Easing parking minimums is NOT war on cars

Almost every day I see even the mildest of parking reforms being portrayed as anti-car or as somehow radical. Such claims are wrong headed.

It is the status quo that is extreme (especially in most of the USA).

A recent example is in Santa Monica in the Los Angeles metropolitan region, where Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson/Nygaard has been working with the City on some modest adjustments to parking requirements.

Reactions include: "We are not poised to sell our cars and rely on transit in Santa Monica, and we won’t be for some time"

Google Street View of a commercial section of Montana Ave, Santa Monica
Portraying modest reductions in parking requirements as a radical effort to get people out of cars is like labelling the earliest requests for voting rights for women as "anti-men". It involves ignoring a huge edifice of policies that are actually skewed in the other direction.

Slightly easing a policy that FORCES excessive parking into the landscape is a far cry from actually restraining car use or ownership.

Please get this straight. Today's conventional parking policies are not mode neutral. 

They are not agnostic about people's mobility choices. They are not a natural expression of individuals' preferences about our transport systems or our towns and cities.

In fact, the American-style conventional parking policies that have spread around the world are just about as far from mode neutral as they could possibly be. These policies don't just acquiesce to people's car preferences. They shape those preferences. They effectively pull people into cars and reshape the landscape to keep them there.

The process of setting parking requirements makes arbitrary but self-fulfilling prophecies about how many people will own and use cars in every single building far into the future The process often even aims to make enough room for the busiest time of the busiest day of the year. The procedure generally assumes that all this parking will be free-of-charge to the motorists.

This prompts parking to be bundled with all other real estate, effectively forcing private actors (including you and me) to cross-subsidise car ownership and car use. So most new developments being built around the world continue to include much more parking than we need or than the actual users would willingly pay for.

Of course, reinforcing automobile dependence is not the stated aim of parking requirements.  

Parking minimums are enacted in the name of preventing the dreaded menace of "parking spillover". But, as I have argued before, spillover is a fake menace.

Or spillover SHOULD be a fake menace. It is real in places that fail to manage on-street parking properly, which unfortunately is almost everywhere for now, Santa Monica included. So residents' fears of spillover are not irrational.

Still, isn't it strange that most communities allow the fear of something that is manageable - a little spillover - to be the excuse for policies that inadvertently fuel traffic growth, over-use of cars, pollution, and sprawl on a monumental scale.

Maybe this approach to parking was rational decades ago. Once upon a time we didn't yet have the tools, technologies and enforcement experience to give us confidence that we could contain and manage on-street spillover. [Or maybe even then the spillover bogey was just an excuse.]

Today, we know how to deal with spillover. 

Yes, it takes a little guts to be willing to price on-street parking efficiently. Yes, it requires effort and will to enforce against nuisance parking. We need to be creative to design an approach that pleases local stakeholders. But such exertions are tiny compared with the costs of minimum parking requirements.

Yet we continue to allow a phantom to spook us (or to fool us) into stupid parking policies.

So let me say it again. The conventional parking policy approach with its excessive parking requirements is not mode neutral. Moderating its excesses just a little is not anti car.

Proposals like those in Santa Monica are a small (even timid) effort to very slightly ease away from extreme policies that protect car-based transport systems from market forces and that keep metro areas locked into car dependence.

For a more mode-neutral approach to parking policy, try Adaptive Parking.


  1. Ithaca NY Council is considering abolishing minimum parking requirements.

    There is some concern of "spillover" though in Collegetown especially, a very low percentage of people even have automobiles in Ithaca*.
    e.g. A full 25% of next year's incoming freshmen to Cornell... the class of 2017 are from mainland China, and probably didn't drive here.


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