From driving tests to downtown, parking is the bane of drivers young and old. Limited parking is an accepted and unavoidable fact of life in most metropolitan areas, but wrongly so. Around the nation, a transportation crisis stems from a surplus of parking spaces. A recent national study of 27 mixed-use, commercial-residential districts discovered that parking was, on average, oversupplied by 65 percent, thanks to a policy called mandatory parking minimums, which requires the construction of a certain number of parking spaces with new urban developments.
Though the issue may seem trivial, mandatory parking minimums have serious implications for transportation policy, affordable housing, and the overall shape of urban landscapes. Rather than championing outdated parking limits, responding to changing infrastructure needs in urban centers requires corresponding and updated parking minimum policies that reflect cities’ specific goals.
Lowertown, St. Paul — one of Minnesota’s newest up-and-coming neighborhoods — offers an illustrative example of the parking paradox. Local residents warn of a tourism apocalypse, evoking concerns about the alleged shortage of parking space. Their nightmarish predictions, however, bear little resemblance to reality; transportation planner Nathaniel Hood went to Lowertown on a supposedly “bustling” Saturday afternoon only to find an abundance of empty spaces. Such a phenomenon exists in numerous other metropolitan areas with perceived parking shortages. It’s unclear why this misconception is so pervasive. For some, it might be a reluctance to walk farther distances. Lowertown borders St. Paul’s main business district; an abundance of parking is available just a few blocks away. As is the case around the country, spaces may not be adjacent to that hip new restaurant, but they’re usually well within walking distance.
Urban planners originally designed mandatory parking minimums in the 1950s to frantically prepare for the impending car-dominated future. The regulations require developers to designate a certain number of parking spaces with new construction, often without regard to actual demand or availability of other transit options. In the middle of the 20th Century, these provisions made logical sense — parking shortages were a widespread concern, and municipalities didn’t want new construction to swallow up existing spaces. The urban landscape has changed since the 1950s, yet parking minimums remain in place largely because no one has committed to changing the regulations. Urban planners remain wedded to yesterday’s standards, and few want to take the initiative to break with commonly-perceived norms and best practices.
These outdated parking minimums subtly counteract other policy priorities. Providing parking spaces encourages more driving and traffic congestion by subsidizing car ownership, even as many governments attempt to increase transit ridership. For example, in transit-friendly New York, more parking leads to more driving. Ignoring parking minimums while spending billions on new transit infrastructure with hopes of reducing congestion or combatting global warming is counterproductive.
These regulations also severely impede efforts to construct affordable housing. Parking, especially in city centers, is costly; high land values make surface lots and parking garages more expensive for developers, frequently leading them to pass those costs onto tenants. A study of Portland indicated that rents climb as parking requirements become more stringent. In densely populated neighborhoods that need new housing stock, parking regulations ¬— among other factors — hinder the development of new residential and commercial units. The resulting policy constrains the housing market — terrible news for residents in an era of skyrocketing rents.
Besides their misaligned priorities, parking minimums have scarred American cities and contributed to a much derided urban landscape. Islands of development are surrounded by wastelands of parking lots. Cities and suburbs alike must contend with a concrete jungle, making everyday life more difficult for residents without cars. Mall parking lots, for example, are 20 percent larger than the buildings they serve. The off-kilter ratio of resources toward empty parking lots instead of community spaces or public infrastructure faces more challenges than just outdated regulations. Implementing new transit options in such environments, without holistically addressing the landscape, will ultimately change very little — navigating massive parking lots and six lane roads is nearly impossible without a car.
The problem is hardly consigned to suburban shopping centers; Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Eran Ben-Joseph points out that “in some US cities, parking lots cover more than a third of the land area.” A middling estimate puts the number of parking spaces in the country at 500 million, enough to fill a lot the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Much of this land could be put to more productive use: A parking lot with 20 spaces could be replaced by an apartment building that houses 20 residents. Forcing new construction that, due to requirements, takes the form of islands of development in a sea of concrete and asphalt ultimately wastes scarce land — to say nothing of parking lots’ lack of aesthetic qualities.
With changing planning priorities for transportation, public land, and housing, 40 cities across the country have already removed their outdated requirements, and even more municipalities have placed the issue on their legislative chopping block as officials recognize the misguided regulations’ deleterious effects. Although an exception, New York City has long had a parking maximum rather than a minimum in Manhattan, discouraging car ownership while helping to minimize the intrusion of parking lots on the cityscape. Portland, Oregon has a similar policy that takes into account transit access; the closer a housing development is to a bus or light rail stop, the lower the maximum.
Still, more radical solutions may also be in store. San Francisco has developed SF Park, which uses sensors to track parking availability, direct drivers to vacant spots, and charge prices accordingly. Many academics have endorsed this market-based approach, which uses dynamic pricing to maintain 85 percent occupancy. Seattle has passed laws encouraging developers to offer residents transit passes rather than parking spaces in return for suspended parking requirements. There’s unlikely to be a silver bullet for the problem, but the high degree of experimentation already present in city governments proves that barren parking lots and their accompanying regulations are actually fertile ground for policy innovation.
The problem with the policy of mandatory parking minimums, ultimately, is its inflexibility. Instituted long before the term “transit oriented development” was on anyone’s mind, the regulations proved unadaptable for changing market conditions and urban priorities. Parking simply had to be built, whether or not developers and tenants actually needed it. Cities across the country, however, are finally experimenting with new policies, tailoring solutions to local needs in a direct rebuff of the one-size-fits-all approach of the old standards. The resulting improvements in transportation policy, affordability, and especially the urban landscape have significant promise. Parking lots, in the words of Professor Ben-Joseph, are “the single most salient feature of our built environment.” To try and improve the undesirable reality they’ve created, parking minimums must be cast to the dustbins of history, alongside the Model-T’s and drive-in theaters of a bygone, car-centric era.
Art by Julie Benbassat