Real estate developers, academics and city planners have long fought to have minimum parking requirements reduced or eliminated. Today, they finally seem to be winning the argument.
Since Buffalo, New York, eliminated its parking minimums in 2017 — the first major city to do so in the U.S. — a flood of municipalities in North America have followed suit, including Mexico City, the largest North American city [2020 pop. 21,782,000]. Strong Towns, an advocacy organization for U.S. and Canadian cities, reported that 114 municipalities have recently eliminated parking minimums in at least one area of the city [See Map]; 45 have lowered or removed parking minimums for certain uses; and 13 are studying changes to parking minimums.
Parking minimums were first imposed in the U.S. in Columbus, Ohio, in 1923, according to Walker Consultants, a parking design and consulting firm. By the 1950s, parking minimums were deeply rooted in zoning codes – and the psyches of urban planners – across the country.
It took until the 1990s and UCLA professor Donald Shoup’s 800-page book, The High Cost of Free Parking, for cities and planners to understand the cost, waste and congestion caused by these rules. Remarkably, Shoup discovered that free parking was one of the largest government subsidies for Americans. His research put the cost between $127 billion to $374 billion, or between 1.2% to 3.6% of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).
Cities and planners also began to understand the high cost of building parking spaces, something real estate developers have long complained about. The cost of a surface parking space averages between $5,000 to $10,000; the cost of a structured parking space is between $25,000 to $50,000.
Cities and planners also realized that most municipalities have an excess of parking space. For example, a 2018 study by the Mortgage Bankers Association, which looked at U.S. cities including New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, Des Moines, Iowa, and Jackson, Wyoming, discovered that except for New York, the other four cities had way too many parking spaces. In Jackson, parking spaces outnumbered homes 27 to 1. Seattle had a density of 13 people per acre but a parking density of 29 spaces per acre. Philadelphia’s parking density was 3.7 times greater than the number of homes. And Des Moines, with a population of just 83,141, had a whopping 1.6 million parking spaces.
Hartford, Connecticut, is a key example of a city that took action after discovering the cost of its parking. In 2014, studies by the University of Connecticut and the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI) discovered that “free parking” in downtown Hartford consumed so much land that it was costing the city $50 million annually in lost tax revenues. The city revised its zoning codes; today, car parking is not a requirement for builders doing new construction and building renovations, or for services such as restaurants and gas stations. Hartford did not make these changes overnight, however. It first lifted parking minimums in its downtown area and included the rest of the city two years later.
Managing Parking in Municipalities
As cities throughout the U.S. and Canada continue to rethink parking minimums to ensure the highest and best use of available land, technology could come to the rescue, according to an article in the Spring 2019 issue of Development magazine. Author Christine Banning, IOM, CAE, president of the National Parking Association, writes that technology supports good parking policy. Examples include monitoring parking stall availability; broadcasting parking availability and prices; using advanced navigation to steer drivers to parking locations based on price, distance and consumer preference; and transforming frictionless payment technologies.
Ron Derven is Contributing Editor to Development Magazine and writes on real estate topics for The New York Times