Raise your right hand and repeat after me – “I will work to reduce the negative impacts of the car on our cities and towns, beginning with the elimination of minimum parking standards.”
For years, I’ve used the phrase “form follows parking” to describe the state of our cities, and the methodology of most site planning and architectural design. In doing so I was describing our profession’s general acquiescence to the dominance of the automobile over our urban form. The influence of automobiles became firmly rooted in our zoning and building codes decades ago. Today it’s not uncommon to see codes that often exhaustively attempt to regulate every facet of a car’s existence to its benefit – from the width of a homeowner’s driveway, to the number and size of parking spots it has to choose from when it ventures out.
I believe, however, that form should follow people, not cars. Our cities should be formed by what is best for the pedestrian and cyclist, not for the parked car. So today, I make a pledge to advocate for the repeal of all minimum parking standards. Nor will I ever waste any ink to describe (in excruciating detail) the size of a parking space, the width of its drive aisle, or any other unnecessary details that prioritizes the parked car. I won’t write it into any code unless my client community simply cannot muster the political will to take this step.
Why am I making this pledge? The reason is simple. Government has been a terrible predictor of human behavior – and minimum parking requirements is a zoning standard predicated on human behavior. It assumes what we drive, how long we park, and how far we are willing to walk. In that zealous desire to ensure that every car has the maximum amount of convenience, we have paved over tens of thousands of greenfields and old growth forests. We’ve increased stormwater runoff, urban heat islands, and water pollution. Parking lots created by minimum requirements have served to spread communities apart making them far less walkable and bikeable, ensuring that every building be completely self-sufficient in the unlikely event of a parking catastrophe. And, we’ve intentionally made land financially inefficient by precluding more income-producing opportunities with largely unused asphalt.
How did we get here?
When the suburban revolution began following World War II, millions fled the cities in favor of more verdant pastures. But the suburbs came with a hitch – you needed a car to survive. Gone were the days where public transit effectively served its constituents – the suburbs were too sprawling to make that happen. Also gone were compact, walkable neighborhoods where local services were a five to ten minute walk away. To make the suburbs work, the automobile had to become a central component in community design. So, while the suburbs were paved with the greatest of intentions, mostly they were just paved.
Thus, minimum parking requirements were born. If the car was going to be the lifeline in holding suburbs together, then managing it in its “parked” state (which is nearly 95% of the time), is THE primary requirement. As a result, zoning codes today include a table of minimum parking requirements that spans a dozen or more pages.
With 30% or more of our communities covered by asphalt, it’s time for our profession to take action.
In 2007, we did a pavement impact study for counties in upstate South Carolina. In it, we quoted Donald Shoup, a nationally-respected economist and preeminent parking expert, on what was already happening with parking demand estimates.
First, one of the most commonly used sources for parking demand — the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ trip generation standards — are based on a one-size-fits-all scenario that does not take into account the unique locational characteristics of businesses in the suburbs versus those in urban areas. In addition, these standards ignore the fact that, depending on the use and the location, a significant portion of trips may be made using a mode that does not require parking (such as mass transit, bicycle or pedestrian travel). Second, trip generation estimates are based on peak demand, which logically ought to be used to set maximum rather than minimum requirements.
In 2000, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), for example, recommended 4 to 4.5 spaces per thousand square feet for shopping centers, depending on the size of the center. These numbers are based on peak demand at centers across the country. According to their own analyses, the ULI/ICSC parking ratios “provide for a surplus of parking spaces during all but 19 hours of the more than 3,000 hours per year during which a shopping center is open.”
The Results are In
For years, I’ve encouraged our communities to get rid of parking standards in their downtowns. A number of them have politely obliged and the results have been impressive. For example, Spartanburg, South Carolina chose to eliminate their standards years ago. In doing so, every development decision shifted from being around parking cars to instead centering around the pedestrian – how close they were to the central square or other amenities. Places for people came first, parking was more efficiently managed as a collective utility, and each parcel performed better economically. Smaller buildings in downtown can now be viably reoccupied without the burden of off-street parking standards.
Even in places where we were only able to reduce minimum parking requirements to half the prevailing standard, chaos did NOT ensue. In Cornelius, North Carolina, and Germantown, Tennessee, the free market took over and each site was able to determine what they actually needed. In many older suburban areas, the former unused parking fields created under previous generations of parking standard mandates could now be converted to redevelopment areas for new outparcels and mixed-use buildings. We let the free market decide what was needed and largely moved government out of the business.
A Necessary First Step
Removing parking requirements alone won’t solve the problem. The truth is that there is a very sophisticated network of co-conspirators to ensure that cars are happy and communities are paved. Beyond our zoning ordinances, banks, tenants, retail industry groups, and the Institute for Transportation Engineers, all contribute to the false notion that we must inefficiently consume more land and pave over paradise. Unraveling the web of standards that conspires to prop up the car’s dominance in our cities will take some time and a concerted effort on many levels but it all starts with the zoning ordinance.
It is no coincidence that I’ve authored this during the Christmas shopping season when parking lots are presumed full. That may be the case for the Wal-Mart or Target shopper who enters a single store and leaves with a full cart two hours later. The same is not true for most other smaller retailers where shoppers spend less time and buy fewer items. And yet, we continue to apply the same inflexible standards regardless of actual need. On the one hand our zoning ordinances tell the developers to preserve trees, reduce impervious surfaces, and protect our water quality. On the other hand, they mandate largely arbitrary requirements to pave the environment based on a presumed need. The madness must end.
If your community isn’t ready to take the full plunge, there are a couple of baby steps.
- Cut all of your existing standards in half. It still preserves a safety net of sorts for those who still believe in their necessity.
- Eliminate standards for small buildings. The very best way to energize a vacant building is not to require more to re-occupy it, but less. Consider eliminating requirements for buildings that are less than 5000 square feet.
- Eliminate parking standards in the downtown. In the downtown, parking should be treated like a utility just like water and power, and managed collectively. Most downtowns are plagued with too much parking – no reason to further this urban erosion.
If the myriad of parking requirements are like a sweater, then today we pull the first threads loose and begin unraveling the delicately woven network of false assumptions about parking needs. When I wrote my first minimum parking code almost 20 years ago, we cut the current standards in half and it turned out just fine. The parking apocalypse never occurred. Instead, those communities became more compact, more walkable, and more vibrant. Today, I ask you to join me in reclaiming our cities and towns from the negative impacts of the car and begin by putting a stake in the heart of minimum parking standards.
Update: If your community has already broken the shackles of minimum parking, be sure to add that success to the map here.
Craig Lewis is a Principal with Stantec, an international design consulting firm, and is located in their Charlotte office. At Stantec, he is a national leader with the Urban Places Group, where he helps public, private, non-profit and institutional clients realize the full range of benefits that flow from fully urban, walkable downtowns, neighborhoods, and suburban centers. More