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Do Away With Parking Requirements? Yes!! No!!

The following is a PT Blog conversation that took place last month among Editor John Van Horn, Woody Nash of Boomerang Systems and Paul Barter of the National University of Singapore. JVH Begins:
Columbus, OH, is reducing the number of parking spaces required for businesses in its downtown area. It’s a beginning, but UCLA Professor Don Shoup recommends that parking requirements be done away with completely. The argument goes like this:
Parking requirements are usually based on “silly” numbers that have little basis in reality (e.g., nunnery, 1 space per every three nuns; swimming pool, 1 space for each 15,000 gallons of water; beauty shop, 1 space for every station; adult book store, 1 space for every 1,000 square feet.
The point is that none of these absolute requirements, nor most others, hold up well to scrutiny. The result is that when a business wants to open in an area and if the business it is replacing doesn’t meet the parking requirement, urban renewal simply won’t happen.
If I want to put a restaurant where a hardware store used to be, I should be able to do so. The business risk is mine. They don’t build churches for Easter and Christmas, and we shouldn’t require parking for the day after Thanksgiving. Columbus has made a good start; simply reducing the requirements by 20% helps, but it doesn’t solve the problem.
I know it’s difficult for “planners” to get their minds around the concept of “unplanned” parking requirements, but in most cases, parking is overbuilt. And if it’s not, people and the free market will fix the problem. Some will decide to ride the bus, carpool or move to the area, assuming it’s attractive, so they don’t need a car. Urban density is seen as a good thing. One way to get it is to let the parking requirements go the way of the dodo bird.
Woody responds:
One trip to Mumbai or Delhi (India), Abu Dhabi or Dubai (UAE), or to Mexico City ought to cure anyone of the “free market” approach to parking requirements for real estate developers. These cities demonstrate that 9 out of 10 developers will cut corners on parking to save themselves time, space and money.
Yet, it is a proven fact that new development means more cars will come into an area. If developers do not provide ample parking spaces to meet the increased demand generated by their projects, then cars will circle around looking for parking spaces, which increases traffic and noise & air pollution.
The reason all of these developing nations are adopting strict parking requirements for developers is that they are sick and tired of the pollution, blaring horns, short tempers and endless time spent circling around looking for parking spaces.
After spending a lot of time in these cities, I am very glad they came to their senses and starting mandating parking as a part of their real estate development approvals. Why in God’s name would we want to repeat their mistakes?
Your examples of linking parking spaces to gallons of water are funny, but they distract the reader from the fact that most requirements are directly linked to very relevant metrics, such as number of bedrooms, seats for restaurant patrons, or square footage of rentable office space.
I understand all too well that this is more difficult in tight urban redevelopment projects (after all, fitting cars in tight spaces is our business). While it used to be more difficult to fit the cars, there are many new technologies – from SMS-enabled valet operations to mechanical stackers and fully automated systems like ours – that make it cost-effective to achieve greater vehicle density.
Like it or not, parking is a basic infrastructure element that a developer must factor into their business model. If the project cannot support adequate parking, then it probably should not get built until some more creative developer finds a use for that land that will support the parking requirement.
If Enron and the subprime (housing) meltdown have taught us anything, it’s that “free markets” work best when they have some boundaries within which to operate. Parking requirements are one of those boundaries in the real estate development game.
JVH responds:
Woody says he has travelled to major cities worldwide and the “free market” has caused developers to build complexes without enough parking, and that has caused chaos in traffic and parking. I certainly agree that Manila has chaos, as does Mumbai, Delhi, Bangkok and Mexico City. ( I could add Săo Paulo, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Cairo, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Miami, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, etc.) I note that the last eight cities (except Houston) have strict parking requirements and, frankly, the traffic seems equally hectic.
The problem in most cities is not the lack of parking, but the lack of parking controls and enforcement. Most of the traffic problems in these cities relate to similar issues. In fact, the parking requirements in Seattle restrict the number of spaces. The tallest building west of the Mississippi (its Columbia Center) has only about 200 parking spaces. Why? The city wants to push people out of cars and into public transportation. They use parking to help affect public policy.
Abu Dhabi is an example of a city where lack of on-street regulations and enforcement made for chaos. Last year, they instituted on-street parking charges and controls, and almost overnight the chaos was gone. Some did not like to walk a few blocks from the parking lots to their destination, but they would rather do that than pay more for on-street parking. India has other issues, and to get their arms around traffic means a huge enforcement effort.
Woody also takes a shot at my examples of silly parking zoning requirements. Fair enough. However, simply looking at the square footage or number of bedrooms is not a solution, either. If a facility is a medical office building (with its many visitors), it will need far more parking than a high-rise insurance company with staff only and no visitors. It would seem that the developer could make those decisions more reasonably than a zoning board meeting years before the project was even considered.
Requiring parking for apartments based on bedrooms is a similar issue. If it’s a place that caters to parents with young children, then not as many spaces will be needed. By not requiring so much parking, the cost of building and the cost of rent goes down. People can then make the choice of reducing the number of vehicles they own.
The problem is more complex than just providing parking. Houston has garages on every corner, but their traffic congestion is some of the worst in the country.
Companies such as Woody’s provide an excellent service of being able to retrofit parking where it has become necessary. The free market has enabled him and his competitors to provide automated parking facilities for buildings where conventional parking facilities are not appropriate.
I don’t think it’s the lack of parking, although that might be an issue in some places. It is how parking is managed that is the difference. If on-street parking is free or cheap, and parking in structures is more expensive, people will drive around looking for a free space, rather than park in the garage. However, if the pricing is set by the free market, at a rate that keeps about one space per block-face open, on-street pricing would be higher because it would be more convenient, and so people would quickly make the decision to park where they could afford it. Most would park in nearby lots, and cruising would be greatly reduced.
Paul, who unlike JVH and Woody, has actually studied the problem, sums it up:
I have been looking into parking policy around Asia. A report on it should be out in June (with luck).
It is true that Mumbai and Delhi have parking chaos and are now trying to follow the conventional suburban parking policy approach of minimum parking requirements with buildings. Dhaka, Bangladesh, with car ownership below 50 per 1,000 people, is doing the same. In a situation like that, is it really a good idea to force building managers and all of their customers to subsidize the parking of the tiny elite? So far, it is not working very well. Off-street parking does not magically suck cars off the streets if the streets are easy and cheap to park in.
By contrast, Japanese cities mostly have rather low parking requirements (typically, one parking space per 150 to 400 square meters of floor space). And Japanese parking requirements apply only to large buildings. Modest-sized buildings (under about 1,500 to 2,000 square meters of floor space) usually have no parking required. The full requirements apply only above 6,000 square meters (they phase in at between 2,000 and 6,000 square meters).
Yet, Japanese cities don’t have parking chaos. In fact, they have very little on-street parking. And since 2006, on-street parking rules have been quite strictly enforced. Where do people park then (they are not all using the trains or bicycles)? Answer: Spillover parking goes mostly into commercial off-street parking, which seems to be ubiquitous (and some city-owned parking lots, usually underground).
The Japanese parking arrangements are not perfect, but maybe they point toward a workable solution that is akin to JVH’s (and Donald Shoup’s) market-oriented one. At least it suggests that high parking standards are not necessary to avoid parking chaos.
If you followed PT’s Parking Blog, you would have read all this a month ago, along with the more than 500 who did. And you could have added your expertise to the discussion. Log on to www.parkingtoday.com, then click on “blog.” Or follow us on Facebook. JVH

Article Abstract from June, 2010




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