Opinion: Car-centric culture in the U.S. has influenced the way its communities are built for decades, resulting in ~8 parking spots for every car nationwide

Opinions from an article originally published by The Conversation:

The U.S. has a car-centric culture that is inseparable from the way its communities are built. One striking example is the presence of parking lots and garages which, nationwide, consume about 30% of space in cities, offering ~8 parking spots for every car.

The dominance of parking has devastated once-vibrant downtowns by turning large areas in uninviting paved spaces that contribute to urban heating and stormwater runoff, driving up housing costs as developers pass on the cost of providing parking to tenants and homebuyers, and ultimately perpetuating people's reliance on driving by making walking, biking, and public transit far less attractive options even for short trips.

So why does the U.S. have so much parking? Well for decades, cities have required developers to provide a set number of parking spaces for their tenants and customers, and while many people certainly still rely on that parking, the amount set by requirements is typically far more than most buildings need—especially as transportation habits have evolved to include more multimodal options than ever before.

Columbus, OH, pioneered this strategy 100 years ago, and by the middle of the 20th century minimum parking requirements were the norm nationwide with pretty straightforward thinking backing it up—as driving became more common, buildings without enough parking would clog up the streets and wreak havoc on surrounding communities.

Today, however, more urban planners and policymakers acknowledge that this policy is narrowly focused and shortsighted. As a data scientist who studies urban transportation, research Chris McCahill focused my earliest research on this topic, and it shaped how he thinks about cities and towns today. "It's encouraging to see cities rethinking minimum parking requirements—but while this is an important reform, urban leaders can do even more to loosen parking's grip on our downtowns."

Despite research and guidance from the Institute of Transportation Engineers, it is extremely difficult to predict parking demand, especially in downtown areas. As a result, for years many cities set the highest possible targets which has led to excess parking that is vastly underusedeven in areas with perceived shortages.

In 2017, Buffalo, NY, became the first large U.S. city to eliminate its minimum parking requirement as part of its first major overhaul of zoning laws in more than 60 years. The shift has breathed new life into downtown Buffalo, spurring redevelopment of vacant lots and storefronts, with researchers estimating that nearly two-thirds of newly built homes there would be have been illegal before the policy change because they would not have met earlier standards.

Also in 2017, Hartford, CT, followed Buffalo's lead in eliminating parking minimums citywide, and since then, communities in Minneapolis, Raleigh, and San Joes have taken similar steps.

In Tampa, FL, 30% of the city's central business district is devoted to parking (shown in red above). As of July 2023, the city had not implemented parking reforms according to Parking Reform Network.

But parking mandates aren't the only lever that city officials can use to make their downtowns less car-centric. Some local governments are now asking developers to help reduce overall traffic levels by investing in improvements like sidewalks, bike storage, and transit passes. Typically called transportation demand management or modern mitigation, this approach still leverages private investment to serve the public good, but without a singular focus on parking.

And unlike parking requirements, this strategy helps connect buildings to their surrounding communities. As urban planning scholar Kristina Currans explained in a recent interview, traditional parking requirements ask developers to fend for themselves. In contrast, transportation demand management policies require them to consider the surrounding context, integrate their projects into it, and help cities function more efficiently.

This approach dates back to at least 1998 when Cambridge, MA, introduced a policy requiring developers to produce transportation demand management plans whenever they added new parking. That policy has now outlived the city's minimum parking requirements policy which was eliminated for all residential uses in 2022.

Newer policies tend to incorporate point systems or calculators that link different strategies directly to their potential impact on car use. These tools are common in cities across California where state law now requires city planners to evaluate and take steps to limit how much new car use any new development will generatePolicies like charging users directly for parking spots or offering employees cash in exchange for giving up their parking spot are among the most effective strategies.


Source: The Conversation & State Smart Transportation Initiative