By Dom Nozzi
American cities tend to provide extremely “inefficient” parking. That is, most all parking tends to be underpriced or free to use, which encourages excessive amounts of “low-value” (inefficient) parking. An example of “low-value” and “inefficient” parking is when a single person parks a 100-square foot vehicle on an expensive piece of town center real estate to buy a cup of coffee at rush hour.
Little if any parking is “shared” between nearby land uses (such as a church and a grocery store). Parking tends to be excessively provided by developers, partially because of “minimum parking requirements” imposed by local governments (which tend to be based on outdated, excessive requirements used in other communities, rather than a local assessment of need).
As Michael Manville notes in Spring 2014 issue of Access Magazine, when cities require parking to be provided with all new residential construction, it shifts what should be a cost of driving—the cost of parking a car—into the cost of housing. A price drivers should pay at the end of their trips becomes a cost developers must bear at the start of their projects. Similarly, Donald Shoup points out that “free” parking is not free. We all pay indirectly for the “free” parking at a grocery store by paying more for the groceries inside that store, because the grocery store must pay for the purchase of land, as well as the operation and maintenance cost, for that parking. Conventional, out-dated parking requirements have made excessive, costly parking provision the norm in nearly all American communities. Such requirements induce excessive amounts of “low-value” car trips (Shoup rightly calls “free” parking a fertility drug for cars); make housing much less affordable; induce excessive amounts of regional car trips and suburban sprawl; increase air emissions; reduce the amount of bicycling, walking and transit use; and make the renovation and reuse of lovable historic buildings much more costly and therefore less likely to occur.
It is important to note that even if a community no longer requires the provision of parking in its town centers (or citywide), developers will still face enormous pressure to provide parking. This is because lenders usually require the developer to provide large amounts of parking as a condition for obtaining a loan. And tenants and purchasers of developments (as well as neighbors) usually insist that parking be provided. For these reasons, a great many cities have converted their minimum parking requirements to maximum parking caps, since the provision of excess parking is much more likely and much more of a threat to communities than the provision of too little parking.
To make parking more efficient (and in line with a large number of community sustainability and quality of life objectives), communities should convert most or all of its minimum parking requirements to maximum parking caps. To the extent possible, the price of parking should be unbundled from the price of housing. Barriers to construction of buildings on existing (usually underused) surface parking lots should be lowered. Employers based in the community should be required to provide “cash-out” parking to employees. Shared and leased parking should be substantially increased and encouraged. In walkable centers, parking should be located behind the building rather than in front of the building. “Free” parking should be much more rare. The exception rather than the rul.