Smaller Cities Lighten Up on Minimum Parking Requirements

Summer 2016

Minimum parking requirements make it difficult to design and build places for people, rather than cars. 

NOW IS THE TIME for planners, developers, designers, city officials and citizens to pledge to reduce the negative impacts of automobiles on cities and towns, beginning with the elimination of minimum parking standards.

Unlike the age-old axiom from modernist architects that decreed “form follows function,” the reality is that, for decades, North American communities have been subject to another assault: the dominance of the automobile. Its impact on every developed site has resulted in another axiom: “form follows parking.”

The influence of cars became firmly rooted in zoning and building codes decades ago. The resulting negative impact on urban form has been significant. Today, it’s not uncommon to see codes that exhaustively regulate every facet of a car’s existence, from the width of a homeowner’s driveway to the number and size of parking spots that must be provided at office buildings, shopping centers and practically everywhere else.

Form should follow people, not cars. Cities should be designed for pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders and drivers; not, primarily, for parked cars. Advocacy for the repeal of all minimum parking standards is therefore growing, and rightfully so. 

Why make this pledge now? It’s simple. Minimum parking requirements make assumptions about what types of cars people drive, how long they park them and how far they are willing to walk — assumptions that are often false. The standards promote driving rather than other forms of transportation; result in higher development costs and rents for office buildings, stores and multifamily housing; and increase stormwater runoff, urban heat islands and water pollution.

Parking lots created by minimum requirements have resulted in huge gaps between buildings, making communities far less walkable and bikeable, in order to ensure that every building is completely self-sufficient in the unlikely event of a parking catastrophe. Land use has thus become financially inefficient, as largely unused asphalt precludes more income-producing development opportunities.

How Did We Get Here?

When the suburban revolution began following World War II, millions fled the city in favor of greener pastures. But the suburbs came with a hitch:  A car became a necessity. Thus, the automobile had to become a central component in community design. So, while the suburbs were paved with the greatest of intentions, mostly they were just paved.

Minimum parking requirements were born. Because the car was the lifeline holding suburbs together, managing parked cars became a primary role for planning departments. As a result, almost every zoning code today contains a table of minimum parking requirements that spans a dozen or more pages. Cities and suburbs alike now require office buildings, shopping centers and other commercial developments to provide from four to six or more parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of space. This “planning for the peak” has generally resulted in many more spaces than are needed on all but a peak parking day (like the week before Christmas at a shopping center), and has created vast wastelands for cars that rarely, if ever, come.

Starting to See Results

Spartanburg, South Carolina, chose to eliminate parking standards in 2007. When it did so, planning and development decisions shifted from being centered around parked cars to being focused on pedestrians and how easily they could get to the city’s central square or other amenities. Places for people came first. Parking became more efficiently managed as a collective utility by the city through its tax increment financing (TIF) district. Individual land parcels consequently performed better economically when they no longer had to include on-site parking. Smaller downtown buildings can now be viably redeveloped without the burden of providing off-street parking.

Other cities have followed. Fayetteville, Arkansas, recently stopped using minimum parking standards citywide. In defense of their elimination, Alderman Matthew Petty states that “Right now we have about three parking spaces in the city for every car. Whether somebody is parked there or not, that land is being used. There are higher and better uses for the property.” 

In Portland, Oregon, which has maximum parking standards and no minimum parking requirements, Bike Portland reported that of the 93 restaurants featured in Willamette Week’s “Restaurant Guide 2015,” 73  set up shop on sites without any off-street parking. Why? Because people there value walkability and proximity to other restaurants over convenient parking.

Improvement has even been seen in places that have not completely eliminated minimum parking requirements, but that have reduced them to half the prevailing standard. In Cornelius, North Carolina; Fargo, North Dakota; and Germantown, Tennessee, the free market took over as developers gained the ability to determine how many parking spaces each of their projects actually needed.

A Necessary First Step

Removing parking requirements alone won’t solve the problem. Unraveling the web of standards that supports the automobile’s dominance over cities and suburbs will take time and a concerted focus on revising thousands of local zoning ordinances. But removing these standards is an important first step.

What if a community isn’t ready to take the plunge? Three “baby steps” will help move it in the right direction:

1) Cut existing standards in half. This preserves a “safety net” for parking and reaches a compromise with those who believe parking standards are necessary.

2) Eliminate standards for small buildings. The best way to energize a vacant building is to require less parking. Consider eliminating requirements for buildings smaller than 5,000 square feet.

3) Eliminate parking standards in downtowns. Downtown parking should be treated like a utility and managed collectively. Most downtowns are actually plagued with too much parking. (See “Making Paid Parking Pay.”)

Cities that have successfully backed away from the “parking requirement” business are doing just fine; the anticipated “parking apocalypse” has never occurred. Instead, those communities have become more compact, walkable and vibrant. Eliminating minimum parking standards will unlock greater economic value and prioritize the well-being of people rather than cars.

writer head shot

Craig Lewis