For a healthier climate and community, cities should stop requiring so much parking

empty-parking-lotsIn order to combat climate change, we need to encourage people to use to mass transit rather than driving individual vehicles that run on fossil fuels. As one headline in Scientific American blared, “cars will cook the planet absent shift to public transportation.” It’s not just the climate that’s at stake either; America’s car culture also contributes to many of our societal ills in subtle but powerful ways, such as suburban sprawl that entrenches de facto racial segregation.

Unfortunately, many local zoning policies work against that very goal — particularly minimum parking space requirements. Not only do such policies encourage developers to go overboard, the resulting parking lots spur more driving and use up spaces that could’ve been used for better purposes, like public parks and affordable housing.

So it’s good news that cities in the United States seem to be wising up. As this article in Grist reports:

New York City recognized that people who live in low-income projects with public transit access were very unlikely to own cars. So, in its recently passed rezoning, the cityeliminated parking requirements for low-income, “inclusionary” (meaning some units are affordable for low- or middle-income families), and affordable senior housing developments that are within a half-mile of mass transit.

Other big, progressive cities are making similar moves. Chicago has a surplus of mandated free parking. But, last year, it expanded areas targeted for transit-oriented development, where parking requirements are minimal or nonexistent. In January, Washington, D.C., reduced parking requirements for multi-family buildings and commercial buildings near metro stations and along high-speed bus routes.

Seattle has gradually eliminated parking requirements in much of the city, starting with commercial buildings and downtown and growing to include residential neighborhoods with good mass transit access. “There are a number of examples in the Northwest of cities reducing parking requirements,” says Alan Durning, executive director of the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based environmental policy think tank.

Even smaller cities far from the coasts are breaking the habit of forcing free parking on their residents and businesses. Last year, the Fayetteville, Arkansas, city council eliminated parking minimums for every new building except homes. Previously, for example, a restaurant was obligated to provide one parking space for every 100 square feet. In Buffalo, New York, that dowdy emblem of industrial decline, Mayor Byron Brown’s proposed “Green Code” would eliminate parking requirements entirely.

Let’s hope the movement for smarter zoning spreads to more cities. For more information, see “Cities finally realize they don’t need to require so much damn parking,” Grist (2016); “Retail parking lots, environmental impacts and development policies: Research roundup,” Journalist’s Resource (2013).