Monday, July 11, 2011

Basics: Parking Requirements

Nearly every American zoning code takes minimum parking requirements for granted: every habitable structure has to have a minimum of so-and-so parking per unit (if residential) or square feet (if commercial or industrial). Yet this practice runs counter to international best practices. European cities, for example, are purposefully making themselves car-hostile. And changing thoughts on parking requirements are creating a patchwork in which some cities have parking minima and others parking maxima.

The major problem is that since 1950 American cities have seen auto access as a given; rather, its proper place is a luxury. Streets need to be there for service vehicles, but they don't need nearly as much space as they claim. (Japan, for example, proves that.) Automobiles are merely one mode out of many of transportation access--their usage is enforced when we create environments where there is no mass transit and other modes of personal transit (pedestrian, bike) are well-nigh suicidal, but their usage is also encouraged when we overbuild automotive infrastructure where there is great access via all other modes as well. European cities understand this. The idea of building an apartment building next to light rail, to take an example from the Times article, is reasonably urban (indeed, that is the root of transportation-oriented development), but by giving such a structure a massive parking deck for residents, you abrogate the development opportunities gained by being transit-oriented and instead merely make it transit-proximate. In an era where resources need to be shifted to better use less energy, providing a parking space per unit just doesn't make any sense.

TOD planning has helped bring about change--see places like Rosslyn, VA--but the reality is that with fewer resources we can put toward transportation better transportation planning is necessary. TOD is only an element in broader planning--and Philadelphia, and every city, for that matter, needs to start planning to ensure that every citizen has adequate transportation access to every mode, and an environment conducive to less energy-intensive modes of transportation and more gung-ho about more energy-intensive modes. In other words, the way we zone needs to make it easier to walk, ride a bike, or take the bus or train than drive.

To that end, along with the development and implementation of a 50-year transportation plan, such as Philadelphia2050, every metropolitan area in the U.S. needs to reconsider how it accommodates automobiles, through both roadway design and construction and planned transit access and network design--and through parking requirements. Parking minima should only be enacted in places where mass transit access in a 50-year timeframe is simply not a viable option, and zoning massing densities* complemented with a gradation of parking maxima relative to density, with the highest-density and closest-to-high-capacity-transit locales having no parking requirements whatsoever.** Ideally, this would be bundled with market-rate pricing of parking throughout the urban organism, such as what Market Urbanism suggests, and the complete-street/shared-space network I have previously described--a one-two punch that would effectively eliminate several hidden subsidies for cars in the urban cores and provide a long-term ridership base for mass transit and regional bike trails.
* In either Euclidean or form-based frameworks.
** Philadelphia's new zoning code would have been trailblazing in enacting something not much different from this, but Center City neighborhood associations--particularly the perennial thorn-in-the-side LSNA--succeeded in having such progressive language removed from the bill, due to parking concerns. The idea that parking would be removed by removing cars from the road never seems to have been considered.


  1. The idea that rights-of-way are for cars is, unfortunately, much older than the 1950's (as were pretty much all anti-urban policies). Back when horse-drawn streetcar companies got their franchises, in the contract it said (among other things, like the 5 cent fare, that would later become a problem), that they were responsible for paving and repaving the street. It made sense at the time, since horses damaged the street, and the streetcar company was the biggest driver of horses on the street. Furthermore, there was the common law precendent that even if you're given a streetcar franchise, you still had to let other people/horses/whatever share the right of way. There was a sort of natural regulation to it – the streetcars were the biggest thing on the road, and getting in their way was deadly, and so people generally didn't do it.

    Enter the person automobile around the turn of the century, and you can see how this caused problems. Drivers were treated as pedestrians or horse-drawn carts, and were never asked to pay streetcar companies for the right to use local streets, long after they became the biggest users and slowed down the streetcars significantly. Meanwhile, the franchise contracts still required the companies to pave the roads.

  2. Oops, that was me, Stephen Smith. You should allow simple name/URL login...none of the options Google gives me really fit (no Twitter??).

  3. Parking requirements aren't really about rights-of-way, they're about vehicle storage at the destination. What mandatory parking requirements say is that all users of a site, whether they drive or not, have to pay to provide parking for cars. They also say that all developers/builders have to provide a given level of parking whether they want to or not. It's the exact opposite of a market-based system, which would let the developer decide how much parking to put in and let him reap the benefits/losses of that decision.

  4. That's another good observation.

    But the point is, whatever their genesis, parking requirements are a well-intentioned policy gone bad. The general idea I'm putting forward is a replacement of parking requirements with something that's rather more useful: a rather broader transportation requirement which can be fulfilled in more than one way.