By Dom Nozzi, AICP
Why do so many environmentalists and many other well-educated people (who should know better) so often express strong support for local laws which require new developments to provide excessive, ever-higher amounts of parking for cars? Isn’t it obvious by now, after decades of research, experience and studies, that required parking promotes excessive car use, stormwater runoff problems, loss of wildlife habitat, suburban sprawl, loss of walkability, loss of civic pride, and loss of beauty? Why, in other words, do so many argue for parking rules that are so profoundly counterproductive to their interests?
Is there anything under the control of city hall that is more ruinous to a community or its natural environment than the parking requirements imposed by local governments?
If there are, I am unaware of them.
Why, then, do so many conservationists and informed citizens strongly urge the adoption of laws calling for higher and higher amounts of required parking?
The explanation I repeat over and over again in my books, blogs and presentations is that decisions by elected officials and citizens, for several decades, have created a nation where nearly all of us (including environmentalists and other educated folk) are almost always forced to drive a car for most all of our trips.
That means we are compelled by the travel conditions we face to INSIST that free or low-cost parking and free-flowing (and free-to-use) roads be provided in abundance. We have, after all, a personal stake in low-cost, convenient car use. And because the over-provision of roads and parking for cars is a zero-sum game, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to travel without a car. That means American communities see an ever-growing army of car cheerleaders who demand that their elected officials provide free-flowing roads and free, abundant parking.
Who can blame us? We are understandably convinced we can’t travel without such things.
Because nearly all of us – including environmentalists and other enlightened folk – are part of this transportation reality, it has become a political and intellectual consensus that we must bankrupt ourselves to make our cars happy. The people who should know better, then, are compelled to rationalize the indefensible.
Importantly, as the Soviets learned with their infamous bread lines, the solution to long bread lines is NOT to provide more free bread. The solution, as all first-year economics students know, is to charge money for the bread so that the bread is not excessively consumed or wasted (and attract a nearly endless line of people seeking bread).
Likewise, the solution to a perceived lack of parking in America is NOT to provide more free parking (via local laws requiring developers to provide abundant parking as a condition for development approval). It should be obvious to us that providing more free parking results in the same tragic failure that the provision of more free bread caused in Europe. In both cases, the result is more congestion, longer lines, and more misery.
If we all agree that socialistic economics of bread lines is an unworkable failure in Soviet Russia, why do we think that we can make an exception to this simple economic principle for car parking in the US?
It becomes a self-perpetuating vicious cycle that we trap ourselves in. We are so trapped in the tragedy of thinking more free bread (or in this case, more free parking) is a solution to congested parking that even intelligent environmentalists scream for higher and higher amounts of required car parking.
Given the above, communities quite commonly require way too much off-street parking with their minimum parking laws. And many so-called environmentalists applaud loudly.
Perhaps my most important achievement as a senior town planner in Gainesville, Florida, was to convince the city that today, the biggest danger that new development will pose for the community is the provision of TOO MUCH parking by the development, not too little parking.
As a result, I convinced the city to invert its parking requirements. The minimum parking requirements are now maximum requirements for much of the city (the developer can choose to provide anywhere from zero parking up to the former minimum amount of parking required). Which, one would think, would be appealing to the political right, as this new law essentially says, “let the market/developer decide how much parking to provide, not the socialistic government.”
By maintaining the status quo “minimum required parking” law found in 99 percent of all communities in America, we end up with town centers and other locations that look like bombed-out war zones that few humans would find to be a tolerable place to live in or be proud of. Plenty of affordable housing for cars, but misery and disgust for humans, as the infamous and relatively recent photo of downtown Houston shows…
I remain optimistic, however. The rapidly growing cost of gasoline, growing concerns about global warming and peak oil, and the increasingly unaffordable cost of providing abundant, free off-street parking (and big roads) is forcing a growing number of communities and its thought pioneers to revise their earlier, unsustainable views about the “necessity” of making cars happy.
When we run out of money (and space), as they say, we are required to start thinking.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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