On the scourge of parking minimums

I used to assume that most people naturally prefer cars because they’re necessarily faster and easier than other forms of transit. As it turns out, governments encourage driving over other forms of transit in all sorts of ways. One way in particular is parking minimums.

Starting in the 1950’s, cities created parking minimums to compete with suburbs and to quell NIMBY opposition to new development, according to Henry Grabar. “I moved from Manhattan to San Francisco so I could park,” said a San Francisco Planning commissioner while denying a permit. People will block development so they don’t have to fight for street parking. 

The US has built more than 800 million parking spaces. Tippecanoe County, Indiana has 2.2 parking spaces for every registered car. Greg Shill estimates that Houston has 30 parking spaces for every resident. “Parking is the single biggest land use in most cities,” said Donald Shoup, a research professor at the University of California, … “[T]here’s more land devoted to parking than there is to housing or industry or commerce or offices.”

Required parking encourages driving and acts, “like a fertility drug for cars,” according to UCLA parking scholar Donald Shoup. These requirements “subsidize cars, increase traffic congestion and carbon emissions, pollute the air and water, encourage sprawl, raise housing costs, exclude poor people, degrade urban design, reduce walkability and damage the economy,” Shoup said.

Just a friendly reminder that cars are literally killing us and the planet. Maybe not the thing to subsidize, then? 

Parking requirements also kill affordable housing. A single parking spot can cost $50,000 or more, significantly raising the cost of development. Why not build fast, reliable transit and dense, walkable neighborhoods instead of parking spots?

If cities are worried about neighbors blocking development to protect their street parking, the better solution is to block their ability to block development for stupid, selfish reasons by permitting new homes by-right. 

Luckily, cites are rethinking this insanity. I recently learned through Madeline Kovacs that Houston has exempted areas from citywide parking minimums. In 2016 Buffalo, New York, removed parking minimums for smaller projects and Hartford, Connecticut did the same but for all developments. That year DC lowered their minimums. In 2005 San Francisco actually implemented parking maximums areas well served by public transit and got rid of the minimum in 2018. In 2018 Minneapolis nixed their parking minimums. Cites across the world are either getting rid of their minimums or actually banning parking. 

It turns out that the reason cars are faster and easier has a lot to do with the way cities have encouraged driving over other forms of transit. I’m happy to see cities rethinking these choices.

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