Low-Hanging Fruit: Parking Minimums

Photo by Lucas Hobbs on Unsplash

One of the principles of city building that I wrote about yesterday in an article on Medium was the idea of incremental development, based upon the Strong Towns approach of identifying small things that can be done relatively quickly to improve quality of life for people.

Consider it the low-hanging fruit approach to city building: before getting into complex solutions for problems, do the simplest things.

In that spirit, do you want to know what some low-hanging fruit is in most cities? Parking minimums.

Requiring new development to meet a minimum threshold of parking spaces drives up housing prices, escalates carbon emissions, and exacerbates homelessness and poverty, and there’s no good reason to continue to do so.

Minneapolis is the latest place to come to that conclusion, and last Friday voted to eliminate parking minimums for new development in the city. The city council, which passed the measure unanimously, is giving preference to transportation alternatives to cars, to climate change, and to housing affordability.

Photo by Adrien Fu on Unsplash

“Parking drives so much about the design of buildings and the cost of housing in our city,” Council President Lisa Bender said. “This opens up so much possibility, especially to develop the smaller-scale projects that so many of our constituents point to as they tell us the kind of projects and housing they want to see in their communities.”

Minimum parking requirements pass the buck for automobile expenses from drivers to developers, and that extra cost is then passed on to the users of those developments, be they residential or commercial. As Michael Manville recently put it in The Atlantic:

Cities designed for cars must set aside space: space to wait for cars, and space to hold them while they wait for their drivers to come back…Parking minimums take the cost of that space—a cost that should be borne by drivers—and push it onto developers, hiding it in the cost of building.

Manville goes on to point out that eliminating parking requirements is not the same thing as barring developers from building parking, a key distinction:

None of this is an argument against parking. It’s an argument against required parking. In an age of ostensible concern about global warming, it shouldn’t be illegal to put up a building without parking and market it to people without cars. If neighbors worry that people will move in and park on the street, cities should meter their streets. Curb space is valuable public land. Parking requirements or no, cities will have curb shortages as long as they give the curb away.

Minneapolis is among a handful of places that have seen the light on parking minimums, and one would hope more will follow suit. It isn’t always the easiest idea to sell to a public so indoctrinated and entwined within car culture, but it is a necessary first step towards a more varied, robust transportation system, one in which cars are merely a single component among many instead of the dominating force.

“We have spent decades and decades subsidizing and building and supporting and encouraging automobile traffic,” Minneapolis Councilperson Cam Gordon said. “More and more people are figuring out how to live without an automobile, how to survive sharing an automobile, and [are] wanting to have more opportunities to live a car-free life.”

If we want places for people, housing that is affordable, and a planet that isn’t on fire, city builders need to get started picking this low-hanging fruit.