates can educate and inform elected officials, potential allies and opposing parties alike, and members of the community can garner more support for parking reform.
- Other cities have used creative problem solving and strategies to move parking reform forward. Peer learning and sharing can help cities benefit from each others’ knowledge and experience. In addition, cities like San Diego are sharing the positive impact of parking reform, which can further inspire change for more cities.
For decades, the grip minimum parking requirements have had on cities have proven to be harmful through a myriad of ways. The detrimental impact has far exceeded any possible benefits these mandates might have provided when they were created. Now is the time to build cities for people – not parking.
The American Cities Climate Challenge, funded and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, is a collaboration between 25 U.S. cities, NRDC, Delivery Associates, and national and local partners. To learn more, click here.