Credit: Tony Webster.

Are you driving yourself or your significant other crazy driving around the block looking for a place to park? Are there really no spots available, or is it just that you can’t find the Holy Grail, that perfect spot? You are not alone. A comprehensive study of US cities by The Mortgage Bankers Association’s Research Institute for Housing America (RIHA) quantifies the phenomenon. (1) Yes, drivers are still circling in Des Moines, although there are roughly 1.6 million parking spaces/19.4 parking spaces per household across the city. And in Seattle, with 1.6 million parking spaces/more than five parking spaces per household. New York City is the outlier, the only city in the study to have more households than their 1.9 million parking spaces, although that was never the intention. There residents have no practical option but to  take public transportation – pre-pandemic, nearly 9,000,000 (yes, nine million) people rode the NYC bus or subway every day. Other cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, now aspire to be like NYC, at least in terms of parking and public transportation. They hope to see less money spent on building and maintaining parking; more land made available for much needed new development; and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The RIHA study also quantifies the impacts of all that parking: among others, the cost of construction; the area of land that is made unavailable for other uses; and the negative environmental impacts.

High cost of construction:  Nationally, a typical surface parking stall costs between $5,000 and $10,000 to build. Structured parking saves land relative to a surface lot, but it is up to ten times more expensive to build. A garage parking space in a garage can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000. (2) This cost can make a project unfeasible.

Disproportionate land-use:  Parking occupies approximately one-third of the land area in US cities, taking a large part of a finite supply of land out of productive use.   On average, for a one story building, parking occupies 37.5% of the lot area. For a three story building, it’s 62.5%.  In Seattle, where affordable housing is in high demand, a whopping 40% of the city’s land is tied up by surface parking. (3)

Negative environmental impacts: Nationally, transportation contributes 29% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, much of which comes from cars and pick-up trucks. Cities are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint. By adding bike lanes, expanding public transit options, making cities more walkable, and yes, by reducing parking, they are making the alternatives to driving more palatable.

So, what is happening here in Minneapolis? On May 14, 2021, the City Council unanimously approved a new zoning ordinance removing minimum parking requirements, reducing parking maximums, and setting stricter vehicle limits for new developments. Prompted by city’s Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan, the amendments include the following elements:

  • Eliminates minimum off-street parking requirements citywide.
  • Incrementally lowers maximum parking allowances citywide.
  • Increases bicycle parking requirements, and requirements for associated shower and locker facilities in large-scale developments.
  • Establishes requirements for electrical vehicle charging infrastructure in new parking lots and structures.
  • Amends the travel demand management (TDM) ordinance to apply more broadly and reorient regulations toward achieving the City’s climate goals, which includes having three out of every five trips taken in Minneapolis by walking, bicycling or transit. (Minneapolis 2040 Plan)

Minneapolis is one of a handful of cities to have implemented such measures, as is St. Paul. (More on St. Paul here) Leading the charge, however, is Buffalo, New York, where in 2017 all parking minimums were removed, in line with zoning reform known as the Green Code. Notably, developers still may exceed the minimum parking requirements at their own discretion. Follow-up studies found that Buffalo is limited a success story. Mixed-use projects in the city decreased parking provided by an average of 53%. Single-use projects, however, were found to have built the same or even a greater amount of parking, offsetting the reductions achieved by mixed use projects. As a result, new city-wide parking still decreased by a significant 21%, relative to the former zoning code.

(More on Buffalo’s Green Code here)

Minneapolis wants to reorient regulations toward achieving the city’s climate goals, which includes having three out of every five trips taken in Minneapolis by walking, bicycling or transit. Credit: Minneapolis 2040 Plan

Buffalo’s plan may be a step in the right direction, but the question that cities across the country are pondering is this – what incentive do such measures offer, except for select sites which already have excellent public transportation access or are highly walkable? Without better access to good public transportation, what impact can parking reforms have? In a car-centric city such as Minneapolis, don’t market forces dictate how much parking is provided?  In desirable neighborhoods, aren’t surface parking lots giving way to higher use development, without any changes to the zoning requirements?

In any case, expect to see more parking changes in the near future. Can such reforms achieve their goals? Can new development proposals survive neighborhood opposition to zero parking and succeed financially?

(1) Quantified Parking: Comprehensive Parking Inventories for Five Major U.S. Cities, July 9, 2018.
(2) The Many Costs of Too Much Parking, November 20, 2018.
(3) Parking Dominates Our Cities. But Do We really See It?, November 27, 2019.

Author: Kent Simon 10/13/21

Share This Story!