Do Flexible Parking Requirements Offer a Path Forward for American Cities?

By Dominic Pino

It seems like no one likes parking requirements. City planners object to the constraints on development in downtown commercial districts. Developers object to being unable to build more housing.  Environmentalists object to subsidizing the use of fossil-fuel burning cars. Business owners object to being forced to occupy their land with parking spots that don’t turn a profit. Green space advocates object to the swaths of blacktop where there could be trees. Economists object to the inefficient use of land that parking represents.

So why do nearly all cities in the United States have parking requirements? If everyone seems to agree and facts seem to show that parking requirements are harmful to development, why doesn’t every city just repeal them?

Maybe it has nothing to do with the facts about parking and more to do with the facts about government.

Parking requirements are generally the product of ordinances: legislation passed by a city council or equivalent municipal body. The city council votes to pass or repeal ordinances, and city council members are elected officials. Therefore, voters hold them accountable at the ballot box concerning the ordinances they pass.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of a city council member. You have heard opposition to parking requirements from your city’s planning commission, development trade groups, environmental non-profits, and small business owners. It seems like an easy choice: introduce an ordinance to end parking requirements because it will please so many groups. But there is also another much larger group for which you must account: people who park.

Well, people who park happen to be big fans of parking requirements. I, as a person who parks, know how frustrating it can be to be unable to find a parking spot. Since people who park comprise such a large group of the electorate, it occurs very quickly to any city council member that it would be foolish to oppose parking requirements and therefore be tarred as the anti-parking candidate in the next election. Therefore, parking requirements stay parked in our municipal codes.

So, where do we go from here?

A pragmatic solution would be to make parking requirements more flexible. This allows for more freedom and innovation in our cities while also allowing city council members to be advocates of parking reform rather than anti-parking zealots.

Possible reforms might include:

  • Allowing for parking requirements to be met off-site as well as on-site. (Most parking requirements mandate the parking spaces must be on the property in question.)
  • Eliminating parking requirements in only specific, busy, downtown districts.
  • Allowing for changes in zoning, e.g. from business to residential, without changes in parking requirements, so developers don’t have to build more parking to repurpose a building.
  • Creating a system in which developers may choose to provide parking or pay a fee to the city.

These are only a few suggestions; there are plenty of different ways for city council members to introduce flexibility to their parking requirements. Local government is a venue that allows for creativity and specificity in policymaking since the needs of each community are so various and particular.

Even though parking requirements are broadly opposed, it is very difficult to repeal them because local elected officials do not want to be seen as anti-parking. Making these requirements more flexible may be a more plausible approach to ameliorate the detrimental effects of parking requirements on development while not upsetting voters.