Connecting state and local government leaders
When a single parking space adds tens of thousands of dollars to a residential development, those costs get passed on to residents.
Many Americans are reconsidering their relationship with cars now that it’s clear they’re bad for the environment. That’s old news. But parking—and especially the expectation of easy and free parking—is also partly behind the country’s housing shortage, putting more pressure on state and local leaders to rethink the ubiquitous parking infrastructure.
“We're living in an unprecedented crisis of both housing and transportation expenses that today make up more than half the average American household budget and exert a terrible toll on the environment in the process,” said Henry Grabar, author of the new book Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, at a Brookings Institution event Tuesday.
For decades, local governments have set parking minimums for businesses and residences, telling developers that for X amount of square feet or units they build, there must be Y number of parking spaces. There’s little standardization in these requirements, and neighboring, similarly sized municipalities can have greatly different mandates.
Opponents of parking minimums often point out flaws in how the requirements are set by local governments. Parking mandates aren’t typically data-based regulations. As Donald Shoup, an urban planning expert and perhaps the biggest name in parking reform wrote in a 2020 American Planning Association publication, “[P]lanners are winging it. Planners are not oracles who can divine the demand for parking. I have never met a city planner who could explain why any parking requirement should not be higher or lower.”
While the cost to build parking depends on a number of factors, it is, almost invariably, breathtakingly expensive. One street-level space costs about $5,000 to build, while a space in a multi-level garage comes in at roughly $50,000. For an underground space, that can jump to upwards of $100,000, said Rachel MacCleery, co-executive director, Randall Lewis Center for Sustainability in Real Estate at the Urban Land Institute, during Tuesday’s event.
With mandatory parking minimums, those costs add up fast, which can put off a developer who might otherwise be interested in building housing, said Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, in an interview with Route Fifty. Builders who can find the financing to cover those costs typically pass them on to renters and homebuyers.
“Mandatory minimums become mandatory costs, and those must be borne by someone,” he said.
Besides adding extra costs to renters and property owners, parking mandates can also set back other housing efforts. Many cities and states are changing land-use rules to allow for accessory dwelling units, for example, or to convert empty office spaces into housing. But building an ADU will often require the property owner to also add a parking spot, said Angela Brooks, president of the American Planning Association. And in places where residential properties require more parking than commercial, mandates can hinder office conversions.
State and local leaders are increasingly recognizing that parking requirements often don’t fit the needs of the market they’re supposed to serve. Last month, Minnesota State Sen. Omar Fateh announced plans to introduce a bill to ban parking minimum requirements for builders. In Minnesota, most cities require between 1.5 and 2 parking spots per unit, Fateh said, but 48% of renters in the state only have one car, and 19% don’t have a car at all. The ban doesn’t prohibit developers from building parking, he added, but allows businesses to decide for themselves how much parking their properties need.
“We need our policies to focus more on building housing for people, not more housing for cars,” he said.
Major cities are also recognizing that too much parking reduces walkability, increases pollution and creates more traffic. In November, Austin became the largest city to eliminate parking minimums, joining the ranks of San Jose, California, and Portland, Oregon.
But given how much people care about the convenience of parking, there can be some strong opposition to eliminating parking minimums. Many people instinctively think a ban equates to eliminating all or almost all parking, but that’s not the case, Brooks said. Developers won’t build anything they can’t lease or sell, and to meet those goals some parking will likely need to be included.
“If the concern is, ‘We still need parking,’ trust me, the developers are going to provide that,” she said.
Of course, eliminating parking minimums alone isn’t enough to spur more housing. Minneapolis, for example, dropped parking mandates a few years ago, while also streamlining permitting for large multifamily buildings. It was this latter change that has made the biggest difference in spurring housing development, one researcher previously told Route Fifty.
Still, parking is an integral part of more impactful zoning reform legislation.
“We have to think about, what are the obstacles to getting those bills?” Brooks said. “And some of it is just antiquated parking requirements that don't reflect the communities that we're trying to build.”