From Austin to Anchorage, U.S. cities opt to ditch their off-street parking minimums
The city council in Austin, Texas recently proposed something that could seem like political Kryptonite: getting rid of parking minimums.
Those are the rules that dictate how much off-street parking developers must provide — as in, a certain number of spaces for every apartment and business.
Around the country, cities are throwing out their own parking requirements – hoping to end up with less parking, more affordable housing, better transit, and walkable neighborhoods.
Some Austinites were against tossing the rules.
"Austin has developed as a low density city without adequate mass transportation system," said resident Malcolm Yeatts. "Austin citizens cannot give up their cars. Eliminating adequate parking for residents will only increase the flight of the middle class and businesses to the suburbs."
But much more numerous were voices in support of eliminating the minimums and the impact they've had on housing costs, congestion, and walkability.
"I think our country has used its land wastefully, like a drunk lottery winner that's squandered their newfound wealth," said resident Tai Hovanky. "We literally paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
The amendment sailed through the council — making Austin the biggest city in the country to eliminate its parking mandates citywide.
Dozens of cities have ditched parking minimums
"They're all just dead weight," says Tony Jordan, the president of the Parking Reform Network, of parking minimums. One issue is just how arbitrary they can be.
Take bowling alleys. Jordan says the number of required parking spots per bowling lane could vary anywhere from two to five, in cities right next to each other.
"What's the difference between a bowler in city A and city B? Nothing. It's just these codes were put in ... very arbitrarily back 30 or 40 years ago and they're very hard to change because anytime the city wants to change them, there's a whole big hoopla," he says.
Random as these rules can be, they have major consequences: Parking creates sprawl and makes neighborhoods less walkable. Asphalt traps heat and creates runoff. And parking minimums can add major costs to building new housing: a single space in a parking structure can cost $50,000 or more.
One 2017 study found that including garage parking increased the rent of a housing unit by about 17 percent.
The real problem, says Jordan, is what doesn't get built: "The housing that could have gone in that space or the housing that wasn't built because the developer couldn't put enough parking. ... So we just lose housing in exchange for having convenient places to store cars."
A move to let the market decide
Austin City Council member Zo Qadri was the lead sponsor on the resolution to remove parking mandates there. He emphasizes that getting rid of parking mandates isn't the same thing as getting rid of parking: "It simply lets the market and individual property owners decide what levels of parking are appropriate or needed."
Austin removed parking requirements for its downtown area a decade ago, "and the market has still provided plenty of parking in the vast majority of the projects since then," says Qadri.
A new survey from Pew Charitable Trusts found that 62% of Americans support property owners and builders to make decisions about the number of off-street parking spaces, instead of local governments.
Angela Greco, a 36-year-old musician and copywriter in Austin, is one of them. She drives, but prefers to walk or take transit. She's not worried that doing away with the old rules will make it too hard to find a place to park.
"I've lived in like cities where it's way more difficult, like New York and L.A.," Greco says. "Parking just isn't that difficult in Austin to me to begin with, even in really dense areas."
She says the question of whether the city invests in transit and walkability, or doubles down on cars, is decisive in whether she'll live in Austin long-term.
"Like if it doesn't seem like the public transit's going to get better, and if it seems like the highway expansion is going to happen, then I'm probably going to start looking for where else I can live. ... It's a major factor in my life and my happiness. Like sometimes I'm driving on the road and I'll be in traffic or something or even just on the highway, and it's such an ugly landscape," Greco says. "And then I'll think: this isn't really how I want to spend my adult life."
Too much parking can hinder effective transit
What about the idea that cities without good transit can't cut back on parking?
Jonathan Levine, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan who studies transportation policy reform, says cities' parking minimums can make good transit nearly impossible to develop.
"An area that has a lot of parking is transit-hostile territory," he says.
He explains why: When people take transit, they complete their journey by walking to their destination. A sea of parking at the destination makes that walk longer, and it makes the physical environment less appealing to those on foot.
"Who wants to walk by a bunch of parking lots to get to your destination?" Levine notes.
And having tons of parking encourages driving. "If you have parking everywhere that you're going, that parking essentially is calling to the drivers, drive here! Park here! ... So if you keep on designing those areas by governmental mandate, you're creating areas that transit can't serve effectively," says Levine.
Levine says getting rid of these rules is good news for cities.
"It's a huge drag on housing affordability. And it's a huge impediment for cities fulfilling their destiny, which is enabling human interaction. Because what parking does is it separates land uses, separates people. It makes cities have a much more sprawling physical profile than they otherwise would have."
Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.