A wave of excitement for deregulating zoning is sweeping the bluer districts of America, which until recently were not known for such feelings. The move is a consequence of the stranglehold that outdated zoning rules have put in place for new homes where they are most needed. One such rule – the requirement that new residential units have off-street parking spaces, usually one or more parking spaces per residential unit – has rightly caught the reformers’ crosshairs in the last year.
A growing number of places are trying to eliminate parking requirements. In Minneapolis, the City Council recently decided to remove the parking requirements and replace the minimum requirements with caps on the maximum amount of parking required. In California, Bill 1401 would be eliminated nationwide in residential and commercial parking garages in areas that meet a defined standard for public transportation. In New York City, Democratic mayoral candidate Andrew Yang’s newly released housing plan proposes eliminating minimum parking requirements. Shaun Donovan, one of Yang’s rivals for the nomination, confirms this priority on his platform.
After World War II, when car ownership was booming, cities required off-street parking for new homes in their zoning ordinances. With many older homes being built without parking, street parking has become a scarce resource. Local governments did not trust the private sector to provide enough off-street parking. The planners examined actual and projected car ownership to develop formulas that could predict how much parking a new housing development would require, and incorporated these requirements into their zoning laws.
This trend had several shortcomings. For one, the park demand formulas became self-fulfilling prophecies. The more off-street parking spaces were available, the cheaper it became and the more incentive households had to own cars that could be stored cheaply or free of charge. Second, the parking itself had a cost. Open, paved parking lots were cheap to build, but the land it occupied could not be used for other purposes – such as more living space, play areas, or landscaping. However, once housing construction reached the density characteristic of apartment buildings in large cities, the parking lot needed to be in a structure that was normally below the living space. Such parking costs tens of thousands of dollars per parking space. Monthly fees could not normally cover construction costs, except in very affluent areas. In this way, off-street parking requirements became practically a tax on living space.
Another problem is that the formulas themselves are out of date due to changing lifestyles and new technologies. Younger adult residents in urban areas often live without a car and use public transportation or bicycles for daily transportation and taxis, hail rides and car sharing services when needed. In addition, new living lasts a long time. In the useful life of a housing unit built today, autonomous vehicles will likely become feasible and safe, potentially leading many or most households to give up car ownership altogether.
As a result, local governments are increasingly comfortable allowing the private market, rather than state fiat, to determine how much parking space new housing estates should provide. Yang’s plan cites the experience of the New York city of Buffalo, where minimum parking requirements were removed in 2017. A recent study found that the change enabled mixed residential and commercial projects, with fewer total parking spaces being built than previously required, and spaces being shared – the same parking space can be used by a resident overnight and an office worker during the day, when the resident leaves for another job. The change also made it easier for people to settle near transit lines, where residents were less likely to own cars.
Cities large and small can benefit from the flexibility Buffalo has allowed itself. Surprisingly, some of the opposition to California-based AB 1401 comes from planners who do not believe that off-road parking must be dictated by a formula, but that parking is so expensive that the economic benefits of waiving it as an incentive for Securing promises can serve to make housing affordable by developers.
This argument turns the logic of zoning on its head. Rather than exist to prevent harm, like on-street parking congestion, zoning simply becomes a way for municipalities to extract concessions until they are convinced that the developer is making no more than the minimum profit required , to continue. As with parking itself, this is another housing tax – and local planners and councilors are barely qualified judges when their requirements are excessively high, especially since the most popular position for local politicians is often not to allow any new housing at all.
States and communities across the country should hop on the train that started from Buffalo and Minneapolis. Leave parking to the market to decide.