As you may have heard, the city of Dallas is currently reviewing its parking ordinances with an eye towards relaxing or eliminating regulations that force businesses to create way too much parking. The process has been in the works for more than a year, and back in June, the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee received a briefing about feedback the city solicited at a few public forums about the proposal. “Public,” however, may a bit of an overstatement.
A grand total of 33 people spoke at the online meetings, representing a whooping 0.0025 percent of the city’s population. That low turnout is understandable given how wonky an issue parking policy is, but parking policy also has an outsized impact on shaping the environments everyone of us interact with every day. Despite the low turnout, the feedback did include some common fears and misconceptions about parking and how we use it, including arguments that public transit needs to improve dramatically before we can even talk about parking as well as fears that changing mandated parking minimums will somehow going to magically make all the parking disappear (if only!).
Those fears suggest that it is a good time to step back for a moment and take a broader look at why there is a push to revisit the parking codes and the role parking has played in destroying American cities.
I don’t use the word “destroy” lightly. As Michael Manville, an associate urban-planning professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs argues in this piece in The Atlantic, there are lots of bad policies that helped turn once-vibrant, walkable, transit-connected American downtowns into empty sprawls of concrete. But parking – and mandated parking minimums in particular – are a big one, in part because they are so insidious and invisible:
American urban history is stained with tragic missteps and shameful injustices, so parking requirements are hardly the worst policy cities have tried. But they are notable for how much needless damage they have caused, over a long period, with few people even noticing
The trouble with parking requirements is twofold. First, they don’t do what they’re supposed to, which is prevent curb congestion. Because curb parking is convenient and usually free, drivers fill up the curb first, no matter how much off-street space exists nearby. Second—and more consequential—parking requirements attack the nature of the city itself, by subordinating density to the needs of the car.
Cars create a spatial challenge that is particularly acute in cities. Vibrancy in cities, as Jane Jacobs argued in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a function of exchange, interaction, and kinetic energy. But cars place a heavy burden on urban places to create space precisely designed for inaction:
The price of the car’s convenience, then, is the space it consumes when it isn’t in motion, and indeed even when it isn’t there. Cities designed for cars must set aside space: space to wait for cars, and space to hold them while they wait for their drivers to come back.
Prioritizing space for cars is the first mistake of parking policy. The second is taking the cost of parking and hiding it from drivers. Parking minimums place the cost burden of providing parking spaces on developers, and that either makes it more expensive to build in cities, or it makes building cost prohibitive. In some cases, like downtown Dallas for decades, it also makes destroying buildings and replacing them with parking lots more profitable than rehabbing historic structures. Parking minimums skew the economy around urban space towards providing dead space cars instead of creating uses for the people who drive them.
The result: driving is cheap, building is expensive. The market has dealt with this policy-driven cost differential by building more housing on cheaper land on the fridges of cities and forcing people to require cheap, car-centric transportation to navigate daily life. This isn’t simply the policy that drove post-World War II American growth, it is still driving today’s market where walkable “new urban” districts are in high demand:
Many mayors today declare their support for walkable downtowns and affordable units. But cities are built at the parcel, not from mayors’ podiums. And parcel by parcel, the zoning code quietly undermines the mayors’ grand vision. A commercial requirement of one parking space per 300 square feet means developers will put new retail in a car-friendly, pedestrian-hostile strip mall. And a requirement of one parking space per 100 square feet for restaurants means the typical eating establishment will devote three times as much space to parking as it will to dining. America did not become a country of strip malls and office parks because we collectively lost aesthetic ambition. These developments are ubiquitous because they are the cheapest way to comply with regulations.
Something else happens with this dynamic over time. What begins as an economic, market-based solution to policy-driven mandates becomes a cultural imperative. As some of the public feedback in Dallas parking ordinance forums shows, people have come to see the wide availability of free parking as a basic necessity of urban life. This assumption is oxymoronic. The things we love about urban places – in fact, the very things that make them urban – are rendered impossible because of parking. Take, for example, Bishop Arts, where people have been demanding more parking ever since the first leases were signed after decades of dormancy to reuse the storefronts that were originally built around an old trolley stop. The kinds of urban forms that are most attractive, Manville points out, are also the kinds of urban forms that parking policies have made nearly impossible to create today:
This city, the parking city, can’t have rowhouses and townhouses that sit flush with one another and come right up to the street. It can’t reuse handsome old buildings that come straight to their lot line, so those buildings stay empty. It can’t tuck quirky buildings onto irregularly shaped parcels, so those parcels stay vacant. (Manhattan’s famous Flatiron Building is an impossibility in a city with parking requirements.) The parking city is one where people drive into or under buildings, rather than walk up to them. It is a city with listless streets, one that encourages vehicle ownership, depresses transit use, and exudes antagonism toward people without cars.
This is not to dismiss fears that residents have over cars crowding-out neighborhoods or Dallas’ public transit being an insufficient substitute to driving. There is no magic fix to undoing more than a half-century of bad urban development policy. Sure, public transit needs to improve substantially, but we also need to stop presuming that every one of Dallas’ 1.3 million residents requires a free, 11-foot x 8-foot patch of concrete to be available wherever they chose to go. As Manville argues, it is not a question of outlawing parking, but changing the way we mandate it:
Cars do need parking. But cars need many things, and most get supplied without being mandated. Suppose that tomorrow a mayor proposed minimum gasoline requirements: a set number of fuel pumps on every parcel. Most people would consider that outrageous. They’d observe that the private market supplies gas just fine, that it’s not a big deal to travel a small distance for fuel, and that putting pumps on every parcel would just squander valuable land and encourage driving.
They’d be right. But what’s true of gas is true of parking too. Sometimes the hardest damage to see is the damage we are already doing. America’s disastrous experiment with parking requirements should end.