Parking Requirements: Falling by the Wayside in Many Cities

William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute of Urban Research at Rice University, lives in Midtown Houston. He doesn’t own a car and gets around the city by foot, bus, lightrail, Zipcars and Uber.

Thanks, in part, to car-less residents like Fulton, he said his neighborhood just south of downtown is about to loosen its parking requirements. In essence, the city has decided to let the market figure out how many spaces are needed per condominium, store, office or restaurant, the former mayor of Ventura, Calif., Fulton explained.

It’s a trend that’s gaining steam around the country, as driving and car-ownership habits change and cities modify regulations that he said are the “bane of almost every urban district, often resulting in a blanket of too many parking spaces.”

These minimum parking rules have driven up costs and made it more difficult to build affordable housing, experts say.

Fulton, who was once planning director for the city of San Diego, said he’s modified his transportation habits in recent months, using car-share services like Uber and Lyft more and Zipcars less because while Zipcars let him use a vehicle for a short time, he still has to park it.

“Car-sharing services are shaking things up a lot,” he said. “You certainly see it in my neighborhood. My apartment building is now one of the most-frequently visited by Uber locations in Houston.”

In fact, he said, developers who build parking garages are already thinking about how to design them so they can be converted into other uses in the future when fewer and fewer cars need to be parked. (See companion piece on the future of parking garages.)

“There’s no question that the demand for parking spaces will go down, at least in cities and older, close-in suburbs,” he said. “In suburbs that are further out, it all depends on the model of car ownership in the future.

“But the model that has been the same for a century is now starting to break down due to companies like Uber. We’re beginning to change our views so that we don’t think of a car as a product we purchase and is parked most of the time, but as a part of a transportation service that we buy on a per-ride basis. As our society becomes more efficient, the expense and inefficiency of owning cars for many people becomes more obvious. With technology, we’ve got alternatives.”

In Fayetteville, Ark., a city of 85,000 in a metropolitan area of nearly 500,000, planning director Garner Stoll said downtown parking requirements have been eliminated, though they are still in place for residential areas. Commercial areas continue to have maximums, however, which means developers can’t go more than 15 percent above what used to be the minimum unless they get a variance.

“If you are building a single-family home, you still have to provide two spaces and then we require one per bedroom for multi-family housing. We are a community with 27,000 students, so parking for them is a big issue for our neighborhoods adjacent to downtown and the university.

“As for the downtown dropping the requirements, I think it’s been just fine and no one has missed those regulations. The concept is that the builders and the people who are financing development can assess how much parking they will need more accurately than city government can. It’s no longer the heavy hand of government putting the squash on projects.”

Stoll said he believes determining parking requirements “has always been a stretch. Planning professionals have developed standards that aren’t really based on any kind of researched assessments. Typical requirements certainly produce more parking than most uses need. It’s such a quantum leap to figure how much to require.”

He said the change has benefited the city by allowing existing buildings to be retrofitted with new uses.

“If you think about adding small start-up in a historic, downtown building, you’d probably have limited ability to add parking,” he said. “But if you can figure out where you can tell your customers to park or provide some sort of leased parking for your restaurant through employees parking the cars or something like that, for example, you can open businesses in existing buildings. I think that’s the biggest advantage here.”

Stoll said Uber and Lyft have had an impact on parking demands, especially on weekends when people are flooding the downtown to take advantage of entertainment options.

“We have nearly 30,000 students attending the University of Arkansas and 50 percent of them are commuters, so that’s a lot of cars. But the university runs a free transit system, which helps. And students take advantage of that because parking is expensive.”

Stoll said he’d like to see Fayetteville use market-based pricing for its downtown parking meters, using higher prices during higher demand times with the goal of always keeping one or two spaces free per block. While it’s been studied in his city, he said the political will to enact that change is lacking.

Fort Collins, Colo., dropped its commercial parking regulations in residential areas, but then reinstated some rules after homeowners complained about students from Colorado State University — which has an enrollment of around 33,000 — filling the streets with their cars.

“When we were planning our MAX bus rapid transit line several years ago, we created a transit-oriented-development (TOD) overlay zone and took away the minimum parking requirements for that zone, which was a ‘very bold move,’” said Seth Lorson, a transit planner in Fort Collins. He said the five-mile long TOD had a large bulge in the middle so that it resembles a “snake that had eaten an antelope.”

But he said the city parking ordinance had to be tweaked because developers weren’t providing enough parking (for multi-family student housing projects) and it was spilling over into neighborhoods.

“That was an unforeseen consequence of our policy change, and it became a community livability issue,” he explained. “But we continue to believe in the idea that people who want to can share or live without cars in high-frequency transit areas.

“So we created a suite of demand mitigation strategies, which says that you can reduce your parking requirements if you have a proximity to a MAX station (MAX buses run at 10-minute intervals and carry more than 4,400 passengers a day), provide Zipcars or car-share onsite, have access to offsite parking or options like that.”

Karen Parolek, a principal with the Opticos Design company in Berkeley, Calif., credits Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor, and his 2005 book “The High Cost of Free Parking” for sparking the drive to do away with parking requirements.

“It was a call to arms for those of us who are focused on making places more walkable and promoting other modes of transportation,” said Parolek, whose family of four lives in north Berkeley near a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and gets by with one car. Her firm of planners and architects focuses primarily on denser areas of cities and older suburbs where it helps rewrite zoning codes and create new, walkable developments.

“If you want to preserve open space and build more compactly, you have to question what you’re using your space for. And the reality is that if you are using it for parked cars, you aren’t using it for housing or open space.

“When you look at neighborhoods, it’s a big puzzle. For a place to be truly walkable, you have to have amenities within a reasonable distance. You have to be able to walk to the grocery store, kids’ schools and retail shops. That map only works if they have enough customers within walking distance to be viable.”

Parolek agreed that car-sharing services will have a huge impact on the demand for parking.

“Studies show that most cars sit vacant at least 75 percent of the time. With autonomous (driverless) fleets coming and vehicles in service 24/7, the number of cars on the road and in parking spaces could be reduced by a third to half.”

She said this change in driving should help achieve her firm’s goal of reviving the use of “missing middle housing,” which she defines as duplexes, four- and even eight-plexes that look much like regular, single-family houses.

“If it’s built as a truly single-family home, it might require two parking spots. But as a duplex, four is probably required and for an eight-plex, 16 spots if you are requiring two spots per unit,” she said.

“But there is no way all of those pieces of property would have enough room for all those cars with each space requiring 10-feet by 20-feet of land. That makes most duplexes and fourplexes or even bungalow courts nonviable without any other requirements.”

She said the many communities that are facing an affordable housing crisis need to rethink their parking regulations.

“We ask ‘would you rather have a duplex and provide a second dwelling for another family?,’ because you probably can’t do it if you require four parking spaces.”

Parolek said not every city is ready to jump on board, in part because conditions vary. “It’s a journey and communities have to take one step at a time,” she mused. “Eliminating parking requirements is one of the first steps they can take if they feel they don’t need it. But if cities want affordable housing, parking requirements are another barrier that makes everything more expensive.”

Michael Lander, a principal with Minneapolis-based Lander Group, said he’s noticed a strong generational shift when it comes to viewing the need for cars and parking spaces.

“There is a dramatic gap based on age,” said Lander, whose firm deals mostly with pedestrian-based projects.

“Millennials approach things quite differently than boomers. They aren’t as focused on owning a car, but one of the first questions from a boomer is ‘where do I park?’ So you have to address the parking needs, which can have a major impact on costs, before doing any project.”

In an urban infill setting that requires a parking structure, a space can cost $20,000 to $30,000 or more depending on the location and the complexity of the design, added Lander, a member of LOCUS, a national coalition of real estate developers and investors who advocate for sustainable, equitable, walkable development in America’s metropolitan areas.

In a 100-unit rental project in Minneapolis that is near transit options and is in a somewhat walkable neighborhood, the market might require half a space per apartment.

That means 50 spaces, which adds $1.25 million to the cost if the spaces average $25,000 each, he said.

“And if we are not near transit options, we are probably going to have to have 1.5 parking spaces per apartment, depending on the size of the unit and assuming a twoperson household in Minneapolis,” he said.

But Lander said parking demand can vary widely around the country. He now lives in San Francisco, where people who want to own a car are willing to pay $500 a month for a parking space.

“So cars are moving out of the system and becoming detached from the cost of housing, much more here than in the Midwest,” he said. “Cities on the coasts tend to be more dense and walkable. In Washington, D.C., for example, they built on 80 former surface parking lots.

“I’m working on two mixed-use projects like that now in Minneapolis where we are adding some fairly dense uses. We are replacing the parking that was there and looking into future needs.

“When parking demands are changing and dropping, you need to dial down on that because every parking space that isn’t used is at least $25,000 you didn’t need to spend. And you also have unpurposeful space that is hard to adapt. On the other side, if you have too few spaces, you can’t lease or sell your building and you could fail financially.”

Lander said putting buildings on what were formerly parking lots adds new residents, offices, jobs, restaurants, retail, an increased tax base and more people to make transit work.

“Figuring out the parking means coordinating something like a dance because restaurants are only open certain hours, while offices are used during the day. The goal is to get each space filled as much as possible each 24-hour period.

“I see counts going down and more parking going from being a private, dedicated arrangement to being part of a pool where you still always have space. Part of it is because of Uber and car sharing. We’re moving down that multi-modal road and every city is headed there. In the best urban districts, all of the parking is or will be part of a public reservoir.”

He said the same thing should apply to residential streets, where boomers tend to see the spaces in front of their houses as their property, while others — particularly students — see them as free parking spots.

“It creates conflict,” he said. “We are in transition and transitions are often rough with growing pains. This is a cultural change between boomers and millennials. That’s a significant part of the underlying issue.

Shoup, the UCLA parking guru, drove a 1966 Ford Mustang for two decades. He said he is not opposed to owning an automobile. He just doesn’t believe that parking spaces for any kind of vehicle should be for free.

“Free parking is a classic tragedy of the common problem where drivers compete over scarce public parking spaces and consume time and resources searching for them,” said the 80-year-old Shoup, who railed against arbitrary standards and the “pseudoscience” methods used to determine them in his book.

“Everyone wants to park for free, including me,” argued Shoup, who has been at UCLA since 1968 and where he said Uber and Lyft pick up and drop off 68,000 passengers a week. “But a city where everyone happily pays for each other’s free parking is a fool’s paradise. The hidden costs are everywhere and they’re linked to many of the issues people are interested in, including economic development, urban design, affordable housing, public transit and clean air.”

If Shoup had his way, he’d not only remove off-street parking requirements and use market-rate pricing for on-street spaces, but he’d use the parking revenue to improve public services on metered streets. And then use that money to improve services on those same thoroughfares.

“If people see their meter money at work, those new public services can make demand-based prices for on-street parking politically popular,” he said. “And it should be something you can take a photograph of, like power washing the sidewalks on a regular basis, removing graffiti, repairing cracked pavement, more police patrols or putting ugly overhead wires underground. Now that would get people on board.”

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