I explained this already. It took me 1,025 words to detail how cities make up parking quotas from junk science. Maximum parking tallies become minimum parking requirements, which become landscapes flooded with free parking, which induces more driving, which leads to higher tallies of maximum parking. Repeat.
In Peggy Clifford’s neighborhood, out back of the state capitol in Olympia, Wash., a black market thrives. Early each year during the state’s legislative session, lobbyists go there -- just a hop, skip, and a jump from the capitol dome -- to buy what they crave: parking spaces. Clifford says, “This is a neighborhood, not a parking lot.”
Tell that to regular capitol visitors. The neighborhood may be nationally registered as historic and staunchly defended by Clifford and other concerned citizens, but it also has driveways and backyards, and to some residents, the offer of hard currency for use of that real estate is persuasive. They park their cars at the curb, protected by their resident-only permits, and rent out their private spaces to professional capitol-goers. A lot of money changes hands.
Later each year, in August and September, similar informal markets pop up around two of the Northwest’s biggest fairs: the Puyallup in Washington and the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, B.C. Neighbors stand curbside, like sign twirlers or squeegee men, hawking space on their property to the drivers streaming by. In Puyallup, the practice goes back for decades; local authorities long ago threw up their hands. They legalized and regulated it. In Vancouver, where not only homeowners but also local schools and churches sell spots, city leaders did the same. They wrote exacting standards, then began publishing helpful tips for would-be parking operators.
It’s the same thing on game days at Oregon State University and the University of Washington (pictured above and below), and during the Seafair hydroplane races in Seattle. Homeowners in resident-only parking districts shuttle their autos to the curb at dawn and rent their off-street spaces to visitors. Other sporting events spark the same phenomenon. When Seattle’s Stacy Noland lived near the arena then used by the Seattle Supersonics, he made enough money letting basketball fans park in his garage to pay for his own season tickets. “Meanwhile, I parked my rig on the street,” Stacy says.
Have you ever watched the excavation that precedes a tall building? It seems to take forever. Then, when the digging is finally done, construction rockets upward in no time. For the past few months, I've been watching a crew excavate the site of a new condo tower on Seattle’s First Hill. It’s on a route I walk three times a week, so I've had a ringside seat. And here’s the thing that finally dawned on me, after years of not really thinking about these holes in the urban ground: What’s all the excavation for? It’s for parking. Underground parking. In most cities and in most soil conditions, the giant holes are only there to satisfy off-street parking rules, and to do that, you need a deep, deep hole. A hole like this one.
Digging these holes is astronomically expensive. They’re real-life money holes. The crew I’ve been watching has been laboring away for weeks, deploying enormous machinery and keeping a fleet of dump trucks in constant motion. They've undoubtedly spent millions of dollars removing rock and dirt. One Portland developer told me that each successive layer of excavation -- each floor down in the garage -- costs two to three times as much as the previous one.
Such costs are one reason housing is so expensive nowadays.
Off-street parking quotas are onthebooks in every city in Cascadia, because they are politically expedient. But the specific quotas -- two spaces per apartment or 10 per 1,000 square feet of retail floor space, for example -- are based on little or nothing. Cities just make them up, then state them with precision, as UCLA professor of urban planning Donald Shoup has documented in The High Cost of Free Parking (see chapter 2).
Here’s how it works. Territorial constituents push city leaders to defend free neighborhood curb parking from newcomers, so the leaders instruct city planners to recommend parking quotas sufficient to prevent spillover from new buildings. No visitor to any new development should ever park on the street, leaders tell planners.
Let’s say you’re a planner in a city department. What are you to do? Like all planners, you were trained in a discipline in which the main curricula and classic text books say nothing at all about parking requirements. You have exactly zero training in how to set a parking requirement.
My younger son, almost 19, and my daughter, 20, are learning to drive this summer. (Car-less folks like us are sometimes late to the car-head rites of passage.) So I’m temporarily appreciating the wide open spaces of empty pavement at regional malls and big-box stores. Some of these parking lots are so big they generate their own mirages, and they’re vacant enough that my kids can’t do much damage.
Such parking expanses are a modern puzzle: They are so rarely full that you have to wonder why hard-headed business types ever built them. The answer is simple. They had no choice. Local laws made them do it.
For more than half a century, cities have mandated oversized quotas of on-site parking at stores, offices, houses, apartments, and condominiums, and all other types of new buildings -- even bars. The result has been millions of parking stalls that stand empty even at their hour of peak demand. No doubt about it: We have legislated the waste of land.
In the Old Town area of suburban Beaverton, Ore., for example, barely half of legally required parking spaces had cars in them when surveyed in 2007, leaving some 1,500 local slots idle. Many cities demand five stalls (or about 1,500 square feet of parking) for every 1,000 square feet of retail space; the big-box hardware-merchandiser Home Depot surveyed actual parking utilization at 17 of its stores and found only half that many spots used at peak hours, Donald Shoup writes in The High Cost of Free Parking.
Such findings, occasionally mentioned in urban planning circles, have in recent years received empirical validation in the Northwest, where authorities have undertaken rigorous surveys of parking at multifamily buildings.
If you live in an American city, chances are your bedroom is smaller than your car's. Sound strange? Mandatory off-street parking quotas for apartment and condo buildings not only require the space your car sits in -- they require aisles so your car can get in and out of the space. That adds up. One space eats up about 325 square feet.
These requirements written into local land-use laws have pernicious effects. At multifamily buildings, localities require developers to construct off-street parking spaces for each apartment or condominium. Many cities also require a side order of visitor parking. The requirements vary with unit size and sometimes with city zone, and they are rife with exemptions, exceptions, and complexities.
Architect and designer Seth Goodman of Graphing Parking shows how parking and living spaces compare in major cities across the U.S.
On the subject of curb parking, everyone seems to have a story -- and what the stories reveal is surprisingly important to the future of our cities. I've been asking my friends, and I've gotten an earful. Listen.
Soon after advertising executive Necia Dallas moved into a house in Portland, Ore., she found on her door a detailed, hand-drawn map specifying the curb spots where each resident was permitted to park. The map, left by an anonymous neighbor, indicated that Necia was welcome to park in front of her own house but that it was, "Optional! Because of your driveway. " Jon Stahl of Seattle also got a parking map as a house-warming gift (pictured above).
To claim the spots in front of their homes, people resort to illegal yellow or red curb paint, earnest oral pleas, or -- above all -- notes left on the windshield. Lots and lots of notes. "Not here, man. Not here," said one missive that Seattle architect Rik Adams got on his windshield. A West Seattle resident's read, "Dear Driver, This is not a park and ride. We the neighbors would appreciate if you would find another spot to park." Audrey Grossman's said, "Don’t park your liberal foreign car on the American side of the street." Brent Bigler of Los Angeles left a response to the note he found on his windshield in May and got an angry rejoinder. It says, among other things, "You’ll be towed tomorrow period" (pictured at left).
Some people even put up their own, extra-legal no-parking signs, like the one pictured at right in Shoreline, Wash. (or the one described here). More creative is Steve Gutmann's Portland neighbor who "has a fake plastic parking meter that he puts on his planting strip in front of his house."
To enforce their claims, neighbors sometimes go to great lengths. Shaun Vine, when he trespassed on a curb space in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, found his car boxed in. A homeowner had punished him by parking two autos bumper to bumper with Vine's. Worse is what happened to Jenny Mechem's friend in Chicago who had the temerity to park in front of someone else's house one winter day. Neighbors packed snow around his car and turned the hose on it, freezing it in place.
I have not owned a car in seven years, but I do own a garage. It’s pictured above. In fact, I am legally required to own an off-street parking space; that’s written in the land-use code for my city, Seattle, as for virtually every city. The driveway that leads to my garage, meanwhile, eliminates almost exactly one parking space from my street. Parking in front of a driveway is illegal, and a regular curb cut is almost exactly the size of a parking space, as illustrated below.
The net effect -- one mandatory off-street parking space plus one car-less household -- is a one-space reduction of parking supply on my block. Repeat: My obligatory driveway and garage deprive the universe of one on-street slot. This is ironic, but it’s only the tip of the irony iceberg where car-storage is concerned.
If I did own a car to keep in my garage, the net effect would no longer be a net reduction. It would be zero. My driveway subtracts one on-street space; my garage adds it back. Think about that for a while. The 4.6 million single-family houses in cities across the Northwest, and tens of millions more across the U.S., are each required to have at least one off-street parking space. Yet many of these city rules add no net parking spaces to their cities’ supplies. Worse, if you’ve ever narrowly escaped a car backing out of a garage, or almost backed into someone while you were driving, you can quickly grasp the fact that all these millions of mandated off-street parking spaces turn sidewalks into danger zones, especially for children and the disabled.
Clearly, parking rules can lead to absurd and unwelcome results. In fact, I will argue in this new series, they have surprisingly pernicious effects not just in single-family homes but across entire cities. Requirements that builders provide ample quotas of off-street parking spaces worsen traffic, multiply collisions, push up housing prices, dampen business profitability, amplify sprawl, and pollute both air and water. Parking rules are a surprisingly potent hidden force shaping -- or misshaping -- our communities. Fortunately, new approaches and new technologies allow better ways to manage parking, and these better ways turn out to be among the biggest opportunities open to cities for improving residents’ lives.
I’ll get to all of that soon. I promise. But let’s go back to my garage. Understanding how off-street parking rules for single-family houses pile up ironies, absurdities, and injuries is a case study of the larger dynamic of urban parking.
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