Washington DC is proposing car-park sharing......

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US car parks amount to
half the size of Belgium

By Tony Favro, USA Editor*

31 August 2009: Studies show that there are approximately three parking spaces for each vehicle in the United States. This amounts to a parking lot half the size of Belgium. New parking lots and garages take away from the ambiance and viability of downtowns and neighborhoods. They take up land that could be used for a new building or park. They force buildings to be designed to accommodate cars.

| History | Reforms | Free parking | Supply and demand |

In announcing Minneapolis’ first new parking regulations in 46 years, Mayor R.T. Rybak said, “The city has changed since 1963; today, we don’t rely as heavily on the automobile. Residents are moving through the city on bicycles and using a variety of transit options, therefore our parking requirements must change, too.”

Other US mayors share these sentiments. Parking studies are currently underway in at least 100 US cities of all sizes, including Seattle, Washington; Sacramento, California; Austin, Texas; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Mandan, North Dakota; Lincoln, Nebraska; Asheville, North Carolina; Bloomington, Indiana; and Meadville, Pennsylvania.

What all these studies have in common is a recognition that parking has implications beyond simply providing a place to temporarily store a motor vehicle. 

A brief history of parking regulations in the US
Parking in the US is most frequently regulated through zoning provisions that stipulate minimum requirements. For example, 100 square meters of commercial space typically require a minimum of three 15-square-meter parking spaces; a single residential unit would likely require two parking spaces.

Before World War II, such zoning for parking was almost nonexistent in US cities. The creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, the era’s low fuel prices, and creative marketing and financing programs by car manufacturers led to a steady rise in automobile ownership rates. At the same time, zoning codes began to reflect the changes in Americans’ lifestyle preferences from the dense, mixed-use, pre-World War II, urban neighborhoods to sprawling, suburban tracts of land dedicated to single, exclusive uses – the residential subdivision, retail mall, office park, and industrial zone.

This separation of uses forced the burgeoning population to drive everywhere. Cars became a necessity rather than a luxury, and the storage of automobiles became a concern. American zoning ordinances were essentially re-written in the 1960s and 1970s to accommodate the car.

In recent years, the trend in land use planning in the US has moved towards ‘smart growth’ and ‘sustainable development’. The goal of these movements is pedestrian-scale development with a mix of uses and a choice of transportation options. An aging population, growing environmental awareness, and rising fuel prices contribute to an expanding market in the US for streets that are convenient for walking and bicycling to major destinations.

In response, US mayors are reforming their zoning codes -- particularly 50-year-old parking requirements that increasingly are regarded as inefficient, ineffective, and inequitable.

City parking reforms
Washington, DC is re-writing its zoning code – adopted in 1958 – chapter by chapter. Former Washington Mayor Anthony Williams calls current zoning “a significant obstacle to revitalizing neighborhoods.” As many observers have noted, under Washington’s current zoning for parking, construction in the city’s most beloved historic neighborhoods, such as Georgetown, would be impossible.

The proposed changes to Washington’s parking requirements are illustrative of the options being implemented or considered in cities throughout the US:
• Reducing minimum off-street parking requirements.
• Implementing targeted maximums.
• Requiring car-sharing spaces in large garages; and encouraging shared parking between different uses, such as a restaurant that is open only evenings and an office open only days.
• Requiring bicycle parking.

The proposed Washington regulations would also make it easier for developers to get relief from parking minimums when appropriate.

Other cities are making better use of their parking supplies by enforcing short-term parking regulations; offering shuttle bus services for downtown workers; encouraging the use of carpools and transit; using valet parking at untended lots to squeeze in more cars; and installing technology to guide drivers to empty parking spaces.

The new awareness among US mayors – expressed by Mayor Joe Curtatone of Somerville, Massachusetts -- is that “parking should be a scarce and valuable resource.”

Free parking
In the US, ‘free parking’ is often considered a powerful economic development tool. According to this logic, a successful economic development project ensures that drivers looking for spaces can find them on-site and without cost to the driver. 

Former Mayor John Norquist of Milwaukee, Wisconsin helped change this attitude – at least regarding economically challenged urban neighborhoods. When Milwaukee relaxed parking requirements in the 1990s, new buildings sprang up on parcels that had long been vacant. The parking restrictions had made it economically unfeasible to build anything there.

Subsequent studies have shown that the cost of parking is not free, but hidden. A new parking lot costs about US$3,000 to $7,000 per space and a parking garage can cost $22,000 to $30,000. Underground parking costs even more. Excessive parking regulations can drive up the cost of building a building and running a business – and these costs are passed on to consumers as higher home prices, rents, and costs of goods produced by businesses.

The new trend in city planning in the US is to balance the demand for parking with other important objectives such as maintaining a city’s traditional urban form, increasing housing affordability, improving the environment, and encouraging the use of alternative modes of transportation.

In San Francisco, for example, Mayor Gavin Newsom said his comprehensive parking management program will decrease parking challenges as well as help San Francisco meet its “overall city goals of improving our economic competitiveness, livability, and sustainability.”

Supply and demand
The provision of parking in the US traditionally has been supply-oriented. Developers made assumptions about parking needs at peak hours, and communities essentially accepted whatever parking developers offered.
Today, zoning for parking is more likely to be based on demand. US cities are implementing relatively small and simple regulatory reforms that allow developers, businesses, and consumers to manage their demand for parking more efficiently and effectively.

The supply-side approach of the past 50 years led to more land dedicated to parking. This translated to less building density, which made car travel more appealing and thus upped the demand for even more parking. The result after five decades is an urban landscape that too often resembles an enormous parking lot.

US mayors are betting that less parking will mean more new buildings, new businesses, new jobs, more appealing streetscapes, and healthier cities.

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*Tony Favro’s latest book Hard Constants: Sustainability and the American City is now available free of charge from City Mayors. Please complete our order form to receive a pdf copy. Libraries of academic institutions may receive a hard copy. Order form

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