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Cities Begin To Question Minimum Parking Regulations

Many cities are questioning the wisdom of minimum parking regulations that deprive them of valuable land for development.

Most American cities are temples to the cult of the automobile and have laws in place that mandate minimum parking requirements for residences and commercial operations.. If you open a restaurant, you need a certain number of spaces based on how many tables you have. The same goes for medical offices, commercial buildings, courthouses, and grocery stores. The prevailing assumption is that people in cars need to know they can drive into the city and find a parking spot near any business they plan to patronize.

It seems like a good idea, assuming you buy into the notion that the automobile should have priority over sidewalks, bicycle paths, parks, or housing units. But today, cities like Anchorage, Cambridge, and Nashville are beginning to take a hard look at these minimum parking regulations and are asking whether they still make sense.

According to The Guardian, Buffalo, New York, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, scaled back their minimum parking rules a few years ago and were astonished to find developers rushing in to transform previously derelict buildings into shops, apartments, and restaurants. When the minimum parking regulations were in force, such revitalization work was seen as untenable because of the requirement to build parking lots that were often larger than the renovated buildings themselves.

Nashville is among a new wave of cities hoping to do the same. “It’s about the climate, it’s about walkability, it’s reducing traffic and the need for everyone to have a car,” Angie Henderson, a member of the Nashville metro council, tells The Guardian. She is a proponent of eliminating the minimum parking rules in the city center. Henderson said she was struck by how a dental practice in her district was forced to construct a parking lot for 45 cars, requiring the clearing of trees from a nearby hillside, despite only having room in the office for a few patients at a time.

“Nashville is very much auto orientated and making that shift is challenging,” adds Henderson, who admits that some residents complain about a lack of parking and have been upset by the changes. “We aren’t doing away with cars, this isn’t some sort of parking armageddon, but it will start to shift the local market. Land use policy is inextricably linked to climate policy and I think at a level this is the primary way we can to help on that. So much good work on climate is being done in cities, which is exciting. There’s real momentum around parking policy now.”

Minimum Parking vs. Maximum Cars

Mandating the building of car parking can seem an innocuous, common sense way to accommodate the roughly 280 million cars in America. Many cities have zoning laws that require at least one parking space per housing unit, one for every 300 square feet of commercial development, and one per for every 100 square feet of restaurant space. These rules have helped turn huge chunks of America into parking lots. There are nearly two billion parking spaces in the country and in some communities more space is devoted to parking than housing. In Jackson, Wyoming, parking spaces outnumber homes 27 to one, research has found.

A New Attitude

Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School, tells The Guardian, “Getting rid of parking minimums is an amazing step, it’s a piece in the puzzle of climate policy,” while pointing out that transportation is the largest source of planet-heating emissions in the US. “There’s a major rethink going on now, which is good for cities and for families.

“There’s been this decades-long process of hollowing out cities essentially to favor the rich and those in the suburbs who drive everywhere. Driving has been subsidized with this negative regulatory intervention into the market through parking minimums, which has helped make housing less affordable and is killing the climate. It’s mind-boggling to think about how long it took for the tide to change, but it is changing,” he says.

Estimates about how many square miles are covered by off-street parking lots in America vary from a low of 2625 — about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined — to 5,250 — the size of Connecticut. Climate campaigners and public transport advocates have seized upon the issue of minimum parking requirements by posting aerial pictures on social media showing the vast swathes of prime urban land given over to parking lots and pushing city councils to foster denser communities with more opportunities to walk, cycle, or catch buses and trains rather than simply drive.

In New York City, the largest and most transit-friendly metropolis in America, vast amounts of public road space is devoted to parking for cars. There are nearly 4 million parking spaces in New York, but drivers only have to pay to park in 3% of them. In the San Francisco Bay Area, which has become increasingly expensive to live in amid a shortage of new housing, there are about 15 million parking spots. A fifth of the region’s incorporated land area is given over to parking and roads. In Los Angeles County, around 40% of the land is devoted to the movement and storage of cars, with parking alone taking up the space equivalent to nine Manhattans.

California Leads On Minimum Parking Regulations

On January 1, 2023, California will become the first state to ban parking minimums, halting their use in areas with public transport in a move that Governor Gavin Newsom called a “win-win” for reducing emissions from cars as well as helping alleviate the lack of affordable housing in a state that has lagged in building new dwellings. The new law, AB 2097, prohibits minimum parking requirements for new housing, commercial, and other developments located near public transportation routes. It is intended to reduce vehicle emissions and promote denser, more affordable housing closer to people’s daily destinations.

Some cities still reject the idea of easing parking minimums, though. In March, city commissioners in Miami reinstated minimum parking requirements after City Commissioner Manolo Reyes complained that people were parking outside his home because of a lack of available parking spots. “This is not a pedestrian and bicycle city,” Reyes whined. But the growing backlash against minimum parking requirements is providing a sense of vindication for advocates such as Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at University of California. He wrote a book in 2005 explaining how free parking is destroying the fabric of urban life by deterring developers from building large blocks of affordable homes while also encouraging snarls of traffic. He had done research on this topic for many years before writing the book.

“What’s finally sunk in with many people is that we have parking minimums and yet housing maximums, which means we have too many cars and too little housing. We have things the wrong way around,” said Shoup. “Why should people pay high prices for housing but cars pay nothing for some of the most valuable land on Earth? Do you think McDonald’s would build a lot three times as large as its restaurant if it wasn’t forced to? It’s such a house of cards, a pseudoscience,” Shoup said of the parking minimums. “The more you look at parking minimums, the more you realize they are ridiculous. People are finally listening and waking up to this.”

The Takeaway

The automobile has an almost sacred place in American society, and has ever since Robert Moses designed a complex series of roads, bridges, and highways for New York City. Is it possible that some parts of the country have reached “peak car?” We write a lot of stories here at CleanTechnica about the EV revolution, and there is an unspoken assumption that everyone who buys one will be guaranteed a space to park it in any city at any time. The new movement to eliminate minimum parking requirements challenges that assumption. Maybe all those parking spots are a blight rather than a blessing?

Photo by Pixabay/Pexels (Free to use, CC0).

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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