3 Lessons in People-Centered Transportation from the First U.S. City to Completely Eliminate Parking Minimums

Hartford is a modest city in central Connecticut that made history last year when it removed parking minimum laws citywide. This shift means that — unlike most American towns which require homes and businesses to provide a certain amount of parking spaces based on their square footage or number of units — Hartford no longer mandates any parking, leaving that decision in the hands of a developer, homeowner or business owner. The decision to eliminate parking minimums passed Hartford’s Planning & Zoning Commission by a unanimous vote.

We wish this was the standard everywhere, but it’s not, so Hartford’s is a radical act. What created the circumstances that allowed this change to be implemented? What softened the ground for change that, in so many municipalities, seems a long ways away?

Three key factors made this change possible:

1. The city is already easily accessible without a car.

Hartford is quite accessible without a car — but not for the reasons you might think. If you’re picturing a smaller version of New York City, erase that image. Hartford is a city of only 125,000 people with a density about on par with Minneapolis; with the exception of a modest downtown, most of the housing stock doesn’t rise above three stories. So it’s not a metropolitan, transit-rich design that made this parking requirement change possible.

A typical narrow, people-centered residential street in Hartford, CT 

A typical narrow, people-centered residential street in Hartford, CT 

Instead, as one of the oldest cities in America, Hartford was constructed long before the automobile in a compact manner with small commercial corridors in each neighborhood that residents can easily walk to. This means that many of residents’ daily needs can be met without a car already.

Sara Bronin, Chair of the City of Hartford’s Planning & Zoning Commission, explains, “Hartford is a very low income city and about 25% of our residents lack access to cars.” Indeed, the median household income in Hartford is about $21,000. So Hartford is already home to many people who don’t drive on a regular basis. This means that, in essence, parking minimums in the city were disproportionately benefitting higher income residents who drive regularly.

The traditional, walkable design of Hartford’s neighborhoods set the city up to become the first in the nation to completely eliminate parking minimums.

This doesn’t mean that if your city wasn’t founded in the 1600s, you’re out of luck. But it does mean that having the foundations of walkability in place will make a move toward eliminating parking minimums much easier. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Building Walkable Streets for help. 

2. The removal of parking minimums happened in tandem with a broader city-wide movement toward people-centered places.

Another key factor that made this change possible is that it was part of a larger cultural and policy shift in Hartford.

The city has long been home to a local bus system and Amtrak station, but three years ago, it also added several bus rapid transit lines as part of the new CTfastrak. Two years ago, Hartford was named a “bike friendly city” by the League of American Bicyclists, and Bronin reports that the city continues to make improvements to its bikeability. Just this year, Hartford was also named a “walk friendly community” as a result of many recent efforts to make the city safer and more attractive for people walking — as well as the built-in walk-friendly design highlighted above.

One factor Bronin pointed out that has made all of these efforts possible is that the City of Hartford employs a bike and pedestrian coordinator. As we’ve written about previously at Strong Towns, having a designated city staff member whose focus is on bike riders and pedestrians (i.e. almost everyone, at some point or another) can help ensure that that perspective is part of local transportation conversations.

Because Hartford has been approaching transportation from a people-centered perspective for the past several years and creating more options for residents to get around their city without a car, the move to eliminate parking minimums was an easy one to accept.

“We’ve been building toward this goal for some time,” Bronin explains. “This is one reflection of an overall vision for the city.”

If you’d like to live in a city that’s not dominated by parking and instead, filled with more productive uses like homes and businesses, that move is most likely to be successful if it’s part of a larger push to make neighborhoods more people-oriented overall.

 3. The elimination of parking minimums happened incrementally over time.

With the elimination of parking minimums citywide, large areas of underused surface lots could be transformed into more economically productive buildings like businesses or homes. 

With the elimination of parking minimums citywide, large areas of underused surface lots could be transformed into more economically productive buildings like businesses or homes. 

Parking requirements in Hartford were removed in two phases. First, in January of 2016, the city eliminated all requirements in downtown, and for retail and service uses (i.e. barber shops, dry cleaners, etc.). Bronin reports that this change quickly encouraged considerable downtown development because, suddenly, new businesses didn’t have to pay to build parking along with commercial space. It also made repurposing easier, as offices were converted to residential without the burden of parking requirements. 

Over all, property owners benefited and human-scaled development flourished as a result of the removal of parking minimums for these areas and uses, says Bronin.

This success led to the second phase of the process: A full removal of all parking minimums citywide. The Hartford Planning & Zoning commission voted unanimously in favor of this and the removal was passed in November of 2017.

Bronin reports that the city did not receive any negative responses to these changes. This might sound surprising, but our research shows that parking minimum removals aren’t protested nearly as much as most cities seem to fear.

By eliminating parking requirements in two phases as well as shifting the broader conversation about transportation in the city in general, Hartford created the circumstances under which such a bold move would be easily accepted by leaders and residents.

Today, many American cities have already taken steps to decrease parking minimums or eliminate them in certain neighborhoods (see our comprehensive crowdsourced map of parking minimum removals across the country to learn more). By building on those initial changes, you can help move your city in the direction of full elimination.

Check out our 5 Resources for Ending Parking Minimums for more ideas and tips.

(All images from Google Maps)