The people have no parking? Let them ride bikes! (Photo credit: WSJ.)
The people have no parking? Let them ride bikes! (Photo credit: WSJ.)

by James A. Bacon

City planners in the District of Columbia want to waive parking requirements for new buildings near its 40 Metro stations. A change in the city’s zoning code, part of a comprehensive overhaul, would allow developers to determine how much parking, if any, was needed, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Relaxation of the parking mandates in D.C. is but one instance of cities around the country trying to reduce dependence upon automobile-related transportation. Sparing developers the expense of providing structured parking accomplishes two goals. First, reduces the cost of real estate, which percolates down to citizens in the form of lower rents. And second, it allows parking prices to rise, inducing some households to own fewer cars — or none at all.

In the case of Washington, D.C., the district now has a larger percentage of households without cars than any U.S. city besides New York City. In 2011, the number of car-free households was nearly 37% — way up from 25% in 1960. The shift to transit and biking has reduced the need for cars and parking. But the city has been slow to react. In 2008, according to the Journal, the city spent $47 million to build a 1,000-space parking garage under the new DC USA shopping center. At the developer’s request, that was half of what the zoning code would have required. Even so, the 1,000 spaces were far more than needed. As it turned out, many shoppers rode the Metro to the mall.

Other cities to roll back parking mandates in recent years include Denver, Philadelphia and New York City. However, Portland, a leader in the shift to transit and biking, has recently backtracked on its previous minimum parking requirements due to a perceived scarcity of parking spots.

Bacon’s bottom line: I see no justification for parking mandates whatsoever. Developers should be free to build or not build parking structures as market conditions dictate. If a neighborhood experiences a parking shortage, developers will be motivated to add structured parking to their projects. If they don’t respond, parking lot operators will be motivated to build. If parking remains scarce, neighborhood residents will motivated to dispense with their cars.

I well remember living in Baltimore while attending the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University. I lived in a 10th-floor efficiency across the street from campus, but my apartment had no parking. I drove my car around and around looking for a free, on-street place to park. Sometimes, I’d have to settle for a location three or four blocks away. Then I’d forget where I’d left the car! Parking became such a hassle that I sold the darn thing. As it turned out, I discovered that I didn’t need a car anyway. Grocery stores, banks and other basic services were within walking distance. When I had to leave town, I took Trailways.

I see no more justification for mandating or subsidizing parking than I see in mandating or subsidizing automobile ownership, mass transit or any other transportation mode. The market will reach a reasonable equilibrium based upon the relative costs of transportation alternatives and people’s changing preferences, making continual incremental adjustments that never get too far out of whack. (If new dynamic pricing strategies are adapted for on-street parking, the market could become even more efficient.) By contrast, parking requirements embedded in musty old zoning codes are far slower to adapt to changing supply and demand conditions, with the result that far bigger, more disruptive imbalances result.

One last note: The outlawing of parking mandates should not apply only to dense urban areas. Market forces should prevail everywhere, including low-density suburbs. A lot of people accustomed to “free” parking — i.e., parking paid for by someone else — will howl. But the net result will be positive.

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4 responses to “Parking Libre!”

  1. larryg Avatar

    I know this might shock but I totally AGREE with this statement: ” I see no justification for parking mandates whatsoever. Developers should be free to build or not build parking structures as market conditions dictate.”

    I’d wonder, in fact, if NYC, already practices this.

    so .. what if .. a place like Tysons did not offer parking or offered ONLY market-based parking in multi-story garages and the streets were given back to the pedestrians and bikers?

    I’d be specifically interested in hearing from Reed on this since he has indicated that parking is a complex issue… that needs a lot of thought.

  2. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Complex and speculative indeed. I’ll get back on this.

  3. For Tysons, Fairfax County adopted parking maximums, rather than minimums, for TOD areas. On rezoning requests, the County seems to be giving landowners some flexibility to determine what parking ratios vis a vis apartments, condos or commercial space is appropriate. And a number of landowners are becoming quite knowledgeable in setting those ratios. The flexibility also gives the landowners the ability to exceed the maximums on the initial construction with the entire project required to meet the rules. That seems pretty reasonable to me.

  4. A related issue came before the Fairfax County BoS yesterday. The Schools sought approval of land use changes that included a greatly expanded Kiss and Ride at a Reston Elementary School in order to get the traffic backlog of parents dropping off, and picking up students. Approximately 45% of the students are driven to and from school by parents, etc.
    Some individuals and one supervisor objected, saying FCPS was enabling more driving and traffic, instead of promoting walking, biking and bus riding. The arguments were quite good, IMO.
    However, the supervisors decided that they needed to accommodate reality – parents drive their kids to elementary school. Getting rid of the traffic backup in the school’s neighborhood was viewed as more important.

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