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Does Reducing Parking Spaces Cut Car Usage?

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Cities in the US start rethinking the requirements for developers to build new parking lots. To fight high housing prices and climate change, the cities are getting rid of parking space minimums.

Parking spaces are everywhere in the US. For example, Connecticut is 4,842 sq. miles (12,540 sq. km) of land, whereas all off-street parking in the US takes about 5, 250 sq. miles (13,597 sq. km). In other words, put all the parking spaces together and you’d completely cover Connecticut plus a bit extra. One reason for so much land being paved for parking are rules that require minimum amounts per building. The combination of these measures, expansive highways (often slicing through largely minority neighbourhoods), and endless suburban sprawl contribute to the overcrowding of US cities with cars. It also means effective public transportation has a slim chance of happening.

California will become the first to sign a bill that prevents local governments from mandating parking spaces as part of most development near transit stops.  Governor Gavin Newsom emphasized that this does not only make housing more affordable but also has potential environmental benefits too. “Housing solutions are also climate solutions”, the governor said. Oregon is another example that rolled out new rules for climate-friendly and equitable communities. One of sections prohibits requiring parking spaces for developments with lands within 3960 feet (1207 meters) of a rail transit stop.  Among other cities which are loosening parking space requirements on developers are Cambridge, Nashville, and Anchorage.

“These parking minimums have helped kill cities,” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School.  Climate campaigners and public transport advocated have been discussing the issue with parking minimums and posting pictures on social media demonstrating the absurdity of using vast areas of prime urban land for parking lots.  “Land use policy is inextricably linked to climate policy, and I think at a local level this is the primary way we can help on that,” said Angie Henderon, a member of the Nashville metro council, one of the most car-oriented cities in the US.

However, some cities still reject the idea of easing the parking minimum. In March, city commissioners in Miami put back the parking minimum, saying that this is not a pedestrian and bicycle city.  One of them also complained that people were parking outside his home because of a lack of available parking lots. Even in California, there are still voices of opposition to change.


Personal Comment:

Mandating the building of car parking might seem harmless. It might even make sense to provide parking spaces for the 289 million registered cars in the US. Laws that demand at least one parking spot per apartment building, one per 300sq ft of commercial development and one per 100sq ft for restaurants encourage people to use more and more cars. Cities have all the facilities for being car-centric. In 1961 Lewis Mumfold and Jane Jacobs wrote: “The right to access every building in a city by private motorcar is an age when everyone owns such a vehicle, is actually the right to destroy the city.”  This was 15 year later after several US cities introduced an experiment called “minimum parking requirements”. Mumfold and Jacob were right, parking minimum requirements have been a disaster that has taken its toll on housing affordability and climate change.

In a previous article in Smart Mobility we mentioned a phenomenon called “traffic evaporation”: traffic tends to disappear when road space is relocated from private vehicles to other more sustainable modes of transportation. So, maybe this is the same case with a parking space? The less parking sports cities provide the less motivated people are to use cars, especially in dense areas? This might result in fewer cars, as well as more spaces for housing, green zones and so on.

Written by Kateryna Melnyk,
RISE Mobility & Systems