One topic of urban policy has come up again and again over the past year or so of my life: parking. A mild-mannered UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup is convincing more and more urbanists the key the reducing traffic and reforming the shape of our cities is to re-consider our parking policies. Although he makes his case in the intimidating, encyclopedic 734-page tome The High Cost of Free Parking, at its core his argument is quite simple.
Shoup thinks curb parking is too inexpensive. Rather than making parking accessible, he thinks low prices waste huge amounts of time and resources as motorists cruise for open spots. Raising the cost of curb parking to what is necessary to keep a few spaces open at peak hours will reduce traffic, increase turnover of this scarce resource, and bring in new tax revenue that can be used to directly improve the streets where it is collected. This thesis is creatively explained in this short film produced by New York’s Open Planning project.
Our zoning codes also require a certain number of off-street parking spaces for new buildings. Shoup critiques these requirements as a pseudo-science, complaining they are based on statistically dubious studies measuring “demand” for free parking in suburban locations. The cost of this parking, up to $35,000 per space, is almost never passed along to the parking users. Furthermore, the zoning requires parking to satisfy peak requirements, meaning it sits empty almost the entire year. In the aggregate, Shoup thinks the requirements are a total planning disaster: he argues they encourage auto use, damage the economy, degrade the environment, debase architecture and urban design, burden enterprise, prevent the reuse of older buildings, among a litany of other offenses. In Shoup’s view, “Off-street parking, far more than the interstate highway system, have spurred the dominance of the automobile.”
He concludes that “if cities deregulate off-street parking and charge the right price for curb parking, market forces will improve transportation, land use, the environment, and urban life.” While I think turning the requirements into maximums is a more pragmatic first step, it’s hard to reject his argument our policies should make parking users pay its full cost. Almost three years after its publication, the book’s sales seem strong: it is #2 American Planning Association’s list of bestsellers and among the top 100,000 titles on Amazon, no small feat for a $50 treatise on a mundane aspect of urban policy.
Reading the book inspired me to review what amount of parking region’s zoning codes require. The results of the survey are below, but I should make an important caveat. The codes can be extremely long and complex, making interpreting them difficult. Furthermore, many of the jurisdictions allow developers to reduce these requirements for certain districts of proximity to Metro stations, and almost everything in the zoning code can be negotiated through variances and exceptions. Nonethless, the findings seem to confirm Shoup’s complaint the requirements are inconsistant and excessive, especially if you consider each space required below could require up to 300 square feet of space in a parking structure and cost up to $35,000 or more.
However, in D.C. there is considerable interest in re-evaluating the parking requirements. The city has recently launched a major effort to undergo a comprehensive revision of the zoning code. As part of the process the Office of Planning has organized committees examining each aspect of the code, who will each hold multiple meetings open to the public. The documents used to kick-off the parking committee this week are online, and include an excellent summary of best practices in parking policy by the innovative firm Nelson/Nygaard.
Two upcoming projects in D.C. are also putting parking issues at center stage. The Washington Nationals Ballpark is set to open March 30th, and in response D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells has proposed an innovative curbside parking management proposal that would implement the sort of policies advocated by Shoup. In Columbia Heights, the massive DCUSA project set to open March 8 and Councilmember Jim Graham recently called several hearings where new policies for the neighborhood were discussed. The brewing events mean 2008 could be the year for parking policy in Washington.