Why do minimum parking requirements still exist?

By Felix Salmon
June 24, 2010
Tom Vanderbilt has a great piece in Slate on the high cost of free parking:

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Tom Vanderbilt has a great piece in Slate on the high cost of free parking:

Minimum parking requirements are based on a form of “circular logic,” in which planners estimate parking need by looking at the highest levels of parking demand at suburban locations with free parking and no transit options. As a result, the space devoted to cars often exceeds the space devoted to humans (one study found mall parking lots were 20 percent bigger than the buildings they serviced), and the country is awash in a surplus of parking supply. In Tippecanoe County, Ind., for example, a group of Purdue University researchers noted, “[I]f all of the vehicles in the county were removed from garages, driveways, and all of the roads and residential streets and they were parked in parking lots at the same time, there would still be 83,000 unused spaces throughout the county.” And as Shoup argues, there is nothing free about this parking—everyone, even those who don’t drive, pays for it in one form or another, whether the invisible parking surcharge is built into retail prices or the various costs associated with parking-lot storm-water runoff.

For me the biggest and most invidious cost of parking lots is also the most difficult to measure: the way that they kill any attempt at decent architecture, both on the level of individual buildings and on the level of city development more broadly. Your favorite buildings, your favorite cities, and your favorite vacation destinations all have one thing in common: a distinct absence of massive parking lots. So why are these things mandated by zoning regulations across the U.S.? It makes precious little sense, and it’s high time that minimum parking requirements died a long-overdue death.

What makes the whole thing even weirder is that there is no obvious powerful lobby to agitate for the perpetuation of these requirements. Developers would love to be able to determine for themselves how much parking was optimal, and it’s not like Big Parking Lot has a massive presence in Washington; even the automakers don’t really have much of a dog in this fight. So why are these regulations so very persistent?


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How lucky I am to be both an urban planner and the first to comment. The simple answer is that these requirements persist because there is no organized group agitating for their repeal, and enough people think they benefit in some way to push back effectively whenever the issue is raised. I speak from experience, having pushed through some parking reductions (thought not a full repeal) and lived to tell about it.

On the developer side, the standards in these ordinances have become so much a part of the fabric of the development industry’s assumptions that they are rarely questioned. Since every project (i.e. comparable) includes the required amount of parking, it’s become part of the lender’s underwriting requirements, and developers will tell you that they can’t finance a project unless they provide parking at the standard ratios. Further, national retail tenants won’t sign a lease unless their internal parking requirements are met.

On the public side, people don’t perceive the cost, only the presumed benefits. They think inadequate parking will lead to traffic problems, when the opposite is true. Where residential areas abut commercial areas, the residents think that business patrons will overwhelm their on-street supply. And everyone, everywhere hates to pay.

I totally agree with the idea of repeal, but it’ll take a lot more than a zoning change before you start seeing less parking being built in most parts of the US. Specifically, we’ll need a long track record of successful projects before the developers, lenders, and retailers start to take advantage of the relief.

Posted by oglethorpe | Report as abusive

“On the public side, people don’t perceive the cost, only the presumed benefits.”

The cost: more sprawl, less space for commercial or rental units, and more housing and energy expenditures.

Too much parking leaves cities chasing their tails http://bit.ly/9HBOeP

Posted by NHCandCenter | Report as abusive

All very good comments and in this instance perception is reality.

Parking requirements reflect desire to “capitalize for peaks” and in this instance, open parking is (still) very cheap so the capital cost is low. Land and asphalt is plentiful (and will remain so.)

Retailers will tell you that they need the excess parking (they admit it with very few exceptions) during Christmas shopping. Yes, we have huge parking lots for the twelve shopping days of Christmas when parking lots can get closer to filled.

But yes, by and large America is overparked. Heaven help a customer might have to walk, even though in shopping centers do in fact walk at least several blocks from car to store.

Posted by dsucher | Report as abusive

In my experience, most residents have a very strong status quo bias. At least where I live (Somerville MA, which is a pretty dense suburb of Boston with good public transit), if a developer tries to get a variance to reduce the amount of parking they have to build, the abutters will always be against it. Many abutters are against all development, even development on empty or abandoned lots. And I live 2 blocks from a subway station and in a city with planning office that is not very car-centric. I imagine it must be orders of magnitude worse in less dense areas. This, of course, makes it very difficult to increase density anywhere except where density is already high enough that many people don’t own cars. I think part of it, especially for residential projects, is that very few people who have cars can imagine that anyone could possibly survive without owning a car. So when a developer wants to build a condo building with 0.75 spots per unit, the abutters assume that everybody who buys a condo will have a car, and just park on the street (making it more difficult for the abutters who currently park on the street to find parking). It never occurs to anyone that if 25% of units don’t have parking spots, maybe those units will be purchased by people who don’t own cars. Which will be good for traffic overall, as it will reduce the number of cars per person in the neighborhood. I think until more people really understand induced demand, this is never going to change.

The other problem is political: if you are a local politician and get a project approved that the abutters hate, they will be very mad at you but basically no one else will care, so the incentives are to slow down or halt development. At least where I live, it often seems like the only think allowing development at all is the fact that the city planning board often approves projects despite strong resident disapproval. But of course the planning board is appointed and does not have to run for reelection, whereas the local politicians who would need to vote on zoning changes do. Few things upset people as much as parking in local politics.

Posted by TimInMA | Report as abusive

>Your favorite buildings, your favorite cities, and your favorite vacation destinations all have one thing in common: a distinct absence of massive parking lots.

Sort of. Isn’t Las Vegas and Orlando the top vacation destinations for Americans?

Orlando- Parking lots galore.
Las Vegas- parking structures galore

Posted by dtc | Report as abusive