Progressives have long sought ways to get us out of our cars. In recent months, a little-reported trend has emerged in furtherance of this goal: the elimination of parking minimums for new housing developments. A host of cities has done this, either citywide or in select districts, among them Anchorage, San Jose, Raleigh, Minneapolis, Nashville, and Sacramento. California’s Gavin Newsom recently became the first governor to sign legislation prohibiting parking minimums statewide for projects within a half mile of a major transit stop.
Liberal policymakers contend that parking minimums are bad for the climate and make housing needlessly expensive by forcing everyone, including those who don’t own cars, to pay for parking. They defend policy changes that have led to parking wars in some cities as allowing the free market, rather than big government, to dictate how developers build. Politics makes strange bedfellows, but should conservatives embrace this push to eliminate parking requirements?
Shortly before I left Bend, Oregon, in 2019, my neighbors were outraged that the city had approved a proposal to build two apartment buildings at the end of a dead-end street of single-family homes. Their main concern was parking, because, at the time, the city required only one parking spot per unit, and many felt that was inadequate. So I was surprised to get an e-mail in January informing me that Bend, a fast-growing city of 102,000, had eliminated parking minimums for new developments.
Bend’s Mayor, Melanie Kebler, told local media after being elected in November that one of her top priorities was addressing the city’s “intense climate crisis.” She argued that the new parking rules would help Bend become “a denser, more walkable city that is less reliant on vehicles, which helps drive carbon emissions down.” But Bend, like many other small cities in America, has woeful public transportation and a small downtown that’s well removed from the not-at-all-walkable thoroughfares where people shop.
A progressive advocacy group called the Parking Reform Network maintains a map documenting how more than 200 cities have scrapped their parking minimum requirements in whole or part. About 20 percent have lifted requirements citywide, while others have done so only in certain districts. Many but not all of the cities with complete bans are college towns governed by progressives.
Nashville is one car-dependent city that recently removed parking minimums downtown. “It’s about the climate, it’s about walkability, it’s reducing traffic and the need for everyone to have a car,” said councilperson Angie Henderson.
Buffalo, my hometown, was the first major city to abolish parking minimums in 2017. But parking hasn’t been a problem in Buffalo for decades due to depopulation. While Bend has grown from 23,000 in 1990 to 102,000 in 2021, Buffalo’s population has shrunk from 580,000 in 1950 to 328,000 in 1990 to 276,000 in 2021.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo found that after the city removed its parking minimums, developers of 36 major projects included 47 percent fewer parking spaces than previous zoning required. A host of liberal news outlets and think tanks heralded Buffalo’s experiment as a success, but other cities that have made the change or are being forced to by state laws are fighting back.
The changes in Bend were prompted by recently adopted state requirements, known as the Climate Friendly and Equitable Communities rules, aimed at addressing climate change. Cities like Bend with woke city councils eagerly complied with the new rules, but thirteen other cities and one county (Marion) have filed a lawsuit against the state.
Meanwhile, in Miami, the City Commission voted 4-1 in March 2022 to overturn parking minimums they’d previously established for small buildings downtown. Manolo Reyes, one of the commissioners, complained that since the rules were changed, people have been parking outside his home. “This is not a pedestrian and bicycle city… and we don’t have a mass transit system, period,” he said.
I generally prefer free market solutions to government intrusion. If buyers want parking, builders will give it to them, right? Not necessarily. Many who own cars still purchase homes that don’t have dedicated parking spots, because home buyers must balance their wish lists against their budgets and make compromises.
This means that, in dozens of cities across the country that have removed their parking minimums, apartments and townhomes will go up without adequate parking spaces for their residents. (In this era of woke corporations, don’t be surprised if companies market developments with no parking as eco-friendly.) Many on the left prefer to believe that people will change their behavior and start cycling to work or take public transportation. Perhaps some will, but many more fell out of the habit of using public transportation during Covid and won’t go back.
Many residents without parking will simply park their cars wherever they can find a spot, snarling traffic, as drivers prowl the streets looking for spots. In 2019, researchers at the Harvard Business School set out to try to change the commuting habits of employees of a large European airport. They sent letters to 15,000 of them encouraging them to sign up for the company’s existing carpool. Fewer than 100 did so and, when the researchers followed up a month later, only three were using it.
The writer Isaac Asimov once said, “Life is a journey, but don’t worry, you’ll find a parking spot at the end.” Perhaps so. But if progressives have their way, we’ll waste far too much of our precious time on that journey.