São Paulo has been a parking reform trailblazer

This time, Reinventing Parking features a great four-way discussion with three Brazilians, Clarisse Linke, Hannah Machado and Fernando Franco, to help us understand São Paulo's bold parking reforms in the last 8 years or so.

Scroll down to read the detailed article or a TL;DR summary.

Or listen to the audio of the interview with the player below.

Clarisse Linke joined the conversation from Rio de Janeiro, where she is Country Director of the Brazil office of Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP Brazil). 
Hannah Machado was in São Paulo and is Vice President of the Brazilian Institute of Architects. 
Fernando Franco was also in São Paulo and is a Professor at the FAU McKenzie University and, importantly for our story, was Secretary of Urban Development of the Municipality of São Paulo between 2013 and 2016.

Hannah and Fernando were also among the co-authors of a book chapter on parking in São Paulo, in the book, Parking: an International Perspective, edited by Dorina Pojani, and several other people.  

Before the São Paulo discussion, I again chatted very briefly with Tony Jordan, President of the Parking Reform Network. Reinventing Parking is now the official podcast of the Parking Reform Network.


Here is a short TL;DR summary of the conversation. For more details, scroll further. 

  • The Municipality of São Paulo is a large city at the heart of a megacity of 22 million people. It has enormous traffic problems but is not a 'car city'. Private vehicles account for only about 1/3 of trips.  
  • São Paulo was ripe for reform [21:40]. Various groups have been pushing for change and Clarisse pointed out that São Paulo has long been concerned about the volume of vehicles. For example, it was the first city to adopt traffic limitation via regular rotating no-drive days based on license-plates.
  • In São Paulo, parking with buildings was treated as non-computable floor areas in FAR calculations. This led to parking accounting for roughly 50% of the floor area built over recent decades. [10:00]
  • São Paulo has plentiful commercial off-street parking   [11:30].
  • São Paulo has a secret constitutional weapon against parking lots on vacant plots of land [38:06].
  • São Paulo's 2014 parking reforms, which included the abolition of all parking minimums, arose from the skillful political handling of a political crisis [14:30].
  • Parking reform was also part of a popular package [24.25]
  • São Paulo hit upon an interesting approach to discouraging excessive parking near mass transit. It does this without using parking maximums [18:03].
  • Abolishing parking minimums proceeded with little fuss! But there was developer pushback against the parking supply disincentives [27:30]
  • Our three experts argued that there have been substantial housing-related benefits from the end of parking mandates [29:10].
  • Curitiba's high residential parking minimums mandates undermined the benefits of its famous Transit-Oriented Development. This underlines that discouraging excessive parking near transit is important [34:40].
  • São Paulo's parking reforms have prompted reforms in certain other cities in Brazil  [36:20]
  • São Paulo was a pioneer of on-street parking payments via pre-paid paper coupons. In 2015, it shifted to a successful system of parking payments via mobile apps without ever installing parking meters [40:20].
  • Unfortunately, two years later, the app-based parking payments market was switched from open entry to a single exclusive concessionaire with a 20-year contract [42:30].

Now the details

São Paulo and its urban transport big picture

Hannah explained that São Paulo is a huge city. The São Paolo metropolitan region has 22 million inhabitants. The Municipality of São Paulo, with about 12 million people, is at the core of this area.

Data from the origin-destination survey made every five years by the metro company shows that about 1/3 of trips are on public transport, 1/3 are by foot, and 1/3 are by cars and motorcycles (mostly cars).

Wealthier people use more private vehicles while the poor travel more by foot and public transport. Those living on the outskirts tend to be low-income and to face long travel times.

São Paulo was ripe for reform [21:40]

São Paulo is famous for traffic problems, but it's clearly not actually a car city. I asked Clarisse about how the city's transport scene has been changing and the role of civil society in pushing for change.

Various groups have been pushing for change and, at least, to avoid further increases in private traffic. Motivations ranging from climate change, urban air pollution, road collisions and the scarcity of urban space allocation.

São Paulo had long been allocating space in the street primarily for cars. The last two decades have also seen a sharp increase in motorisation rates all over Brazil.

Clarisse added (later in the discussion) that São Paulo was actually ripe for reform, including the parking reforms that was our focus.

She pointed out that São Paulo has long been concerned about the volume of vehicles. It was the first city to adopt traffic limitation via regular rotating no-drive days based on license-plates. Despite the long-term ineffectiveness of that policy, it was a sign that traffic and its impacts were seen as a crisis. São Paulo was also one of the first cities to publicize daily air quality information to the local population.

Now let's turn to parking.

Clarisse emphasized her and ITDP's view that parking reform is highly strategic with a significant long-term impact on travel behavior.

São Paulo parking as non-countable FAR (a wonkish but significant issue) [10:00]

I asked about an interesting item from the book chapter mentioned above, that a surprisingly large proportion of built space in São Paulo over recent decades has actually been parking space.

Fernando explained that this arose from a somewhat wonkish point about how each project's Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is calculated in urban planning.

In São Paulo, FAR is in two categories: computable FAR which is subject to limits under the planning code; and non-computable FAR which is not limited.

Parking with buildings was treated as non-computable floor areas in FAR calculations.

This led to parking accounting for roughly 50% of the floor area built in São Paulo over recent decades. A project with FAR of 2.5 actually had an FAR of 5.0 or more, if parking is counted.

Fernando found is bizarre that this policy encouraged such plentiful supply of parking rather than space for other human activities. 

Plentiful commercial off-street parking   [11:30]

As in many Latin American cities, São Paulo has numerous off street commercial parking enterprises. Hannah and Fernando's chapter mentions this as a significant part of the parking story with 500,000 spaces across the city.

Much of this commercial parking is with buildings or in buildings, such as malls or office buildings. However, there are few stand-alone parking garage buildings in São Paulo.

Some is also in the form of parking lots on vacant lots, which Hannah described as "the worst use of the urban land that you can have in the world". 

Brazil's constitution versus vacant lot parking! [38:06]

However, São Paulo has a secret weapon against parking lots on vacant plots of land, according to Fernando.

Brazil's constitution allows property ownership but states that such property has to accomplish a social function.

Importantly, São Paulo decided to say that if vacant plots in well-located areas are used as parking lots, this violates the concept of the social function of property.

This makes such parking lots subject to a special kind of progressive land tax. If the plot continues to be used for parking, this land tax increase every year for up to five years.

Furthermore, if you don't then do anything to give back the land to the market or switch to a use with social value, the municipality can buy the land in a process that is not a good deal for the owner.

A crisis not wasted! Background to abolition of São Paulo's parking mandates  [14:30]

Now we turn to São Paulo's 2014 parking reforms, which included the abolition of all parking minimums, and how this bold decision came about.

Fernando explained that various actors and institutions, such as ITDP, university researchers, among others, had laid the knowledge groundwork and influenced public managers and politicians to be receptive to such reforms. There was also a progressive administration in place in the city at the time.

But the immediate impetus for the reforms came from the skillful political handling of a crisis that could easily have gone in a very different direction.

In 2013, São Paulo and many other cities in Brazil faced a wave of protests over public transport fare rises. A strong youth-led social movement emerged, the "movimento passe livre" or the "free pass movement" https://saopaulo.mpl.org.br/. This gained enormous traction in a a society that, as Fernando put it, was "in a bad mood".

However, the then Mayor, Fernando Haddad, responded skillfully to this rather populist agitation, which could easily have been captured by far-leftor far-right forces, by bringing a bold and progressive mobility approach onto the immediate agenda as part of a new strategic urban plan process.

This reached fruition in 2014 with a new Strategic Master Plan of July 31, 2014 (Lei Municipal nº 16.050/2014), which focuses on people-oriented development and improved public and non-motorized transport. 

So parking reform was part of a popular package [24.25]

The Strategic Master Plan 2014 included a much wider set of much-needed reforms than just parking, as hinted at above.

Hannah also explained that various transport infrastructure initiatives were also happening at the same time.

Cycling had been neglected and treated as a leisure activity. In 2013, there was less than 60 km of bicycle lanes in the city. But in that year, the Department of Transportation really took on the responsibility to implement cycling lanes. As a result, between 2013 and 2016, 400 kilometers of bicycle lanes were built.

The city also greatly expanded the network of bus-only lanes.

These were both high-impact and low-cost measures that were emerging in parallel to the debates that Fernando was leading over the master plan and the 2016 Land Installment, Use and Occupancy Law which consolidated most of the 2014 reforms.

São Paulo had successfully seized an amazing window of opportunity to create a new shared vision for improved transportation policy.


How to discourage excessive parking without parking maximums  [18:03]

The Strategic Master Plan 2014 had three key parking changes:

#1 Eliminating minimum parking requirements (parking mandates) for buildings across the city

#2 Prohibiting 'frontage parking'. The plan banned the creation of parking spaces at walkway level in the frontage area between the front of the lot and the building.

#3 Discouraging excessive parking provision in buildings close to transit corridors.

This third element works in two ways:

1. Developers must now choose between useful built area or parking spaces in excess of the relevant threshold/maximum. Useful built area, such as office or residential space is usually of higher sale or lease value per square meter than parking space.

2. In many cases developers have the option of building extra FAR and paying a development fee. Parking beyond the thresholds counts as FAR and is liable to such fees.

By the way, the thresholds in the 2014 strategic master plan were:
- Residential: one space per housing unit (although this was watered down a little in 2016 after campaigning led by high-end residential developers)
- Non-residential: one space per 100 square meters of computable floor area.

Developer push-back against the parking supply disincentives [27:30]

Abolishing parking minimums proceeded with little fuss!

The most controversial of the parking changes was #3, which discourages excessive parking supply beyond certain thresholds.

This threshold is often referred to as a 'maximum', although it is not the rigid kind of maximum used in many other cities.

As Hannah and Fernando explained, for many developers this involved a new fee on providing parking beyond a certain amount.

Developers serving market segments with a high demand for parking space were not happy.

Hannah mentioned that some developers resorted to splitting their new units into two smaller ones in order to build more than one parking space and then combining them into one again to sell.

The push-back and such evasion tactics led to modifications in 2016. The residential threshold was changed from one parking space per unit to one parking space per 60 square meters of computable area. So very large apartments could again be built with more than one parking space free of counting towards the FAR computation.

Housing benefits from the end of parking mandates [29:10]

Some of that pushback and evasion above sounds gloomy but Clarisse reminded us of some important gains from the parking reforms in São Paulo.

For example, she has seen real estate advertising mentioning the lack of a parking spaces with homes near transit.  

Fernando mentioned different effects in three different parts of the housing market.

First, developers focused on selling big apartments for wealthy buyers "want to have four parking spaces. They were not happy with us."

But those selling small housing units for hipsters in well located places were happy, since they are no longer obliged to waste money on under-used and extremely expensive underground parking. The advertisements Clarisse mentioned may be in this market segment.

A third market, the social housing market, has also benefits from parking reform. Previously, even social housing, developers had to provide excessive parking spaces. The new master plan, now devoid of parking mandates, has allowed social housing developmers to build more intensively, without surface parking (underground was always too expensive for this market segment). "So they were extremely happy with the reforms."

Hannah added that this social housing market has also been able to increase its affordable offerings closer to the city center. More people can now afford housing closer to economic opportunities due to the removal of minimum parking requirements.

Curitiba and why discouraging excessive parking near transit is important [34:40]

But Hannah added that it is still important to try to discourage excessive ownership and use of cars in the areas with the richest offering of public transport.

This raised the example of Curitiba.

Research by Clarisse's organization, ITDP Brazil, has highlighted how Curitiba's high residential parking minimums mandates undermined the benefits of its famous Transit-Oriented Development along the city's even more famous BRT corridors. Most Curitiba housing in close proximity of BRT stations is actually high income housing with high levels of parking provision. Clarisse added that the percentage of people living near transit is not as high as it should be.

Have São Paulo's parking reforms become a model for other cities in Brazil?  [36:20]

I asked if São Paulo's off-street parking reforms have inspired other cities across Brazil.

The answer was that both Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro have taken some similar steps and more are thinking about it.

From paying via paper coupons to paying by app: São Paulo's digital only on-street parking fees [40:20]

We also briefly discussed on-street parking near the end.

On street parking has been priced for many decades, but there have never been parking meters in the streets of São Paulo.

On-street parking pricing used to be achieved via pre-paid paper coupons that had to be displayed when parking in a "blue zone". São Paulo was a pioneer of this system.

However, in 2015 the paper system was replaced with "digital blue zones" with motorists paying for parking using mobile apps.

Hannah explained that there is also an option for those whose phone battery is dead or who lack a phone. Digital parking payment can also be made through local retail outlets, such as newspaper stands.

Initially, the city allowed any app developer to provide digital blue zone payment services.

The new system was a great success. It was easy for motorists and it immediately doubled the city's on-street parking income. The paper coupons had been prone to fraud, with many fake coupons being used.

A strategic error on app-based parking payments: the switch from open entry to a single concessionaire [42:30]

Two years after the digital blue zones began, a new city administration decided to to issue a concession to a single private company to manage the whole parking on street parking system.

This has led to improved parking enforcement apparently.

However, Fernando, Hannah and Clarisse argued that, overall, this decision was a big mistake.

The concession has made the municipality lose control of public space policy. Now it is the concessionaire, not the city, who decides how to use precious on-street space. The possibility of new bicycle lanes and new bus lanes is to a large extent frozen.

Furthermore, the concession is long at 20 years. This is very much longer than most experts would recommend for an on-street parking management contract.  

We ended with some brief reflections on the significance of the São Paulo parking story of the recent decade.

You can also listen to the discussion here: 

This article was prepared with the help of transcription by https://otter.ai


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