Awash in Asphalt, Cities Rethink Their Parking Needs

This is leading to the construction of fewer parking spots, and in some cases, no parking spots at all.

Awash in Asphalt, Cities Rethink Their Parking Needs

Spying an empty spot in a parking lot, a driver flicks on the turn signal and steers the car into the space. This little maneuver happens so often across the country that it's done almost without a second thought.

But now, the humble parking spot is suddenly a hot topic. Scrutinizing their parking regulations, cities across the nation are rolling back requirements for new development.

The United States has about two billion parking spots, according to some estimates — nearly seven for every car. In some cities, as much as 14 percent of land area is covered with the black asphalt that engulfs malls, apartment buildings and commercial strips.

The country's abundance of parking spaces is due to America's long-standing love affair with cars. This is compounded by the arcane codes that require off-street parking for real property projects.

However, paving over paradise is being blamed for many social woes.

The idea that the country has an overabundance of parking may come as a surprise to residents of big cities like Chicago, New York and Washington, where drivers are routinely hunting for a spot, and sometimes even get into fights over parking spaces. Some worry that rolling back mandates may make it even harder to find that coveted spot.

However, in cities after cities, minimum parking requirements are being reduced, which is exciting both progressives and real-estate developers. "It's snowballing," said Jeff Speck (a city planner and author of Walkable City: One Step at a time, How Downtown Can Save America."

Despite pushback from some residents not ready to share their favorite spot, hundreds of cities, from Gainesville, Fla., to Anchorage have overhauled their parking requirements. Dozens have repealed them; 15 in 2022 alone.

Changes in work modes may be coming into play: The rise in popularity of remote and hybrid work arrangements means fewer office workers are commuting daily, decreasing the need for parking.


Priscilla Barolo of Carmel, Calif., found she no longer needed a parking spot when she started her own consulting business from home, giving up a communications job at Zoom — and a commute that took an hour each way, which cut into the time she spent with her two young sons. 'Remote is going to be my future,' Mrs. Barolo said.

The move to reduce parking lots has particular relevance for real estate. 'We think it's the future,' said Dirk Aulabaugh, an executive vice president at Green Street, a real estate analytics firm.

Off-street parking sprang up in the 1920s with the rise in car ownership. Concerned that there would not be enough curb space for vehicles, towns and cities started to require that stores or apartment complexes provided parking for customers and tenants.


In the postwar period, when Americans were in thrall with the automobile and the federal government unfurled highways across the land, parking minimums were enshrined in zoning codes to ensure that Americans would always find a paved parallelogram waiting for them at the end of their trip.

The rules were exacting: one parking space per apartment, for example, or one for every 300 square feet of a commercial building. It all sounded scientific, but these ratios were not based on any verifiable data about how many spaces were needed, said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been railing since the 1970s against the requirements, which he calls a pseudoscience.

Nevertheless, towns copied the rules from other towns until the requirements were codified across the country, and people started to think of free parking as a right. No wonder there's even a spot for it on the Monopoly board.

But parking mandates encourage car ownership and use, Mr. Shoup said. They pockmark downtowns with stretches of asphalt that separate businesses and spread out cities, leading to more driving, and more parking, even in areas with mass transit.

The mandates also constrain developers, who need to allot precious space to parking, driving up costs that are often passed on to tenants and customers. Even a basic, stand-alone parking structure costs nearly $28,000 per spot on average, not including land, said Rob McConnell, a vice president at WGI, an engineering firm. And underground parking costs twice as much, he added.

Some developers would include space for parking even if it was not mandated, believing the success of their projects depended on it. Others petition for variances, a time-consuming undertaking.


Officials in Buffalo decided there had to be a better way. In 2017, the city eliminated minimum parking mandates for new developments, leaving it up to developers to figure out how much to provide. A 2021 study revealed that after the repeal, 47 percent of major developments provided 21 percent fewer spaces on average.

And projects in Buffalo that might not have been feasible before the repeal suddenly were, including one with affordable apartments that was built, coincidentally, on a former parking lot.

Other cities — seeing that 'the sky did not fall,' as Mr. Shoup put it — followed suit. Some reduced minimum requirements, others did away with them altogether and still others went so far as to set parking maximums, according to the nonprofit group Parking Reform Network, which has been tracking the moves. Instead of parking, some developers provided allowances for mass transit and bike use or rental-car-sharing arrangements.

Parking lots can be redesigned in many ways, not just by changing the regulations. It has been possible to plant them with plants that absorb rainwater rather than letting it run away, which could lead to flooding. Heat radiating from asphalt can be reduced by planting greenery. Some lots are transformed into parks while others have solar panels that provide shade and power.

Not everyone is a fan of the reforms. Those with disabilities need to be able to park close to where they are going, Mr. McConnell of WGI said. Much of the time, however, objections to repealing minimums come from homeowners who fear their neighborhoods will be overrun with cars.

In South Boston, mandates were increased in 2016. Last year, Miami reinstated minimum parking requirements. 'This is not a pedestrian and bicycle city,' said one commissioner who complained of people parking in front of his house.

But the momentum is in the other direction, driven in part by a housing shortage, which has prompted officials to explore ways to ways to ease construction requirements and make homes more affordable.

In December, San Jose, Calif., became the largest U.S. city to eliminate parking minimums, and Bend, Ore., repealed its minimums this year.

According to an inventory done by the Research Institute for Housing America (part of the Mortgage Bankers Association), parking in some cities may be more than needed. This was according to a 2018 inventory. According to the survey, Des Moines had 19 parking spaces per household, while Jackson, Wyo. had 27.

There's action at the state level, too. California recently capped parking in cities with robust mass transit, and Oregon capped it for cities of a certain size. In New York, a bill in committee would prevent cities, villages and towns from imposing exclusionary zoning, including parking minimums.


And legislation introduced at the national level, known as the Yes in My Backyard Act, would require recipients of certain federal funds to show that they were eliminating or reducing barriers to affordable housing, including off-street parking requirements.

Green Street's Mr. Aulabaugh stated that we need more housing and more density in certain areas. "Converting parking, or lowering parking requirements, that's how to get there.

Black Friday is traditionally the busiest day of the year. However, shoppers may find more parking spots than they need because so many people shop online for gifts during the holidays. Strong Towns, a non-profit organization, started the #BlackFridayParking social media campaign. Every November, photos of empty lots are tagged. The outer edges of lots near malls are being considered a land bank for future development.

These parking spots will not be forgotten, considering the declining car ownership rate among millennials and changes in transportation modes such as ride-hailing and car-sharing.

Dr. David Rosen is a sleep disorder physician and doesn't need to park when riding his bike from Tenafly, N.J. to Bronx hospital where he is an ICU patient once a week. He said, "Arriving by bicycle is a wonderful feeling."