Parking Minimums And How They Can Affect A City

April 6, 2018

Hartford became the second major U.S. city to do away with mandatory parking minimums last year (Buffalo was the first). Parking minimums, which require builders to include a certain number of off-street parking spaces for buildings, have been popular the last 50+ years in many cities across the U.S.  But what does this really mean for cities, and for its citizens?

Parking and City Revenues

In cities, land is at a premium as they are constrained by the amount of land they can develop. It’s been argued that parking minimums fill cities with unproductive, parking spaces that don’t add value to the city and create barriers for new local businesses. With high minimum parking requirements for new buildings, there are more public and private garages, and parking gets favored versus buildings that can bring in higher tax revenues.

Parking lots eat up a huge chunk of a city’s tax base. By enforcing parking minimums, the amount of productive land available for tax revenue is decreased. According to a 2014 study of several city downtowns, parking consumed so much land it amounted to $50 million a year in foregone tax revenue [1].

Another study also showed that parking minimums actually create a backwards tax incentive. Parking lots return 83 to 95 percent less property tax revenue to a city per acre than buildings do. This creates an incentive for landowners to tear down buildings and pave parking lots instead [2].

Two graphics from Urban3, an Asheville, NC based Urban Planning consulting firm, explain this well:

One parking space occupies 1.3 times the land that could have been used for a building – land that will frequently sit empty.

Parking Lots V.S. Building Stock

No minimums can help expand a downtown’s building stock. Without the burden of parking mandates, developers can more easily construct or renovate city buildings. Plus, the more parking spaces developers are required to create means less space for actual commercial space or residential units, which tends to raise rents.

We can see an example of the effect of parking minimums on building stock by looking at some American small cities. Over the past 50 years, small cities such as Hartford or New Haven have devoted a large amount of space to parking. Other cities, such as Arlington, VA; Berkeley, CA; and Cambridge, MA; took a more restrictive approach to supplying ample parking. Over time in these latter three cities, off-street parking now takes up only five percent of land, while in other cities about 17% of land is devoted to parking.

Parking and A Livable City

When a city mandates minimum parking, some important factors that make a modern “livable” city are ignored or removed. Many citizens express that they are looking for a city that is walkable, sprinkled with historic buildings and is as environmentally sustainable as possible. But, preservation gets short shrift from parking minimums as historic architecture is often replaced with parking. Parking minimums also encourage a “driving culture” for cities. With easy auto access, and easy parking, roads are more congested, hampering people’s ability to walk, bike, or take public transit.

There are environmental implications to parking minimums as well. Convenient off-street parking promotes driving rather than encouraging the creation and use of efficient and expansive transit systems. With no parking minimums, traffic is reduced and there is less harmful runoff and greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a big a tradeoff when considering the amount of parking in a city: either you have a dense, valuable urban area, or a location where it’s easy to drive. There are costs to parking minimums: inhibited development, loss of revenue for the city, higher cost of available space for consumers and businesses, and less reliance on and development of alternative means of transportation such as public transport or biking, to name a few. It may be time for more cities to consider doing a way with them.

[1]. Dr. Norman Garrick, University of Connecticut’s Center for Transportation and Livable Systems, 2014

[2] McCahill, Garrick, and co-authors Carol Atkinson-Palombo, Bryan Blanc, and Michael Gangi

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