The National Movement to Tame Parking
As promised, I want to link Portland’s current controversy over re-instating requirements to provide off-street parking, even in buildings located on frequent transit streets, with the broader discussion nationally about how to accommodate cars in cities. From Boston to Seattle there are many who are arguing that requiring off-street parking unnecessarily increases housing costs and results in inefficient and undesirable use of land, eg, for storing cars rather than for housing or shops. The flip side of the new attractiveness of cities is that more people want to live in them. Providing sufficient and affordable housing is a challenge that is only exacerbated by outdated assumptions that “normal” people come with cars attached.
Metro, Portland, Oregon’s regional government, adopted parking maximums in the 1990s that were tied to broad delineations of access to alternative transportation, with lower maximums closer to transit and more densely settled parts of the region. While pretty tame, the profound switch was to move away from government mandates for a minimum level of parking to setting upper limits on a regional basis. This idea was agreed to by regional leaders after they were shown the results of a parking utilization survey conducted with aerial photos the day after Thanksgiving that showed most regional shopping areas with their parking lots only 1/2 to 2/3 full. Of course, less required parking = more land for development = less pressure to expand the urban growth boundary. Portland decided to create areas with no off-street parking which are now being challenged by some neighborhood residents fearful on losing their current convenient parking, which I covered here.
“Seattle city planners are recommending that the city eliminate parking requirements for new developments within a quarter-mile of frequent transit, under the theory that more people will take buses and light rail and fewer will own cars, particularly in dense urban neighborhoods like Queen Anne’s West Galer neighborhood.” (Seattle Times, March 22, 2012)
Donald Shoup, in an essay for the free market Cato Institute, lays out his argument for performance pricing of parking (adjusting the price depending on demand as well as for the elimination of government mandating off-street parking.
“Reform is not only adopting good policies but also repealing bad policies. Requiring all buildings to provide ample parking is one such bad policy that cities should repeal. In Greek mythology, a cornucopia always overflowed with whatever its owner wanted. Requiring ample parking does give us all the free parking we want, but it also distorts transportation choices, debases urban design, damages the economy, and degrades the environment.”
But the battle over off-street parking mandates is only a reflection of the much bigger problem: that on-street parking is a classic case of government distorting the market resulting in mis-use of a limited resource (people parking all-day in a commercial zone), traffic congestion from drivers searching for a lower cost or free on-street spot instead of paying for off-street parking, among other effects. as the Boston Globe editorialized this weekend “One paradox of street parking is that loose rules and low costs mean maximal headaches.” (Boston Globe Editorial, March 31, 2013)
Shoup is famous for his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, that shows the many benefits of using market based mechanisms to manage on-street parking with plenty of examples that demonstrate reduction in traffic, improved air quality, more customers for local businesses and fewer problems with enforcement.
“Cities should set the right price for curb parking, because the wrong prices produce bad results. Where curb parking is underpriced and overcrowded, a surprising share of traffic can be cruising in search of a place to park. Sixteen studies conducted between 1927 and 2001 found that, on average, 30 percent of the cars in congested traffic were cruising for parking.”
What our neighborhoods need is not more government-mandated, expensive and unneeded off-street parking; rather, we need an intelligent approach to managing cars, including charging for on-street parking.