Parking Regulations Make Cities Unlivable

For decades, the car has dictated what much of a city’s urban landscape looks like — an abundance of costly, underused parking lots located everywhere from suburban shopping malls to downtown office buildings. The dominance of the car became implanted in zoning and building codes decades ago, resulting in lower quality-of-life, worsening carbon emissions and increasing housing insecurity.

But a growing number of cities are now beginning to re-evaluate the priority they give to car-owners. In an effort to become more pedestrian-friendly and provide better opportunity, they’re eliminating parking requirements and improving pedestrianisation, enabling more mixed-use development and helping create opportunities for more affordable housing.

How we got here

Formulated in the 40s and expanded primarily across North America, the concept of minimum parking requirements were created as people were flocking to the suburbs. However, because the concept was based around single-family homes and cul-de-sacs, vehicles were required to access virtually anything.

This led cities to introduce zoning requirements for how many parking spaces developers had to build, without actually knowing the demand. The result was big swaths of parking lots, located in valuable downtown areas, sitting empty for large portions of the day.

“All these requirements have been part of the approach of getting people as quickly to the city and out of the city as possible,” say Michael Kodransky, U.S. Director at the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. “And it was very much linked to the suburbanisation of America, so many requirements were not really re-visited since the 1960s.”

For most cities, despite a better understanding of the impact these requirements have, they continue to remain included in the bylaws. As climate change and better-integrated neighborhoods become more important, more cities are anticipated to make the change.

“You’re really prioritising them to access the destination by public transit or cycling or walking, and making it less of a competition with car access,” Kodransky says. “You’re prioritising the convenience of one way of getting around over another, based on values.”

Beginning to see results

In some cities, a complete revamp has occurred, with maximums being introduced instead. From San Diego to Portland and Hartford, cities have begun allowing developers to decide how much parking to build based on demand — but only up to a certain limit.

“Having an abundance of parking or oversupplying parking induces the use of automobiles,” explains Joe Bernard, Planning Project Manager at Minneapolis’ CPED Code Development Division. “It incentivises that activity, and often to the detriment of other types of transportation.”

In Moorpark, U.S., a parking lot sits empty. 📸: Unsplash

This was a natural progression, according to the Minneapolis 2040 plan — an outline containing 14 goals the city aspires to achieve by 2040 and the necessary actions to reach them, including more affordable housing, complete neighborhoods and better climate change resilience.

“Over the last 20 years [we] have had our parking regulations incrementally change and this is the final step, most recently in eliminating the parking requirements citywide,” Bernard says. “We do have experience with our transit-rich areas and our downtown not having parking requirements and what we’ve seen is the amount of parking supplied has steadily gone down.”

By eliminating the requirements to build a set amount of parking, there’s new opportunity to build housing in locations where it was previously not possible to, with the savings being passed onto homebuyers or renters.

“Once there’s some momentum behind an issue and you have examples of other cities, you can point to [those] that have done this work,” says Bernard. “I want to highlight for folks or municipalities thinking about doing this work to really focus on your goals. If everybody agrees that climate change is a problem … when you do have strategies, you can point back to these goals and say, ‘we’re addressing climate change’.”

A long time coming

In a metropolis like México City, the elimination of parking minimums was a decade-long process. The city is located in a basin and relatively surrounded by mountains, making the air pollution conditions worse. It had previously introduced Hoy No Circula restrictions in 1989, applying license-based daily restrictions to millions of vehicles.

More recently, the city eliminated parking minimums citywide. Facing the same housing crisis as other North American cities, México City’s buildings had been dedicating up to 42 percent of office space to parking, despite having the well-connected Metrobús and Metro.

“You could make the argument the real estate, especially in the core of cities, is just too precious to be allocated to parking,” says Bernardo Baranda, Latin America Director at the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. “That’s certainly not the most sustainable way of moving [in terms of] the space it consumes.”

There, a big part of making this change was not only persuading planners to make the change, but explaining to citizens why it was important. This meant helping people understand how the elimination of minimum requirements would contribute to the city they want in the future, rather than simply focusing on the short-term impacts.

“The end is about finding ways of making the car less attractive, trying to promote other modes of transport [that] are more sustainable like walking, cycling and of course mass transit,” Baranda says.

This movement has been in the making for a while, and more cities are anticipated to be following. More cities are beginning to adapt their regulations to build development that enables better pedestrian, cycling and public transit access.

“That doesn’t change whether you’re in North America or Latin America or Asia at the end, cities attract a lot of movement,” says Baranda, “and those pose challenges of how to move that amount of people.”