California Fails at Removing Minimum Parking Requirements
John Van Horn
The state of California attempted to change minimum parking requirements in its cities (AB 904). However, after considerable opposition from the League of Cities and the California chapter of the American Planning Association (APA), the legislation has been shelved for at least another year.
The issue was that to change minimum parking zoning requirements, cities must go through an expensive, time-consuming and politically wrenching process. The legislation would have removed those requirements in areas around transportation nodes. If desired, a city could easily opt out if local councils felt it was appropriate for their community to do so.
Minimum parking requirements restrict what is known as infill development. That is, upgrading existing structures for different uses or the building of certain types of structures where parking is required but there is no room for it.
The legislation would not have set parking maximums, so a developer could build as much parking as they felt the project required.
Michael Manville of the City and Regional Planning Department at Cornell University said opposition by the California APA was ill-founded. The assistant professor wrote to the state chapter, saying, in part:
Minimum parking requirements inhibit housing and population density, subsidize vehicle ownership and driving, undermine “walkability” and transit use, prevent the reuse of older buildings, and impede the redevelopment of downtowns and other dense areas. These laws subsidize vehicle travel by making property development more expensive, and render the built environment less suitable for walking, cycling and transit use.
[The California APA’s] missive states that parking requirements should be reduced only when communities believe it is right for them to do so. Superficially, this makes some sense; in many instances, local control has great advantages. But the nature of the problem created by parking requirements, and the distribution of their costs and benefits, suggests that local reform comes very slowly, if ever.
The original justification for parking requirements was that new development, if it did not include parking, would create spillover that clogs nearby streets. It is now well-understood, however, that parking minimums have little value in mitigating spillover, because many drivers seek on-street spaces first and park off-street only when congestion or pricing pushes them to look to do so.
Accordingly, the only measure that has proven effective against spillover is metering or otherwise restricting congested streets. All cities have the authority to carry out this solution, but for understandable reasons, few have the political will: Meters aren’t popular. Off-street parking requirements, therefore, allow cities to avoid the entirely practical, albeit politically unpopular, step of metering.
In effect, parking requirements place a tax on future residents (by
increasing housing prices) in order to let current drivers keep parking for free.
Further, by inhibiting density and impeding development, parking requirements often become tools of exclusion. Local governments have used parking requirements to quietly block affordable housing and stop development targeted toward lower-income people (a two spaces per unit parking requirement, after all, essentially makes it illegal to build housing explicitly for people who can’t afford cars).
Thus, the burden of parking requirements tends to fall on those who our [planning] profession should most be trying to protect, and – crucially – this constituency is essentially disenfranchised. Future residents can’t vote. This is the “Catch-22” of exclusionary zoning: If I am being kept out of a community by local regulatory barriers, I can’t vote to remove those barriers, because they are keeping me out of the community and thereby preventing me from voting.
This political calculus of parking requirements – the benefits accrue to more affluent incumbent voters, while the costs fall on nonvoters with the least means and the least voice – makes the idea of localities deciding to roll back their own parking ordinances highly unlikely.
Local governments respond to, and speak for, their current residents. It is the responsibility of state governments (and, one would hope, the state APA) to speak for the welfare of the broader public. In fact, the history of parking reform in the United States suggests that progressive, sustainable approaches are often the result of pressure or direction from higher levels of government.
The parking maximums in Boston, Portland [OR] and New York did not come about because residents of neighborhoods [in those cities] decided to enable more population density. They were a result of mandates from the EPA.
Few planners today, however, would look at downtown Boston or lower Manhattan or the Portland CBD and consider them examples of heavy-handed government overreach. Rather, in hindsight, they look like excellent planning decisions that helped enable density, and create or preserve exemplary built environments.
[The California legislation] AB 904, of course, does not promote parking maximums. It simply caps minimums. Any developer who wants to exceed the minimum can do so.
AB 904 helps break the political logjam that surrounds parking and helps ensure that localities will use parking requirements appropriately, not as instruments to block development or maintain free street parking or engage in quiet NIMBYism.
Article Abstract from September, 2012