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Why California’s Parking Reform Matters for Housing and Climate

Rules that mandate excess parking in new development projects have added to the overlapping crises of housing affordability, urban sprawl and climate change, advocates say. California could soon bar cities from imposing them.

Cars in the parking lot at a residential apartment building.
Parking outside an apartment building.
A surprising number of California’s most successful companies were founded in unused parking spots. Not too surprising, though, considering how plentiful those spaces are in the Golden State.

There are an estimated two-and-a-half parking spots for every car in the Bay Area. A recent study in Santa Rosa found that nearly three quarters of downtown parking spots were vacant even at peak hours. Cities like Los Angeles have begun turning to overabundant garages to produce badly needed housing.

Dedicating all that space to car storage has wide-ranging consequences for housing costs, urban design, transit use and climate emissions. But California is poised to take a significant step away from the local rules that have helped to mandate so much parking. It’s been an unusually productive year for transportation and climate policy, with new regulations that will ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035 and a proposed law to give cash to low-income people who don’t own cars. Now the state Legislature has agreed to a measure that would prevent cities from mandating parking spots at new development projects near transit stations.

The bill, AB 2097, is the culmination of decades of academic study and years of focused advocacy. Its sponsor, Assemblymember Laura Friedman, a Democrat who represents parts of Los Angeles County, says it grew out of an interest in “the nexus between transportation and land use and climate” and the way parking policy has helped produce car-oriented communities.

“This bill was the perfect combination of those issues, in terms of parking’s impact on the way we use land and on our carbon emissions. It brought those issues together in a way that is surprising for people but that talks about the mistakes we have made,” Friedman says.

‘Free Parking’ Isn’t Free

The study of how parking policies affect other aspects of city building has been brought to the forefront of urban planning almost single-handedly by Donald Shoup, a research professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Shoup has spent his career studying the broad social, economic and environmental costs of nominally cheap things like parking in a private garage, or on a downtown street or driving on a toll-free road. As Shoup has argued, including in his 2005 tome The High Cost of Free Parking, many people pay in many ways for the parking spaces that cities often require developers to include in new housing and commercial projects.

Almost every city in California mandates off-street parking spots to be built alongside new housing, and most places require two spots for every single-family home. Those mandatory minimums not only raise the cost of building, and therefore the cost of housing, but they also virtually guarantee that the people who live in those places will own cars. As Shoup wrote in a chapter on “The High Cost of Minimum Parking Requirements” in 2014, “Cities get the traffic they plan for and the behavior they subsidize.”

Shoup tells Governing that people tend not to care about parking policy on its own terms, until they realize how it affects other areas of life, from expensive housing to traffic congestion, dirty air and climate change.

“Everything that we want to reduce, the minimum parking requirements increase,” he says. “I just tried to show people the link between parking and what they really care about.”

Influenced by Shoup’s work, cities from Buffalo to Minneapolis to San Diego have begun reducing or eliminating some of their minimum parking requirements. If it’s signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, California’s new law would be a substantial acceleration of that trend — and a remarkable capstone to Shoup’s academic career.

“It’s only been 50 years,” he says. “It makes me feel grateful for longevity.”

Making Housing More Affordable

Dedicating space to parking raises the cost of building housing, sometimes by a lot. A Government Accountability Office report suggested that it cost more than $50,000 per unit to add structured parking to multifamily projects in Arizona and California. And many of those spaces go unused. One of Shoup’s studies concluded that developers in the Seattle suburbs actually paid between $10,000 and $14,000 per unit just to provide parking spaces that would stay vacant.

That’s part of why parking reform has become a plank of the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) housing platform in recent years. Friedman’s bill was co-sponsored by the advocacy group California YIMBY, which estimates that each parking spot adds $40,000 or more to the cost of new housing. Removing mandatory parking minimums is part of a larger project of reassigning land to housing rather than cars, says Matt Lewis, CA YIMBY’s director of communications.

“Land is the sine qua non of the housing challenge, so how you use it is determinative of whether you solve or exacerbate the housing shortage and the affordability crisis. It doesn’t take long to walk outside and look around and realize most of this land is being used by cars,” he says.

By removing parking requirements on projects near transit nodes, the bill would allow developers to decide how much parking is necessary in new apartment buildings. It wouldn’t ban parking altogether, but it would prevent it from being arbitrarily inflated by local zoning rules.

“I do really hope that developers start thinking about ways to use this to offer units for less money,” says Friedman.

Protecting State Transit Investments

The bill is an instance of the state Legislature stepping in to supersede local land use controls, if only in a small way. That’s been a perennial controversy in California, where many advocates lay the blame for the state’s housing crisis partly at the feet of local governments for failing to meet their housing goals and doubling down on exclusionary policies.

Some municipalities did raise objections to AB 2097 on the grounds of maintaining local zoning control, Friedman says. Others said they opposed the bill because they feared that by removing parking requirements in some properties across the board it would eliminate incentives to build affordable housing through other state programs. Still others opposed simply because they wanted to keep parking plentiful, Friedman says.

But the state has a clear role to play when it comes to setting development policies near the transit nodes that it invests in, Friedman says. If a city requires excessive parking near transit stations, and that leads to more drivers and fewer transit riders in those areas, it’s compromising the efficacy of public investments in transit, she says. With all the focus on climate policy in the state, it’s critical to make good decisions on transportation, which account for the biggest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

“This is where we’re going to do the most harm or the most good — our policies on transportation,” Friedman says.

A Pandemic Bike Ride and a Compromise

Friedman first introduced a version of AB 2097 last year, but it was held up by state Sen. Anthony Portantino, the chair of the Appropriations Committee. Portantino says he is a skeptic of all efforts that rely on removing regulations and expecting the free market to deliver the right solutions, including when it comes to parking reform. But at the end of the legislative session, Portantino says, “A number of activists came to me and said, ‘Alright, you held the bill. What’s your solution?’ I thought that was a fair question.”

Some of the activists in question were with the group Streets For All, and Portantino was primed to give them the time of day partly because he’d become an avid daily biker during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Portantino introduced a bill of his own that would prohibit parking minimums near transit nodes, while setting certain expectations for affordable housing in projects that take advantage of the new rules. He later got together with Friedman and they put their bills together.

“Without a doubt, riding my bike three hours a day for two years has provided an enormous education,” Portantino says. “You can see the difference between a bike-friendly community and a car-friendly community.”

All the right conditions aligned for the bill to get through the Legislature this year, Friedman says, including the ever-growing crisis of affordable housing in California, lawmakers’ renewed focus on climate and transportation policy, the growing number of cities that have eliminated parking minimums on their own and the sustained efforts of scholars and advocates for more walkable places.

“The advocates have been amazing, No. 1, and they’ve had more time to explain all of this to the members,” Friedman says. “It’s not really about parking — it’s about how we use land.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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