There are a billion parking spots in the US. For every car in the country, there are four parking spots. Yet, the rise of autonomous ride-hailing vehicles, micro-mobility devices such as electric bikes and e-scooters, public transportation, remote work, online shopping, and countless other trends are decreasing the demand for parking. Too many parking spaces are not only unnecessary, consuming valuable urban space that could be utilized for more productive purposes, but they also have negative environmental impacts such as increasing the number of impervious surfaces. This leads to more frequent and intense stormwater flows, carrying higher levels of pollutants into our water systems.
This begs the question: how do we efficiently use all these dormant parking spots? Through the power of state-delegated land use, municipalities can reduce the number of parking spots. In doing so, however, municipalities must be cognizant of unintended consequences.
Repeal Minimum Parking Requirements
Buffalo, New York adopted the Green Code in 2017, a complete rewrite of the city’s zoning code. The new zoning code reform repealed minimum parking requirements citywide. An article in the Journal of the American Planning Association found that after the adoption of the Green Code, “47% of major developments included fewer parking spaces than previously permissible,” suggesting earlier minimum parking requirements may have been excessive. To address the excessive parking crisis, many other municipalities such as San Francisco (CA), Minneapolis (MD), and Hartford (CT) have also repealed minimum parking requirements. Decreasing the amount of parking can bring various advantages including urban densification, pollution reductions, and lower housing costs.
The effects of the repeal of minimum parking requirements in Buffalo varied depending on the type of development. While mixed-use developments took advantage of the reform, single-use projects still had an overabundance of parking. Some feared the reduction of parking would lead to severe changes in development patterns as well as limitation of parking availability, however, the initial outcomes show no drastic problems with the limiting of parking. Rather certain projects, like mixed-use development, benefitted from the ability to provide less off-street parking. The goal of this code was not to eradicate parking from future developments, but rather to reduce the number of parking spaces in new projects. It encouraged the creation of mixed-use developments to utilize shared parking arrangements, allowing businesses to utilize the same parking spots at different times. The Green Code also promotes alternative modes of transportation, such as biking and public transportation, instead of relying on cars. Reduction in current parking allows municipalities to transform the open lots into parks, workplaces, and housing that could be beneficial to the municipality as a whole.
Other municipalities have gone a step further by replacing repealed minimum parking minimums with parking maximums. In recognition of the conflict between excessive off-street parking for automobiles and the city’s policies regarding transportation, land use, urban design, and sustainability, Minneapolis, Minnesota has eliminated minimum parking requirements. Furthermore, the city has established parking maximums. The zoning ordinance seeks to restrict the number of parking spaces for units based on the type of usage. In the case of congregate living spaces, the parking is capped at one spot per bed, whereas areas designated for institutional, recreational, commercial, or office use are required to have one parking space per a certain amount of gross floor area.
Nevertheless, in using these techniques to help address climate change, we cannot overlook other parking-equity issues. For example, in Los Angeles, California, people living in their vehicles are estimated to be almost 50 percent of the un-housed population. Living in vehicles offers people a safer environment than out on the streets it allows them to avoid street violence, strict rules of housing shelters, and during COVID, avoids contagious crowding and its greater risk of contracting the virus. However, their presence often incites hostility from residents and business owners who are concerned about trash and the use of parking spaces.
As parking minimum requirements are reduced or repealed in some cities, the number of un-housed individuals will likely stay the same. This means there will be fewer parking spaces throughout municipalities, meaning fewer spaces for un-housed individuals to occupy. The increase of sought-after spaces being taken up by these individuals will likely cause more hostility with residents and business owners. Shared parking could possibly expand to parking lots around cities as well, which will mean parking will be used more often by people throughout the different times of the day. Businesses will not want non-customers using their spaces, especially to set up a place to live.
Municipalities should continue to reduce or repeal minimum parking requirements; however, they need to take issues such as vehicular homelessness into consideration. To help mitigate, instead of exacerbate, the housing crisis, municipalities can permit and incentivize the transformation of excess parking into housing and reduce the parking required for affordable housing.
In Los Angeles, parking occupies more land than housing. Municipalities can think about how to replace parking with housing to help address the housing crisis. Municipalities are confronted with affordable housing shortages yet have an abundance of parking spaces. Some developers are turning parking structures into housing. For example, in Wichita, Kansas, Bokeh Development transformed a garage from the mid-20th century into a 44-unit apartment complex.
A recent study found that, “it costs roughly US $24,000 to $34,000 to build every single new parking space in a garage.” Parking requirements drive up the cost of affordable housing development, which is then passed on to residents via purchase or rental cost. In areas of affordable housing, residents are less likely to possess cars but still pay for the spaces.
Some municipalities are attempting to correct this mistake. In Denver, Colorado, the city council approved a change in the city’s zoning code to allow a reduction of minimum parking requirements for affordable housing developments. The change recognizes the large number of unused parking spaces in the city’s housing developments as well as the role of parking requirements in overall housing affordability. A study in December 2020 found that income-restricted properties provide on average “50 percent more parking than residents use” but affordable housing projects have been sidelined due to the developers not being able to make the zoning-required parking work. Cutting back on the parking spaces required for housing development would supply developers in Denver with money to create more affordable housing developments.
This article is part of a series from the Land Use Law Center that explores how local governments can implement Climate Resilient Development (CRD) as defined in the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC. CRD requires innovative reform of land use planning and regulation by local governments. The series presents and analyzes numerous local laws and policies capable of adapting to and mitigating climate change to create equitable and sustainable neighborhoods, achieving “sustainable development for all.”
Author: Lauren Palmer, 1L Land Use Scholar