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No Parking! A New Law Cuts Back on Free Parking Spaces and Why That’s Great News

Developers are no longer required to include parking with many new housing projects.

PUBLISHED SEP 26, 2022 1:34 P.M.
It may not seem like it, but California has too many parking spaces.

It may not seem like it, but California has too many parking spaces.

Steve Dufour / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. Share-Alike 3.0 License

In mid-September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a package of legislation that his administration declared to be “some of the nation’s most aggressive climate measures in history.” But conspicuously missing from the stack of bills was one passed by the legislature on August 29 and that had since been called by one leading environmental advocate, “California’s most important climate bill you haven’t heard of.”

A week after he signed the initial climate package, Newsom signed that bill—AB 2097—and even posted a video on his official social media accounts singling out that piece of legislation for special praise, lauding the law as a “win-win” that addresses both the climate crisis and California’s housing shortage.

How does that work? What does one have to do with the other?  

Parking Drives up Housing Costs

Authored by Assemblymember Laura Friedman of Glendale, AB 2097 removes minimum parking requirements for housing developments that go up within a half-mile of a major public transit stop (as defined by California law). 

In other words, developers would no longer have to build parking structures to go along with housing in most cities and large suburbs, where most housing developments sit within a half mile of some form of public transit. 

The bill would certainly save developers money. According to a 2018 report by the United States General Accounting Office, a single space in a parking structure added about $56,000 to the cost of each unit in a housing development in California or Arizona—a cost that is then passed on to consumers as higher rents and mortgage payments. A 2020 report by the Terner Center at U.C. Berkeley put the added cost between $35,000 and $38,000 per unit

Either way, parking is expensive. Minimizing or eliminating it should make housing more affordable. Or would it? Some elected officials, most prominently Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, disagree. But even if it helps to create affordable housing, how would AB 2097 help the climate? 

More Parking Than People: A Nationwide Problem

For anyone who’s ever spent way too much time driving around in search of a parking space in any American city, or even in the suburbs, the idea that the country has a plethora of parking must seem absurd. But the reality is, this country does, in fact,  have too much parking. Way too much. 

While no one is sure how much American land is consumed by parking, experts figure that a staggering one billion parkinig spaces, or four for every car, is the most realistic guesstimate. 

California, the undisputed capital of car culture, is certainly no exception to the proliferation of excess parking. A 2022 study by the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) and the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University found that the Bay Area region has 1.9 spaces per resident—a total of 15 million spaces, including 6.4 million “off-street,” that is, in parking lots and garages. 

Los  Angeles County is about the same, on a per-capita basis, with 1.9 spaces per resident. But the state’s largest county devotes much more of its land to cars—parking and roadways combined—with 41 percent of all incorporated territory dedicated not to people, but to cars. 

This overwhelming abundance of car storage did not arise out of need, or because the public demanded it. The excess parking is due primarily to minimum parking requirements that exist in almost every city and town—requirements that have been imposed by politicians and public officials without any real scientific basis, according to retired UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup, an expert known as America’s “Parking Guru.”

The Consequences of Required Parking Minimums

In his landmark 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup compares the science behind setting parking quotas for residential and commercial development to the “science” used by medieval doctors who believed that sick patients could be cured by bloodletting. And he notes that minimum parking requirements tend to increase over time. But these minimum requirements are responsible for the vast amounts of land swallowed up by car storage. 

“Planners don’t know how many parking spaces there should be for a nail salon or a shoe store or a library,” Shoup said in a 2021 interview. “But they set parking minimums for thousands of land uses. And I think they’re beginning to realize that they made a colossal mistake.”

In the city of Los Angeles alone, a 2018 study by architectural firm Woods Bagot found, 27 square miles of land is devoted exclusively to surface-level parking lots. That’s larger than the neighboring city of Pasadena. Throughout Los Angeles County, surface parking lots eat up 101 square miles, according to the study, a landmass larger than the state capital city of Sacramento (which occupies 97.2 square miles).

Most of those lots were mandated by minimum parking requirements—meaning that they are part of accompanying real estate developments, and that parking in those lots is free. As a result, Shoup estimated in a 2014 research paper, 99 percent of car trips in the United States end with drivers parking their cars for free. As a result, he wrote, 87 percent of all trips taken by Americans are taken by car.

Shoup’s main thesis is that many of America’s parking-related problems could be solved by simply doing away with free parking, and the parking minimums that produce it. But it seems that Americans are addicted to free parking and have been trained to expect it. 

Why, when we expect to pay for most everything else? Not even Shoup is exactly sure, but at least some of the phenomenon stems from a historical accident. The first mass production of American automobiles started in 1901, but the first parking meters did not go into use until 1935. The earliest generations of American drivers, therefore, simply accepted that parking their vehicles should come wth no charge. But if free parking, and the minimum parking requirements that help it proliferate, were done away with, and parking spaces were priced at market rates, Shoup says, people would have far less incentive to drive.

AB 2097 and Shoup’s Dream 

The bill signed by Newsom on Sept. 22, 2022, doesn’t accomplish everything Shoup recommends, but it takes a significant step by abolishing required parking minimums throughout California. While developers can still choose to include parking as part of any project, they can now build housing as well as commercial properties without including any parking at all—as long as a public transit stop lies within a half-mile radius. 

According to the affordable housing advocacy group California YIMBY (i.e. “Yes In My Back Yard”), the bill will both bring housing prices down and reduce pollution that causes climate change by promoting walking and other forms of non-automotive transportation. A full quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and 72 percent of transport-related emissions come from cars and other road vehicles.

Not only does increasing neighborhood walkability help slow climate change, but reducing climate change also increases walkability. Hotter temperatures, according to the Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute, make walking more difficult due to risks of heat-related illnesses.

But will cutting back on free parking spaces really cause people to drive less? Municipal planners who have long insisted on mandating parking minimums have resisted the connection between parking and driving—even though intuitively it seems to make sense that when people know they can easily and cheaply store their cars, they are more likely to drive their cars place to place. 

But a 2016 study by Chris McCahill of the State Smart Transportation Initiative showed a direct correlation between increased parking and a rise in the frequency of driving. The researcher found that in nine mid-sized U.S. cities, the percentage of commuting by car increased as parking spaces grew more abundant. As those cities, which included Berkeley, Calif., went from 0.2 parking spaces per person to 0.5 over three eras (the 1960s, ‘80s, and 2000s), the share of commuters who drove rose from 60 percent to 83 percent.

The study also found that increases in parking space supply predicted rises in driving with significantly greater reliability than increases in driving predicted that parking would go up. In other words, during periods when cities add more parking, people drive more. But during periods when people drive more, cities don’t necessarily add more parking.

A ‘Win-Win’ Bill

While housing advocates generally supported AB 2097, the enthusiasm wasn’t universal. Some pro-housing groups and public officials were skeptical—most notably Garcetti. Removing parking minimums, the Los Angeles mayor argued, would render the city’s main affordable housing incentive program toothless. 

Los Angeles allows developers exemptions from minimum parking requirements in exchange for including affordable units in their housing developments. According to a Los Angeles Times report, the state’s largest city has added 15,000 affordable housing units since 2015 due to its incentive program known as the “density bonus.” Eliminating parking minimums, according to Garcetti and some other housing advocates, removes a key bargaining chip in the city’s efforts to induce developers to build more affordable housing.

Data from San Diego, which also uses density bonus programs but abolished minimum parking requirements in 2019, shows a very different outcome, however. In the year after the requirements were lifted, developers actually took advantage of the incentive program more often, not less. In 2020, San Diego developers used density bonus programs to build a city-record 3,283 new homes.

At the same time, eliminating parking minimums is expected to bring overall housing costs down, causing greater affordability across the board and causing more housing of all types to go up, according to Newsom’s statement.

“Our housing challenge is, after all, at the same time a climate challenge,” Newsom said in his statement after signing the bill. “Reducing housing costs for Californians and eliminating emissions from cars. That’s what we call a win-win.

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