Are Parking Minimums a Political Third Rail?
A clear consensus has emerged among city planners that removing minimum parking requirements is one of the most effective ways to promote healthier, more active and economically vibrant downtowns.
Despite this, the broad elimination of parking requirements continues to be a political third rail or practical impossibility in many places. Where minimum requirements trigger investments in public parking or other public investments (via “in lieu fees” or similar), broad removal may have even more barriers and fewer local cheerleaders.
Montgomery County, MD, a national pioneer in parking management district implementation, may soon define a new parking management-based alternative that can deliver essential parking-reform benefits where a Shoupian, pure-market approach is not an option.
Further, by increasing the cost of excessive and inefficient supplies, while rewarding parking-lean projects and shared facilities, this new zoning tool is designed to transform the county’s Parking Lot Districts (PLDs) of Bethesda, Montgomery Hills, Silver Spring and Wheaton into Parking Benefit Districts (PBDs) in which parking demand directly catalyzes funding for walking, cycling and transit improvements.
In 2009, a report by the Montgomery County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight found that the county’s parking policies needed to better align with other county policies that promote “travel by modes other than the single-occupant auto.”
In response, the county Department of Transportation, Division of Parking Management (MCDOT) and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission commissioned NelsonNygaard to assess the county’s Parking Lot District program and develop revised parking requirement options for these urban centers.
The PLD Program
Montgomery County’s program is perhaps the longest-standing one of its kind in the U.S.. In its four existing PLDs, all created between 1947 and 1951, the county provides more than 20,000 public parking spaces, funded to a significant extent by a tax on properties whose developers opted to provide less than the code-required amount of parking. The program began shortly after World War II, out of an anticipation that certain areas of the then-largely rural county would begin urbanizing.
Its establishing code identifies two purposes for the program:
1. To build, manage and provide public parking to encourage economic development.
2. To manage parking in a way that encourages the use of other modes of transportation.
As MCDOT Project Manager Rick Siebert noted: “The county understood that its quality-of-life objectives would be met by managing the supply of parking, not just building more and more garages. Eventually, you end up with a ton of garages but can’t get down the street.”
Particularly valuable to the success of PLDs such as Bethesda and Silver Spring has been the reduced physical parking footprint, promoting a walkable, park-once urbanism in which the appeal of strolling between local destinations reduces the need for redundant parking supplies.
Studies indicate that these types of shared-parking environments can reduce parking demand by half or more, mostly by shifting local trips away from driving modes.
Benefits Beyond Parking
A detailed review of the program’s financial performance revealed significant funding contributions to transportation demand management, civic improvement and transit programs. Taken together, this redirection of parking-generated revenue to local non-parking benefits, amounts to a high-level Parking Benefit District along the lines of Old Pasadena, CA, and Boulder, CO.
These investments, however, lacked strategic coordination —all were essentially non-voluntary inter-fund transfers out of the PLD fund, minimizing opportunities to coordinate investments to reduce parking supply expansions by improving alternative transportation and vice versa.
Coordinating these programs under a restructured PLD program became the first major recommendation of the study, complemented by supporting strategies and actions culled from a broad set of case studies, including:
a. Re-branding the coordinated program as Parking Benefit Districts (PBDs).
b. Performance-based pricing of on-street parking.
c. A formalized, performance-based supply-expansion policy (don’t expand until user-fee revenue can cover the full cost).
d. Restructuring the “in lieu of parking” tax as a parking benefits charge, adjusted based on the level of benefit or burden a project is deemed to confer upon the district.
e. A formalized, performance-based supply-expansion policy (don’t expand until user-fee revenue can cover the full cost).
f. Expanding the new program into emerging urban centers across the Montgomery County.
g. Establishing the capacity for the program to manage on-street parking in non-PBD areas.
Assuming a re-designed and expansionary program, we at NelsonNygaard set out to establish a set of appropriate revised parking standards for the county’s PBD areas. Restructuring the tax to protect program revenues from lower requirements greatly expanded the list of viable options.
For a number of reasons, however, completely eliminating minimum parking requirements was never viewed as a viable option for these areas:
Ingrained habits: Developers, long-accustomed to the county providing public parking to support ground-floor uses, were deemed likely to continue to supply parking solely for their upper-floor tenants. This situation was felt to put the economic viability of ground-floor uses, particularly important to vibrant sidewalks and pedestrian-oriented urbanism, at risk.
Limited capacity for new county facilities: The original PLDs were established when land values were much lower. In fact, many property owners donated land for parking facilities to the county. Partly a result of the program’s successes, the real estate markets in emerging districts offer no such opportunities, limiting the feasibility of constructing significant county facilities.
Promoting privately provided, shared parking: The county wanted to move away from building large stand-alone structures toward an emphasis on public parking within dispersed, private mixed-use facilities.
A New Alternative
This greatly reduced our firm’s options for meaningful reform. Simply reducing requirements and adding maximums requires the same guessing games at the heart of conventional approaches — still emphasizing precision at the expense of accuracy as Professor Shoup might say. Besides, going too low would raise the same objections as eliminating requirements would, while not going low enough would diminish the benefits of reform.
The coordination of existing programs under the new PBD program and the proposed Parking Benefit Charge (PBC), however, provided a unique opportunity to take a new approach: combining minimum and maximum standards based on the demonstrated efficiencies of today’s PLDs with options to build outside the resulting “standard” range by either increasing on-site efficiencies, directly funding multi-modal or demand-management benefits, or paying an elevated PBC.
Providing this flexibility, which makes excess parking more expensive rather than prohibiting it, makes it possible to set the maximum standard at a level that would otherwise be considered aggressively — and perhaps counter-productively — low. This is particularly important in Montgomery County, where planners explicitly recognize the connection between parking accommodation and the region’s epic congestion battles.
By expanding the county’s capacity to directly offset unwanted impacts, increased PBC rates can serve as more than mere disincentives for over- or under-parking new projects. Strategically directing private contributions toward programs designed to expand public parking, fund transit, support non-driving modes or improve the pedestrian realm, the PBC is designed, rather, as the heart of a financial “ecosystem” keeping multi-modal investments in balance and aligned with public policies and the evolving needs and opportunities within Montgomery County’s urban centers.
For decades, conventional parking requirements have devastated traditional urban centers across the country, eroding historic urban virtues with poor imitations of suburban convenience. While eliminating parking requirements remains the optimal model of reform in most places, the framework developed for Montgomery County’s Parking Lot Districts may prove a needed alternative where this is not a viable option, and perhaps a preferable alternative in some places where it is.
In either case, by expanding options for meaningful reform, it has significant potential to make reform more common, ultimately putting more distance between our future cities and the mistakes of the past.
Thomas Brown, Senior Planner with NelsonNygaard, can be reached at email@example.com.