Look around nearly any American town and you’ll see way too much of one thing: unused parking. That’s right; if you were to take a basic survey at any hour of the day, in nearly any neighborhood in your city, you’d find scores of empty parking spots in surface lots dotting your community. Much of the time, well over 70% of spots sit vacant. (We hold an annual Black Friday Parking event to show that even on one of the biggest shopping days of the year, most lots aren’t full.)
So why do we have all of this parking if most of it goes unused? Because of parking minimum laws. Most American municipalities legally require a certain amount of parking for any new business or residence. They mandate things like “3 spots per 1000 feet of retail space at a clothing store” or “2 spots per lane at a bowling alley.” Not only is this an unnecessary intervention by government leaders in a matter that should be easily decided by business owners and homeowners, it also creates huge waste in our communities by putting valuable land to some of the lowest value-creating use. It costs developers, property owners, business owners and home owners, and it generates less tax value to pay for necessary services in our towns. Lose-lose-lose.
The good news is that many communities are waking up to this ridiculous arrangement and working to eliminate their parking minimum laws, especially in centrally-located, walkable areas like downtowns.
But when ending parking minimums is actually proposed in a real community, that's when the real battle starts. When we get used to something — whether it’s a relaxed morning routine or a favorite pair of jeans — it can be really hard to face that thing getting taken away. Even if it’s for a perfectly good reason (like the birth of a child, or a new, less hole-y pair of jeans.)
When a local government proposes removing or decreasing parking minimums, communities tend to freak out a little bit. Business owners show up at public meetings concerned that their customers will have nowhere to park. Homeowners write angry letters, worried that their quiet residential streets are going to fill with spillover parking.
I’m here to share some very good news, though: If you’re one of those local leaders receiving this feedback—or heck, even if you’re one of those frustrated business owners voicing concern—you can rest easy.
I’ve been following the issue of parking minimum removals for several years now and I have never heard of a situation where our worst concerns about what might happen if we ended parking minimums actually came to fruition. And surprisingly, the response to parking minimum removals in a variety of communities seems to be overwhelmingly positive.
The map above shows communities that have fully eliminated parking minimums in at least one area of town [green], partially eliminated or decreased parking minimums [blue], or are considering removing minimums [orange].
One reason that removing parking minimums is almost never as painful as we think it will be? Doing it doesn’t actually prevent anyone from building parking and it certainly doesn’t eliminate existing parking (which is a longer-term process). The removal of minimum laws just means that new businesses and new developments don’t have to provide new parking. What many communities find is that the elimination of parking minimums actually creates fresh opportunities for residents. An entrepreneur who previously wouldn't have been able to afford the rent on a storefront + six parking spaces can now open up shop. A local developer can feasibly create more housing without the added expense of building a garage.
Here are just a few examples of towns that have removed parking minimum laws and have been pleasantly surprised by the response.
In 2015, Decatur, Georgia, lifted its parking minimums for commercial buildings and replaced them with requirements stipulating a maximum permissible amount of parking. When I spoke with the planning director, Angela Threadgill, after the change was made, she explained that initially there was some resistance from developers, but that now, “the developers we’re meeting with understand the direction the city of Decatur is taking in asking for these maximums.” A task force made up of a variety of community stakeholders came to the decision to implement these changes together. “We would rather have a viable business than a parking lot,” Threadgill explained. “A parking lot doesn’t provide a whole lot of tax revenue or street life.”
Phoenixville, Pennsylvania had a similar experience when they eliminated parking minimums in their downtown. In my conversation with a planning consultant for the city, Ray Ott, he said he was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to decrease parking requirements. Sure, people in the community complained a bit and questioned the decisions, but they soon became comfortable with the change. “If you go to towns that aren’t successful, they have tons of free parking,” said Ott. “Integrity and quality of life in the town draws people, not parking.”
In High River, Alberta (whose interim planner I spoke with in 2016), even while some business owners continued to express frustration at changes to local parking laws months after they were implemented, none of them actually closed or relocated their operations, suggesting that the anger was mostly just surface level.
Here are three steps that will help you make the case for parking minimum removals in your community and convince your neighbors to get on board, too:
- Show the wasteful nature of existing parking. Frame the conversation in terms of getting rid of parking and you’ll receive a lot of (logical) pushback. But show your fellow residents how much of the community is occupied by empty parking spots and talk about what better uses that space might be put to (park? coffee shop? daycare?) and suddenly you’re having a different sort of discussion — one that more people will likely get behind.
- Communicate clearly about what’s happening and why, and listen to feedback from residents. There are many misperceptions that come with removing parking minimum laws. People think all parking will disappear, or that they’ll have to park miles away just to get to the grocery store. Clear up the misperceptions, explain why the change is happening, then listen to and respond to everyone’s concerns.
- Incorporate the removal of minimums into a larger strategy. In Fargo, North Dakota, parking minimums were removed during a period of downtown renaissance and coupled with an effort to create more housing options in the town center as well as better bus and bike transportation options in the area. These changes meant that much of the existing parking simply wasn’t needed (and more parking would certainly have been useless) because residents could easily walk, bike or bus to and from the area. If you’re getting rid of parking minimums, think about what will help decrease the need for parking in the first place and create a less car-dependent community over all.
Have you made progress on removing parking minimum laws in your community? Add your city to our map. We're tracking the removal trends nationwide and we're thrilled by the results.
(Top photo source: Johnny Sanphillippo)