Why are parking mandates bad? YIMBYtown panelists count the ways

Left to right: Catie Gould, Martha Roskowksi, Tony Jordan, John Bauters, Leah Bojo.
(Photos: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

On days two and three of the YIMBYtown conference at Portland State University, parking and land-use experts from across the country shared insights on how our national overabundance of car parking leads to bad outcomes for people who specialize in all kinds of city planning topics.

And based on the boisterous (and productive!) conversations that followed, I think it’s safe to say anyone who didn’t know how big of an impact parking policy has on all elements of urbanism – from housing, to transportation, to safety, to climate – does now.

“Parking reform isn’t going to solve all your problems, but it’s an anchor on almost any solution we face city-wise and climate-wise.”
— Tony Jordan, Parking Reform Network

The problems created by parking minimums radiate throughout the different spheres of the YIMBY movement. As Tony Jordan, director of the Portland-based Parking Reform Network, said at a Tuesday panel, “parking reform is a great coalition builder for activist communities.” People whose main focus lies in housing development and accessibility have an interest in parking policy reform because building top meet parking minimums drive up housing costs. Mandatory parking minimums also create heat islands and encourage urban sprawl, making it more difficult to walk or bike around a city, among other problems.

“Parking reform isn’t going to solve all your problems, but it’s an anchor on almost any solution we face city-wise and climate-wise,” Jordan said.

America’s cup runneth over with car parking. Because of urban planning rules that some places (like Oregon) are just now starting to overturn, developers have been required to build a certain number of parking spots with the buildings they erect, no matter if people will park cars there or not. This has created a country in which there are about eight parking spots for every car, and people who don’t drive cars subsidize the parking spots for those who do. Just pay attention in the world, and your ‘parking blindness’ will quickly go away.

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So, what did the YIMBYtown panelists suggest? Like UCLA urban planning researcher Donald Shoup in his his 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking that essentially founded the parking reform movement said, one solution is pretty simple: start charging people for parking.

Panelists pointed out that people who oppose charging for parking will often cite the needs of low-income people as the reason it’s inequitable to make anybody pay to park their car. This same mindset applies to other road use fees like tolling, and has also been present in the recent conversation around gas prices. The real problem, they say, is bigger and more complicated than many policymakers are willing to consider.

“I am truly concerned about equity, but I don’t like it when it just gets tossed up as the reason to not do things.”
— Martha Roskowski, Further Strategies

“I think we’ve sort of created this problem where where we feel like it’s inequitable to charge for parking,” Leah Bojo, an Austin, Texas-based land-use consultant, said. “We’ve built cities where a lot of people really have to drive. If we put housing where people need it to be and provide them alternatives to get there, like buses, walking or biking, we wouldn’t feel so bad about charging someone for parking on a car-by-car basis.”

Martha Roskowski, a transportation and mobility consultant in Boulder, said she thinks people use equity concerns as a bad-faith excuse for not doing something that might inconvenience them. If someone says charging for parking “won’t be fair to poor people,” could they just be saying they don’t want to have to pay to park?

“I think when the ‘equity card’ gets played, we all have to sit down and really have the conversation about it. You know, there’s a huge swath of our population who don’t drive. So all of the parking all of this land that we devote to parking is inherently inequitable to them,” Roskowski said. “I am truly concerned about equity, but I don’t like it when it just gets tossed up as the reason to not do things.”

Emeryville, California Mayor John Bauters has put a lot of focus on sustainable land use policy and active transportation during his time in office. In January, he went viral for a tweet threatening to eliminate street parking spaces and was recently profiled in the San Francisco Chronicle as, “the mayor who wants to convince you to get rid of your car.”

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“It’s facts versus feelings. People’s vehicles have become extensions of them, and so parking becomes this primal thing that they have to have.”
— John Bauters, mayor of Emeryville

But Bauters acknowledges facts and data can only go so far. When it comes to bringing concepts discussed at YIMBYtown to life in the real world and making things happen with people who don’t spend all day thinking about things like parking reform, you have to take another approach.

“It’s facts versus feelings. You can give people the facts on parking, tell them all the things that are bad about it, and people don’t give a crap about the facts,” Bauters said. “People’s vehicles have become extensions of them, and so parking becomes this primal thing that they have to have.”

Instead, he said he handles complaints from community members who are upset about losing parking spots by getting down to the emotions at the base of their concerns.

“I’ll say to someone, ‘I see you seem really upset about not being able to park in front of the store you visit once a month,'” Bauters said. “I’m really upset when people’s children don’t come home from school, and that there are mothers who would bike to work, but don’t because the infrastructure isn’t safe. And we’ve chosen to allow you to park your box once a month in front of the store so it’s convenient for you. So my feeling is that the safety of everybody is a little more important than the convenience of you.”

Jordan, along with Catie Gould and Michael Andersen – both former BikePortland writers who now do transportation and climate research for Sightline Institute, a nonprofit think tank – continued the parking discussion today with a lightning round presentation titled, “20 Reasons to End Parking Mandates.”

Here are eight of them:

(Eight of the 20 reasons to end parking mandates. Source: Sightline Institute)

The conversation that followed covered a litany of parking-related topics, like what to do with the piles of snow that accumulate during Anchorage and Boston winters instead of relying on vacant parking lots to store it, and what kind of incentives workplaces can give their employees to stop driving to work. There was only an hour to chat, but it was clear we could all keep going for a lot longer.

Some parting advice for those who now seek to challenge parking conventions in their cities: city planners, don’t apologize for taking away free parking (even if people aren’t happy with you).

“Don’t act like parking reform is a problem to start with,” Jordan said. “I’ve seen a lot of planners go in acting apologetic, and I think that planners should go in acting like it’s the right thing to do and the thing that people want.”

And to laypeople, Bauters said simply the mood emanating from someone who doesn’t worry about parking their car may attract other people to change up their lifestyle.

“People say, ‘Mr. Bauters, why are you so happy all the time?’ And I’m like, because I don’t have to think about where to park my car!”

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Watts
Watts
2 months ago

Parking mandates are bad because they force developers to internalize the costs of their development, which makes construction less profitable.

If you want to see people use cars less (as I do), externalizing or offloading the cost of parking is a bad thing. Unless, I suppose, if it interferes with developer profit.

If you don’t want to provide parking to your tenants, rent to folks who don’t have cars.

Tony Jordan (Contributor)
Reply to  Watts

No one who has actually ever written a credible research paper on this topic agrees with you.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago

This whole story is about people (some of whom no doubt have written credible research papers) who disagree with me, and I think that disagreement reveals motive.

I am confident you would agree with the general statement that we should internalize the costs of urban driving and car ownership. It’s only when that statement is applied to the development context that a disagreement arises, and that disagreement is always framed in terms of developer cost, which, of course, relates directly to profit.

I think it would be great if developers built apartments for people who did not own cars, and charged less rent to live there.

Tony Jordan (Contributor)
Reply to  Watts

If someone wants to own a car, the way to internalize the cost of that is to require them to either choose a home where they pay for a parking space or to find a parking space somewhere else. Requiring nearly all homes to be built with car parking is not “internalizing” the cost, it’s requiring everyone to subsidize the cost whether they want to or not.

You have it exactly backwards.

The missing piece in most places is that there is cheap or free street parking. Internalizing the cost of car ownership is accomplished by repealing parking mandates and charging market rates for on-street parking and using that money to improve access for other modes.

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
2 months ago

$10 per $10K of household income per year might be a good start for on-street parking passes.
Termporary passes available at local stores/kiosks all over town.
No pass, car towed.
And no, I’m not going to write an essay explaining every possible nuance about my idea. It’s just an idea I thought of just now. What others might do with the idea is up to them.

soren
2 months ago
Reply to  SolarEclipse

$10 per $10K of household income per year might be a good start for on-street parking passes.

I know we often disagree but I think this is a step in the right direction. I’d prefer to exempt the first 40K of income and maybe implement a progressive scale for high incomes but your proposal is far, far less regressive and anti-poor than Tony’s market fundamentalism.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago

Requiring nearly all homes to be built with car parking is not “internalizing” the cost, it’s requiring everyone to subsidize the cost whether they want to or not.

This is only true if you rent to people without cars but make them pay for a parking place, a practice that we agree is not good. If, instead, you did let people without cars opt out of paying for onsite parking, both the subsidy issue you object to and the cost externalization I object to are nicely resolved, with the side benefit of making car-free life explicitly less expensive than a car-having life.

The situation is less of an issue in small development where the supply of street parking adequate to absorb the vehicles of a new house or ADU; in those contexts I don’t object to building without parking, especially if that makes room for a tree or some other benefit, as the costs borne by the community are small.

Tony Jordan (Contributor)
Reply to  Watts

So, if I’m reading your words properly, you think we should require car parking structures to be built at tremendous cost of both space and currency, but then somehow require landlords (who are often NOT the developer) to eat the cost of those mandatory car parking spaces if the tenant wants to park on the street or not have a car?

And you argue that somehow the loss of space and the effective subsidy to own a car on behalf of the landlord (who will be financing your car parking space until you move in) is a good way to avoid car ownership.

And you further seem to think that a landlord who owns a building with high mandatory parking ratios that they are required to subsidize if someone moves in without a car (or wants to park for free on the street) won’t just market their apartments toward car owners?

And you also seem to think this is a good way to reduce car ownership, by requiring building of parking, which has been studied and proven to be completely incorrect.

But you want me to think that Adam Millard-Ball and others are corrupt and have produced studies that are wrong and you are more knowledgeable about? (https://people.ucsc.edu/~jwest1/articles/MillardBall_West_Rezaei_Desai_SFBMR_UrbanStudies.pdf)

This is ridiculous.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago

I don’t recognize my arguments in your reflection of them, so let me try again with as simple and compact a formulation as I am capable of.

I think that if a developer builds a sufficiently large structure they should not externalize the cost of providing parking onto the surrounding community. Two ways I can see to avoid that externalization (and there may be others) are to provide parking onsite (perhaps for a fee), or rent to people who do not own cars, or some mix of the two.

I have not called anyone corrupt, nor do I label viewpoints I differ with ridiculous.

Tony Jordan (Contributor)
Reply to  Watts

The public right of way is public. It belongs to the community, which includes residents who move into newly built apartments just as much as people who own homes on nearby streets.

The only people externalizing the cost of their car ownership onto the community are the people who park their cars on the street for free. This is true if it is a resident or owner of a single family house or an apartment building or a visitor, shopkeeper, employee, or customer.

The way to internalize that cost is to sell parking permits, any other solution proposed is externalizing the cost.

This whole story is about people (some of whom no doubt have written credible research papers) who disagree with me, and I think that disagreement reveals motive.

That to me sure reads like you are suggesting that my arguments and the arguments of my colleagues which are both logical and tested are somehow ill-motivated, which I take as basically calling us disingenuous or corrupt.

Your argument is ridiculous to me, claim some imaginary moral high ground for not calling mine ridiculous if you want, but I still assert that you are just trying to protect existing homeowners rights to park for free ***[Moderator: deleted last phrase]***

Watts
Watts
2 months ago

The public right of way is public. It belongs to the community

Agreed. And when someone does something to degrade these commons, they should pay some compensation, or take actions to mitigate that degradation. That is the concept behind system development fees, and is the principle behind my preferred solution as well. I believe that those who cause a resource to become overexploited bear a different responsibility than those who were using it sustainably.

I am aware that you support parking permits, and I’m not opposed to them in many circumstances. However, your assertion that this is the only possible solution to avoid externalizing the costs of parking in new development is demonstrably false. I have offered two other mechanisms. You may not like them, but they do exist. There are probably others.

In my comment about motive, I was referring to people whose positions are funded by the development industry. I don’t know if that describes you, but it is true of several regular commenters here. Having an opinion, even if one is paid to have it, or is paid because they have it, does not make a person corrupt, or even disingenuous.

Tony Jordan (Contributor)
Reply to  Watts

I have only done my work and built my organization as a volunteer to this point, outside of a few very small consulting or speaking honoraria.

I do not think Professors Shoup or Millard-Ball or Manville are writing corrupted studies based on developer kickbacks.

I know very few people who are “funded by the development industry” as you make it out to be… and let’s be clear, this is the industry which BUILDS HOMES and has built the homes that nearly all of us live in.

And to reiterate, the PERSON who is PARKING a CAR on the STREET is the PERSON who is USING the PUBLIC RESOURCE. The builder is not degrading the commons, YOUR CAR IS.

Permits are not the only solution, they are absolutely 100% preferable to parking mandates, unless you already “degrade the commons” by parking your own car for free, then I can see there are other things you might prefer.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago

The builder is not degrading the commons, YOUR CAR IS.

This may be true in a strictly literal sense (“depletion at arms length”) but it is the developer creating the circumstance that leads to the depletion.

I understand that you don’t agree that someone who changes the scale of resource exploitation has any obligation to those already using it not to deplete it, and that’s just a fundamental point of disagreement. Good people can disagree.

I suspect in a different context, say someone buying an industrial fishing trawler to fish in coastal waters where locals fish on a small scale, or a new almond farm upstream of a city’s water supply, you might agree that the owner of the large-scale exploiter should mitigate their use (even if the owner isn’t catching the actual fish, or turning the valves to take the water). Fish and water are there for everyone, right? Large-scale trawling makes more food available, bringing the price down for everyone. Why should existing users have any more right to the resource than newcomers?

In most contexts I am aware of, including development, we’ve decided that those adding the burden should compensate or mitigate. I don’t pay SDC charges when someone builds a new apartment building near me, but if the storm sewers aren’t big enough, my runoff is just as responsible for that as that of the new building. Is it really unjust that the developer would have to treat their runoff on site while mine runs into the street? Would it be better to charge everyone in the neighborhood a runoff fee so the developer could build a more profitable building without dealing with their water? (Neither the developer nor the landlord made it rain, handling stormwater is a burden, and dumping stormwater on the street will keep rents down.)

What principle makes parking different?

(And lest you think I’m as dogmatic about “free parking” as some on the other side of this issue are, if I lived in an area where parking was tight, and on-street parking were important to me, I would definitely support a permit program to help ration the supply, and I helped a friend who lives in such an area figure out how to implement a parking permit in his neighborhood.)

Tony Jordan (Contributor)
Reply to  Watts

What makes parking different is that more parking is NOT a community benefit. It may be the case that paying for your parking or having to accommodate the cars of new residents on your street is inconvenient, but those parking spaces exist already and as long as the city has no more pressing need for them as bike lanes, bus lanes, curb extensions, etc… then its better for someone to park their car in the space (for a fee if appropriate) than to build a new structured parking space, which will invite a car into the community for generations.

If we build less parking, we effectively put a cap on the number of cars we can accommodate which is good because for multiple reasons we have too many cars (whether EV or not).

I reiterate that it is PEOPLE we are trying to accommodate in our communities. We need ABUNDANT HOUSING to accommodate PEOPLE and accommodating their cars is not the goal. Your examples are inappropriate because new human beings in my neighborhood are not fishing trawlers or harbingers of resource exploitation… their cars, on the other hand, are.

And just to keep at that, a dense apartment building with no surface parking is exactly what we need for runoff and heat island purposes. Your example there is so telling because per capita a dense apartment with no parking is a million times better for runoff than a single home with a full length driveway.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago

What makes parking different is that more parking is NOT a community benefit.

I think it is safe to say a very solid majority would disagree with you on this point (probably even Shoup himself, depending on how you define “community benefit”), and I suspect this is the difference from which all the rest flows. I do agree with your further point that space used by parking might, in some cases, be better utilized for other purposes. This point of agreement has no my argument about who should bear the cost of increasing demands on parking.

Though I think we may disagree on the benefits of trying to accommodate unlimited growth (channeling 9 Watts here), I do agree with you that this is about people and not cars. That is why my preferred solution is to offset increased parking demand by preferentially renting to people without cars if they can’t be accommodated on-site.

Thank you for helping me pinpoint our fundamental source of disagreement. That will be helpful to me as I continue to reflect on this issue in the future.

PS In my analogy, the trawler was akin to the building, not the tenants, which was providing food (comparable in importance to housing) and in doing so served as a framework for depleting a resource (fish vs parking) at a new scale. But it’s not really important because it was an analogy not a direct comparison, and need not be perfect to illustrate the point.

Tony Jordan (Contributor)
Reply to  Watts

Nothing in my discussions with him or in any of the things I’ve read from him would lead me to think that Shoup thinks more parking is good. The entire premise of his book is that parking mandates are bad. He’s spent his whole career saying so.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago

Shoup [doesn’t] think more parking is good

Likely right. But he sees parking as a valuable and limited resource that needs to be allocated in a manner that makes it most useful. That would only matter if parking availability were something that benefitted the community. (If parking were not beneficial, there’d be no point in rationing it.) So I believe he would disagree with your contention that parking does not bring a community benefit, depending, as I said, on how you defined the term.

I know that Should would likely prefer a market-based approach to parking allocation rather than take my view that street parking is a commons where historical users who are able to use a resource sustainably deserve protection from large-scale depletion by newcomers. However, my approach is compatible with solutions settled on by many different people in many analogous but culturally varied contexts, which suggests it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

I actually agree with Shoup’s means of allocation in business areas, but I think the residential context is different enough that it justifies an alternate approach.

Tony Jordan (Contributor)
Reply to  Watts

The professor is a pragmatist and often suggests placating incumbents as a means to an end. He does not think we should subsidize or encourage additional car use.

I should add, his approach would be to allow apartments with no parking. Sell market rate permits to the new residents of the apartments, but grandfather in the current residents either until they move or for a set number of years. I would generally be ok with this but I would testify that it is inequitable.

soren
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

I have not called anyone corrupt, nor do I label viewpoints I differ with ridiculous.

This personalization of debate is the modus operandi of overly-online YIMBY-associated people.

Alan 1.0
2 months ago

I think that ratio is for city-wide estimates of cars and designated parking spaces both public and private. I’ve seen that ratio (or close to it) in architecture/urban design discussions since the mid-90s. I remember an image with five high-rises the size of Big Pink superimposed along the Park Blocks, with those buildings representing the space of car parking places consumed in the overall Portland city limits. It’s a powerful image.

soren
2 months ago
Reply to  Alan 1.0

If this city were truly serious about decarbonization, it would not be creating capitalist parking markets (that make parking spaces even more economically valuable); rather, it would be eliminating parking. (Portland is not serious about decarbonization.)

https://www.planetizen.com/news/2019/09/106165-watch-what-happens-when-parking-disappears-amsterdam-street

https://www.fleeteurope.com/en/last-mile/netherlands/news/amsterdam-removing-almost-12000-parking-spots?curl=1#:~:text=Cycling%20city%20Amsterdam%20will%20start,inner%20city%20of%20parking%20spaces.

Joseph E
2 months ago
Reply to  Alan 1.0

“five high-rises the size of Big Pink superimposed along the Park Blocks, with those buildings representing the space of car parking places consumed in the overall Portland city limits”

That can’t be right. It might represent just the amount of parking in the central downtown core, possibly. The amount of parking the Portland city limits would be larger than all the buildings in downtown combined. “Big Pink” has square footage of 740k which is equivalent to only about 2100 parkng spaces based on the average of 350 square feet per parking space in a structure or surface lot.

According to Travel Portland, there are 4,000 parking spaces in public lots and 15,000 metered parking spaces downtown alone, which is about 9 Big Pinks. That doesn’t count private lots and garages. https://www.travelportland.com/plan/parking-portland/

Alan 1.0
2 months ago
Reply to  Joseph E

Yes, the image must have been just the downtown ratio shown graphically. I wish I could find the image & context.

Damien
Damien
2 months ago

I like this paragraph:

“I’ll say to someone, ‘I see you seem really upset about not being able to park in front of the store you visit once a month,’” Bauters said. “I’m really upset when people’s children don’t come home from school, and that there are mothers who would bike to work, but don’t because the infrastructure isn’t safe. And we’ve chosen to allow you to park your box once a month in front of the store so it’s convenient for you. So my feeling is that the safety of everybody is a little more important than the convenience of you.”

Particularly how it butts up against the NA testimony of a neighbor against that diverter just a few BikePortland articles back (paraphrasing and, yes, editorializing):

I don’t mean to put my convenience over others’ safety, but [that’s absolutely what I’m doing]…

TakeTheLane
TakeTheLane
2 months ago

Why are parking mandates necessary?
Because everyone wants an easy escape, especially if you live in a box (infill apartment/condo)! Owning a car provides that feeling of freedom, whether it is the freedom to quickly go to the gorge or across the country. No one wants to let that go!

Luke
Luke
2 months ago
Reply to  TakeTheLane

I think that whole “frequency is freedom” thing needs to catch on a bit more in our circles. If the true freedom of a car is being able to go wherever you want, whenever you want–certainly, it’s among the reasons I have a car despite using it maybe twice a week–then we have to have both of those pieces covered by our transit systems.

TriMet calling 15-minute service “frequent” isn’t going to cut it. The only way we can reliably achieve sub-15 minute frequencies is by giving buses and trains signal priority, and taking away road space from cars. Additionally, creating safe pathways for cyclists is required so that people who can’t afford a car can still have access to a comparable level of freedom of mobility.

Finally, people like myself who would own and maintain a car for pure love of them, despite ubiquitous and frequent transit, need to be made to pay for the full cost of our preferences, including the all environmental externalities of producing it (to ensure that we catch EV owners’ global impact).

soren
2 months ago
Reply to  Luke

including the all environmental externalities of producing it (to ensure that we catch EV owners’ global impact).

The idea that these impacts can’t be largely mitigated via basic functional society things like recycling, re-use, renewable-powered manufacturing (already happening on a commercial level in europe — even for steel), regulation of CO2e impact, regulation of longevity etc. is a very USAnian* perspective.

*a dysfunctional society with little social cohesion and deeply embedded distrust of the factional “other”

Luke
Luke
2 months ago
Reply to  soren

Lol, man, I gotta admit, I can’t seem to clock you.

The other thread you were talking about how urban consumption emissions are “the” issue, and here you are defending automobile use.

Not to mention, I don’t see how what I said and what you said are mutually exclusive. Are we just disagreeing for the fun of it, now? I hope at least you are having fun.