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Free Parking and the Urban Future

Too much of the space in our downtowns is taken up by parked cars, and requiring developers to provide so many parking slots inflates the cost of housing. It’s becoming clear that those mandates are irrational.

Cars,Parked,On,The,Street
(Peter Gudella/Shutterstock)
Like most people who write about cities, I used to think of parking — when I thought of it at all — as an arcane and trivial subject in the complex vortex of urban existence. That oversight came to an end one afternoon in 2005, when I began to read The High Cost of Free Parking, a remarkable book by Donald Shoup, an urban scholar who taught at UCLA.

Shoup’s book was unusual in a whole number of ways, not least because he actually made a monumental work on an obscure subject a clever read. Tucked away in its 733 pages are quotes from Albert Einstein, Robert Frost and Lewis Carroll, along with witty observations on almost every aspect of the urban experience. But the most compelling — and convincing — aspect of the book is his argument that free parking is, all by itself, a serious threat to the most precious components of city life.

Free parking, in Shoup’s view, turned central cities into containers for cars rather than gathering places for people, emptied out streets that should be bustling with vitality, and inflated the price of housing to the point where ordinary people had trouble finding an affordable place to live. He also argued that if you charged enough for central-city parking, you could leave 20 to 30 percent of the curbside spaces empty, reducing the number of cars cruising for spaces at any given time.

Shoup referred to the writings of the 20th century’s urban gurus, such as Lewis Mumford, who thought that “the right to access every building in a city by private motorcar when everyone possesses such a vehicle is actually the right to destroy the city.” He ridiculed some of the most ludicrous parking rules, such as the one in a major city that required a nunnery to have one free space for every 10 nuns. “There is no science to parking requirements,” he wrote. “It’s closer to astrology.”

But the bulk of Shoup’s case was statistical, not polemical. He pointed out that as much as 30 percent of the space in some downtowns was taken up by parked cars. He found cities where there were four parking spaces for every vehicle, but where half of the cars crowding the city center were cruising for a space. Most important, he found evidence that requiring developers to install a minimum number of parking slots in a new project could add as much as $50,000 to the price of a unit inside.

Shoup’s book made me a convert, but for years I was skeptical that his arguments, however well documented, would make much difference. The driving-and-parking culture was just too deeply entrenched in the innards of urban life.

As it turned out, I underestimated the influence that Shoupism would have. When I went back to look at the subject 10 years later, I found that a good number of cities were starting to debate how much of their central-district land needed to be reserved for automobiles and parking spaces. Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia had all loosened up on their parking requirements, and other cities were starting to do the same.

Five years further on, it turns out that Shoupism has been making new inroads on urban planning that would have seemed impossible just a short time ago. Minneapolis reduced its parking requirements by about half, and found that, just as Shoup had predicted, rents went down. Buffalo went further: In 2017, it eliminated minimum parking requirements for new developments altogether. The number of parking spaces in new projects declined by 17 percent. Downtown development didn’t suffer as a result; it picked up.

WE ARE LIVING IN A CHANGED ENVIRONMENT when it comes to urban planning. Affordable housing has become a central political issue in ways that it wasn’t a decade ago. Cities are rethinking the single-family zoning that has prevailed for the past century. Both of these changes turn out to be connected to parking, and to Shoupism. It’s now pretty well established that imposing parking mandates on developers makes each unit in a new building more expensive. Allowing multi-unit housing in formerly single-family neighborhoods practically demands a relaxation of parking requirements if those buildings are to succeed.

And a new group of parking revisionists is appearing all over the country. Richmond, Va., is considering an amendment to its zoning codes that would end all minimum parking requirements there. The amendment’s sponsor told the Virginia Mercury that “parking minimums are a big barrier to housing affordability” and a burden on small businesses and developers who are required to provide them. Currently in Richmond, the Mercury reports, kindergartens are mandated to create one parking space for every 10 seats in an auditorium and one per classroom. Gyms have to provide 12 spaces. You can almost hear Donald Shoup smirking at some of those numbers.

In California, Oakland has eliminated parking minimums near transit stations. Berkeley has ended them for new construction. But the most important development in that state, and perhaps anywhere in the country, is Assembly Bill 1401. It would impose a ban on parking mandates for all homes and commercial buildings near transit stations or in neighborhoods with low rates of car use in counties with more than 600,000 residents.

One can argue that California is where such a law makes the most sense. Los Angeles has, or so it has been reported, 200 square miles of parking. Apartment buildings are required to provide at least one parking space per unit, and sometimes more. Restaurants need one space for every 100 square feet of dining area. Some have three times as much parking as dining space. Most commercial properties must have one slot for every 250 square feet of retail. That mandate alone is a powerful incentive for the creation of strip malls.

According to one estimate, every surface parking space in the center of the city costs $5,000, every new garage space $25,000 and every underground space $35,000, rising to as much as $50,000 in the most expensive parts of town. A study conducted at UCLA concluded that every added space in a garage costs renters $142 a month, or 17 percent of their total rental expense.

Bill 1401 passed the California Assembly earlier this year; it later died in a Senate committee. But it would be hard not to conclude that this is the direction that the nation’s largest state seems to be moving in.

THE MORE YOU STOP AND THINK ABOUT IT, the clearer it becomes that parking minimums are irrational. They are a tax on developers — and eventually on residents — that rightfully should be paid by the drivers who use the spaces. In the broadest sense, they are a tax on housing. I am no libertarian by any means, but I don’t see why local governments should be telling developers how many spaces to place in their projects. The developers should make whatever decision seems right for them and for the people who live in their buildings. If they want two spaces per unit, that should be legal. If they want no spaces, that should be legal too.

The more spaces you create, the cheaper parking becomes and the more people are likely to drive (and pollute) instead of using public transportation. The stricter the mandates, the more leverage you are giving to homeowners whose primary goal is to block significant change in their neighborhoods. Personally, I don’t believe that all single-family neighborhoods need a big density invasion; I’m just arguing that parking minimums are a clumsy way to manage urban policy. They seem especially unnecessary at a time when fewer people will be commuting to city centers in a post-pandemic environment.

Defenders of parking mandates sometimes argue that they offer localities a way to exert leverage over developers by offering to waive the minimums for a project in exchange for promises to make a given number of their residential units affordable. Here, too, I would argue that this is an inefficient and costly way to do something that should be done, if necessary, by direct action rather than by what amounts to bribery.

To say all this is not to deny that there are some obstacles on the way to a Shoupist world. The most serious one involves a sort of chicken-and-egg problem: A city without parking mandates is a city that needs an extensive and reliable transit system. It makes some sense to concentrate parking near the stations. But if you start by building big garages or lots next to the stations, you may never be able to switch to genuine transit-friendly development. On the other hand, if you go cold turkey and don’t build the lots, what will happen in the short run is that people won’t be able to get to the stations to use the trains.

This came up a few years ago in northern Virginia, where a new Metro line opened in the western D.C. suburbs. Eager to demonstrate their transit-friendliness, the planners built most of the stations on the new line without nearby parking. The result was that ridership in the early years was far below projections. Later it picked up. But it was a cautionary tale about the risks of disregarding commuters’ travel options in the real world. None of this is an argument against Shoupism. It is merely a warning that those ideas, however sensible, need to be implemented carefully.

“Removing minimum parking requirements,” Shoup wrote a few years ago, “may be the cheapest and simplest way to achieve a more just society.” That will strike most people as a burst of hyperbole by a single-minded man. But it would be fair to say that applying common sense to the parking of automobiles is far more than a peripheral activity. It is an important element in creating the urban future.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at ehrenhalt@yahoo.com.
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