Fewer parking spaces could mean more living space

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Citing environmental concerns and housing shortages, more cities and some West Coast states are considering requiring all homes, offices and businesses to provide a minimum amount of parking for residents, workers and customers.

Leading the effort is Oregon, which is poised to enact permanent statewide land-use rules in July that would allow eight metro areas to eliminate minimum parking requirements for many homes and businesses. Not far behind is California, where the State Convention is held legislation was passed in May that, if passed by the Senate and enacted, could have similar implications for some minimum parking rules across the state.

The reduction in the parking minimum represents a major shift in American attitudes, particularly in California, a state that glamorized and embodied car culture — and the urban sprawl that went with it. But in both Oregon and California, removing minimum parking requirements is seen as a way to foster compact, low-carbon communities that address acute housing shortages by making car-less living and working easier, safer, and more affordable.


California legislation would prohibit local governments from imposing or enforcing a minimum parking requirement for residential, commercial or other developments if the project is less than half a mile from public transportation. It is sponsored by Laura Friedman, a member of the Los Angeles Democratic State Assembly.

“The biggest problem in Los Angeles is homelessness, and people don’t necessarily say, ‘Well, maybe the amount of parking space that we need for our housing projects has something to do with the cost of these apartments,'” Friedmann said. “And when you lay it out for them, people have a lightbulb moment where they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, of course. That increases the cost of housing.’”

As in much of the United States, the housing shortage in both Oregon and California has pushed home prices high, contributing to the homelessness crisis. In Oregon, studies show that the state is missing an estimated 111,000 housing units for its existing population and will need to build up to 30,000 homes annually to catch up and handle population growth. California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s housing department has set a goal of building 2.5 million homes over the next eight years.

Parking lots aren’t going away anytime soon. However, planners and builders have long understood that every parking space increases the construction costs and that residential and commercial parking spaces are overbuilt almost everywhere.

A study by the Mortgage Bankers Association of American parking trends found “a generous amount of parking” in US cities outside of New York City. There are 27 to 1 more parking lots than houses in Jackson, Wyoming, according to the study. In Seattle, there are 13 people per acre and 29 parking spaces per acre. And Des Moines, Iowa has 83,141 homes and 1.6 million parking spaces.

Estimates vary, but many experts believe construction of individual parking lots starts at $20,000 for surface parking and can cost as much as $60,000 for underground parking, according to the Parking Reform Network, which is leading the nationwide effort to improve parking Tracked change in park culture. The cost of parking is bundled into the cost of the home or business or rent. Parking also takes up space that could be used for residential purposes, especially in more walkable or bike-accessible neighborhoods with good public transport connections.

Proponents of changes in minimum parking requirements, including Sightline, a left-leaning sustainability think tank, also point out that as neighborhoods get denser, more people have access to public transit, which becomes cheaper and easier to use because it can serve more people. Fewer above-ground parking spaces mean fewer heat islands, paved surfaces that absorb heat during the day and release it at night. And fewer cars on the road means fewer greenhouse gas emissions. If the houses, apartments and businesses will be built anyway, proponents say, why not take an approach that builds sustainability into housing and transport planning?

“People understand the argument that we need to prioritize housing for people over parking for cars,” Friedman said. “If we have to choose one or the other, I choose accommodation throughout the day. And it’s a binary choice right now.”

Getting rid of the parking minimum is a “simple, really low-hanging fruit to build on,” said Tony Jordan, president of the Portland-based Parking Reform Network. “It’s very difficult to implement other well-known strategies for affordable housing or for climate protection or to reduce traffic if you manage your parking spaces poorly or take up too much of them.”

In Oregon, the treatment of minimum parking regulations is part of a larger set of rules issued this year by the state’s growth management agency to slow greenhouse gas emissions and address an affordable housing crisis. The rules, developed by the Department of Land Conservation and Development, are the result of a 2020 executive order by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown directing state agencies to address greenhouse gas reduction targets passed by Legislature to combat climate change.

Eight of the state’s largest metro areas, including Portland, are required to designate or establish climate-friendly neighborhoods — typically city and town centers and high-traffic corridors. Portland has already rolled back many minimum parking regulations. The rules also require that jurisdictions allow high-density development and mixed-use development, even as they restrict auto-centric land use.

It’s a “broad, integrated approach,” said Mary Kyle McCurdy, associate director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, an anti-sprawl advocacy group with significant influence on land use and environmental issues in the state.

“When you have more compact, walkable, mixed-use areas and eliminate or reduce those off-street parking requirements, people drive less,” McCurdy said. “They may not need to own a second car. Or even a car. And they certainly use it less and drive fewer miles. So it’s kind of a win-win for housing affordability and for the climate.”

Still, many city and county officials outside of Portland remain skeptical, as do business and trade groups. Many cities have asked the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development to wait before officially enacting park and land use rules until they have more funding security to help plan the changes.

The Oregon Home Builders Association, the League of Oregon Cities, and the Association of Oregon Counties, as well as the Oregon Home Builders Association, Oregon Realtors, and the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, and the Farm Bureau have objected.

The Oregon Farm Bureau said its members are concerned that climate-friendly policies will encourage, if not dictate, development patterns that don’t take into account how communities are connected by Oregon’s road network. The policies could result in reduced road capacity that could eliminate trucks entirely, or increase congestion to such an extent that the trucking industry “will be unable to provide efficient and economical services,” wrote Vice President Mary Anne Cooper on government and legal affairs for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

“Freight not only needs our state highway system to move goods, but also local roads to traverse the ‘last mile’ to get the cargo to its final destination,” Cooper wrote. “At a time when our nation grapples with a crippling supply chain crisis and greater potential for nationwide food insecurity, the congestion this causes will continue to increase delivery times and emissions due to traffic idling.”

Discussing the parking ban can be a gateway to difficult conversations about the impact of auto-dominated American living on housing costs and the climate, said Daniel Herriges of Strong Towns, an advocacy group that studies the impact of post-war North American development patterns.

Oregon’s longstanding state statutes addressing urban growth make it easier to enact statewide planning changes, but most park policy changes happen at the city planning level rather than the statewide planning level, Herriges said. Cities as diverse as Buffalo, New York; San Diego; Hartford, Connecticut; and Fayetteville, Arkansas, have joined the movement, which is widely credited to the publication of UCLA urban planning expert Donald Shoup’s 2005 publication of “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

Fayetteville, which ended minimum parking requirements for all commercial properties in 2015, appears to be the first US city to do so. The move came after planners realized that minimum parking requirements made it difficult for investors to rehabilitate some long-vacant downtown properties that sat on small lots in the city’s walkable historic district adjacent to the University of Arkansas.

When Fayetteville gave commercial property owners the ability to decide on the minimum number of parking spaces required, the changes were “disappointing,” Jonathan Curth said, the city’s development services director, who inherited the program from the previous planner. There was no sudden shortage of parking spaces downtown – nor was there a rush for new developments. Gradually, however, idle real estate was transformed into active businesses.

The city’s zoning regulations do provide for maximum parking space: builders who want to exceed this must, for example, justify their wishes or compensate for the additional heat islands by planting more trees.

“It’s hard for people to imagine what the process of getting around your city might be like otherwise,” Strong Towns’ Herriges said. “You can see that very clearly in any suburban America today when you walk into a Walmart store and the parking lot is bigger than the store itself. All about the way the store is configured, how you access it, how it’s on his property, it’s all kind of dictated by parking. Also in urban areas, the form of development that takes place in urban contexts is dictated by parking.

And yet there is tremendous potential in changing parking habits, Herriges said, as it is the biggest determinant of American urban land-use patterns. Getting rid of the parking minimum could be the biggest obstacle to creating walkable, urban places with more affordable housing options, he said. But it’s going to be a long time before it’s the mainstream option.

“Most Americans drive to most places, and that’s going to be true 20 years from now, there’s just no way it won’t be any different,” Herriges said. “But we urgently need to make the alternatives available to more people at a price that is available to more people. Parking is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of that.”


This article was first published by state border, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Read the original article.

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