Perhaps parking is in the eye of the beholder. In some circles, car parking is perceived as city land kept fallow, limited in productivity both by user demands or prescriptive zoning codes. To other groups, parking is a necessary cost for proximity to the variety and opportunity that urban life delivers. In still other crowds, no one cares at all about parking, unless there isn’t a spot available right outside.

It occurred to me recently that as hyperbolic as it sounds, public perceptions of parking may well represent a social weathervane.

The English verb, “park” apparently dates to the early 1800s, when it was used among soldiers to describe the arranging of military vehicles in a public open space. By the mid-1800s, the term had expanded to include temporary storage of non-military vehicles, presumably carriages, in designated areas. Today, in an urban setting, parking presents a thorny hurdle for developers, planners, residents and others looking to intensify land use. Underneath this hurdle are four findings that don’t align: 

  • On their own merit, parking spaces require substantial capital and maintenance cost; and
  • Parking consumes finite opportunity for higher-value, higher-return uses on a site, with space that commands weak lease rates and is challenging to reconfigure in the future (though notable exceptions prove it’s possible); and
  • Younger Americans continue to pursue a driver’s license at falling rates, represent a shrinking share of the car-buying market, and want the affordability of a home without parking bundled into it; but
  • Despite all of that, most office and residential lessees or buyers still demand some level of off-street parking, and it’s built. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this, too.

While serving on the St. Paul planning commission, I found it gratifying to help structure a plan to reduce and even eliminate the City’s minimum parking requirements in commercial corridors, as is code downtown. The City Council adopted the plan in 2011, including discarding the minimum requirements for parking within ¼ mile of Green Line light rail station areas in the “traditional neighborhood” zones. The reduced requirements allow for easier reuse of large and small sites in the City, and look to property owners and developers to gauge parking demand according to their perception of market. Not surprisingly, they appear to be electing to include some level of off-street parking inventory, all the while candid that it’s low in productivity as a component of development. But the amount developers seem to want is less than what many cities would require.

The demographic pressure to change attitudes about parking only seems to be intensifying, as younger Americans’ economic influence continues to build. Developers and property owners are seeking to maximize value on urban sites. Cities, under pressure from diminishing federal and state payments, are examining where jobs, market value, and tax base can become more concentrated. The imperative to move away from high-emissions modes of transportation magnifies each of these. The extent to which car parking – that much-maligned urban feature – diminishes is a function of what choices we make as households in the context of this shift.

The weathervane points to the shift. And those are our cars in the parking lot.

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