You wake up thirty minutes before your alarm, jerking up after having a nightmare about a car crash. Reluctantly, you clean up, eat breakfast, and hop into your car. Work is only three mile away—easy biking distance—and there are 15 or so people in your neighborhood who work where you work—enough for a commuter bus make sense. But alas, the city required the developer to provide two parking spaces for your townhouse and the cost is hidden somewhere in your mortgage, so why not use it?
After spending thirty minutes traveling three miles on the freeway—at least we live in the Golden Age of Podcasting, right?—you arrive at your suburban office park and pull into the garage. The parking is “free,” meaning that your pay has already been docked to cover the cost of the space, so why not use it?
Your girlfriend calls shortly after lunch, asking if you want to go on a double dinner date with her friends to a new BBQ place downtown. You agree to join. You’re starving—you left lunch at home and it’s just too time consuming to drive to a decent place—so you hustle downtown. You arrive first, only to find out that there is only on-street parking. Downtown is, after all, exempt from parking requirements, and since street parking is “free,” it’s impossible to find a space during dinner time.
You call your dinner partners—each of them is driving separately from work—and suggest another BBQ place downtown that offers subsidized garage parking. This place is a little more expensive, since the restaurateur has to cover some of the cost of offering parking, but you’re all hungry and don’t want to deal with the headache of cruising for street parking. Eventually you all meet and enjoy a nice meal, speculating about how traffic and parking has gotten to be so bad in your city. Later that night, sitting in traffic on the way home, you write a review of the BBQ place on Yelp: “Delicious food. Friendly service. No free parking. ? stars”
Minimum parking requirements are an unmitigated source of harm to U.S. cities. As has been extensively documented in the academic literature, minimum parking requirements drive up the cost of housing, drive down the density of cities, and generally lead to a lot of wasted land and capital. To put it bluntly, they make urban life next to impossible wherever they are binding, or above whatever the market would naturally provide.
Some planners and policymakers seem to be aware of this and have carved out areas of town where there are no minimum parking requirements. Take the case of Houston: while the city generally has very relaxed land-use regulation, it maintains conventional, restrictive minimum parking requirements in vast swaths of the city. But to make urbanism viable in at least some part of the city, policymakers have removed all parking requirements from the city’s downtown. There should be way less parking than outside of downtown, right?
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Like nearly all U.S. downtowns, Houston has acres and acres of surface parking and parking garages in its downtown. Then surely, since minimum parking requirements aren’t present, all this parking must be a reflection of market demand, right? Not exactly.
Consider the wholly conventional story I told at the beginning of this post. In Houston, parking is required at nearly every house, townhouse, apartment, office building, and factory. Had our hero convinced his girlfriend and her friends to go to a BBQ joint outside of downtown, there would have been “free” parking there too. At every stage of the average Houstonian’s day, they are provided with what looks like free parking. Of course, the “free” parking at home is bundled into a mortgage or rent. The “free” parking at work is skimmed off of your salary. The “free” parking at restaurants is bundled into the price of your meal.
This uniquely American arrangement has unfortunate results: Since you are paying for parking—one of the most substantial costs associated with urban car-ownership— almost no matter what, you may as well use it. With parking costs off of the table, you only have to consider the cost of owning and operating a car, which is fairly competitive with transit fares, especially given the added speed and comfort of a private car.
In this way, minimum parking requirements help to make car dependence the norm, regardless of special regulatory carve outs for certain areas of town. Are you really going to go through the trouble of figuring out and riding transit on the odd day that you visit downtown? Unless your city’s transit is amazing—and if you’re in the U.S., it probably isn’t—that’s pretty unlikely. You are going to drive there, and if the business doesn’t have parking, you will either pass it over or complain about it. Hence the acres of surface parking and blocks of parking garages in otherwise liberalized downtowns.
This is why we can say non-required downtown parking isn’t exactly the result of “the market.” If I am a restaurateur and I want overwhelming car-dependent Houstonians to visit, if I am a business owner and I want to attract talent from all over town, or if I am a developer and I want my residential tower to appeal to most prospective residents, the fact remains the same: I basically have to provide parking. Non-market forces—minimum parking requirements everywhere else in the town—have inflated the demand for parking, building up the expectation in the minds of residents of unlimited, unpriced, immediately available parking wherever they go.
Cities, as they exist today, are shaped by an entangled mess of decades of conflicting federal, state, and local policies. As urbanists start untangling and scrapping these distortionary policies and liberalizing our cities, they should avoid giving up halfway and conceding to baloney about the status quo reflecting “revealed preferences.” Surely, there is some degree of demand for downtown parking. But until we eliminate minimum parking requirements in the vast majority of the city, there is really no way of knowing. Anyone who wants to allow great urban neighborhoods and great downtowns to emerge and survive should press for on the citywide elimination of minimum parking requirements.
Note: I don’t mean to pick on Houston. In fact, I really like Houston, which is why I talk about it. Plus, they have great urbanists there who are working hard on these issues and might actually ease up on citywide parking requirements!