Minimum Parking Requirements: A Word of Caution
In 2005, UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup published a 733-page book on something few people outside of the urban planning community think about: parking. Academics and policymakers alike celebrated Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking, which argued convincingly that policies which encourage car parking, like mandatory minimum parking requirements and free curbside parking, hurt cities and the planet. These policies increase cruising: the amount of time drivers spend looking for parking. Cruising causes up to 74 percent of traffic every year in some cities. In an average Los Angeles neighborhood, cruising in one year contributed to 945 thousand vehicle miles travelled—the equivalent to driving around the earth thirty-eight times. It wasted one hundred thousand hours of drivers’ time, consumed forty-seven thousand gallons of gasoline, and produced 728 tons of CO2.
Land for parking must be paid for. Cities’ demands that new developments include parking spots raise development costs. In LA, for instance, parking space can increase the cost of a new shopping center by anywhere from 67 to 93 percent. Though Americans may think of parking as “free,” that space costs money to fund. Shoup quantifies that Americans spend as much as $374 billion a year on off-street parking subsidies alone (for reference, Medicare costs somewhere around $625 billion in total). Shoup ends by calling for smarter urban policies that lessen parking regulations, namely with regards to curb and off-street parking.
The book has, to an extent, hadits intended effect. Affordable housing advocates and urban planning groups parroted Shoup’s arguments; grass-roots movements in big cities against parking emerged, and Vox even made a video (with the same name as Shoup’s book) that has garnered over two million views. Though Shoup did not begin the debate on parking requirements and free curb parking, his book represents a turning point for the movement and his clear examination of the costs of disadvantageous policies eventually translated activism into policy. Many big cities are increasing tolls. Buffalo, Hartford and Minneapolis have all abandoned parking requirements. In the movement’s biggest win yet, San Francisco ditched parking requirements last December.
Urban planning and affordable housing advocates have celebrated what they perceive as a shift in public opinion, jump-started by the anti-parking requirements initiative. Outlets like Curbed see Minneapolis’ “Vision 2040” plan, which eliminated minimum parking requirements with a series of zoning reforms to decrease the cost of housing, as a blueprint for the future, part of an inevitable march toward more efficient, data-driven policies across the country. The “new urbanist” movement, focused on building sustainable and equitable cities, sees the end of minimum parking requirements as an early step toward decreasing the salience of driving in the United States.
But without a joint suite of measures to reduce driving, the elimination of minimum parking requirements will be short-lived. Drivers will demand a reduction in parking costs before the benefits of higher parking costs manifest. Celebrating an enlightened era of urban policy is good, but supporters should worry about their hard fought gains disappearing. To succeed, the movement must embrace a broader policy agenda that mitigates short-term pushback from American driving culture.
First, drivers will lash against mandatory parking minimums because they will still use cars as a major mode of transportation. Mandatory parking requirements are not the only policies that contribute to car ridership. Zoning policies that limit the number of housing units in city centers make American cities less dense than those around the world; bad transit policy makes public transportation cost more than in almost any other developed country. Drivers on the outskirts of cities or in suburbs can either swallow the costs of parking or carpool. Despite carpooling being a cheap option right now, carpooling has decreased overall over the last four decades precipitously. In the 1970s, one in five commuters carpooled to work. Today, only one in ten do.
The short-run consequence of eliminating parking minimums is an increase in the cost beared by drivers. The cost of parking is not a hidden cost. Parking costs directly affect drivers’ budgets on a daily basis. Such a concentrated downside for lifelong drivers will lead to backlash and political opportunists in city governments will further leverage popular sentiment to prevent these changes from enduring. Already, Republican State Senators in New York have railed against parking toll increases, showing that parking prices can be used as a political cudgel. Candidates running on reducing the cost of parking to drivers may find a home in city halls and state houses across the country.
The complaints against ending parking minimums also carry a supposed moral weight because people feel entitled to existing parking spaces. Shoup documents how early parking regulations were based on the medieval idea of the commons, a space which belonged to everyone. From its advent, the parking space in the American psyche has been a public good. In her equally important book Politics of Parking: Rights, Identity and Property, University of Leeds political science professor Sarah Marusek explains that the symbolism of the parking space is framed in law and order terms, where the uniform lines help define a sense of “public control”. The political arguments against higher parking costs find a home in the American psyche and its entitlement to free parking. When drivers begin to feel the effects of higher parking costs, arguments to re-lower them are not only intuitive: they are tied to a conception that all Americans deserve “free” parking.
Ending minimum parking requirements is a worthwhile goal: doing so would reduce driving and maintain urban and environmental wellbeing. In the interim, though, costs are pushed onto drivers. A culture of driving and an entitlement to parking are difficult social forces to overcome. If parking minimums stay abolished, then eventually cities might expect fewer drivers on their streets and the downsides of free parking could be curbed. But the lag time between the implementation of the policy and its intended effect determines the staying power of the reforms. Right now, the optimism of urban planning advocates seems misguided. Parking minimums may come back to wreak the same consequences as before.
Some drivers can stomach the costs necessitated by the new urbanist movement’s goals. But cities are not dealing with mandatory parking minimums in isolation. Changing one set of policies, like mandatory parking requirements, will not be enough. Minneapolis’ “Vision 2040” plan, for example, ends parking minimums while increasing public transportation funding and reforming zoning law to disincentivize driving. A holistic look at all of the policy factors that help increase the rate of driving in the United States is desperately needed. Ending minimum parking requirements alone may harden the public against urbanist reforms and even worsen urban life.
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