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.
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.”
“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!”
Taylor has been BikePortland’s staff writer since November 2021. She has also written for Street Roots and Eugene Weekly. Contact her at email@example.com