Rethinking Parking Requirements

November 29, 2022
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By Geoff Green, AICP

For decades, automobiles have defined how our communities look and function. Most zoning ordinances require every new home, business, or factory to provide enough parking spaces to accommodate everyone who might drive there at the same time. This means many of our places have been designed more to fit cars than for the benefit of people. They feature large parking lots that push apart different establishments (even if they are the same or similar uses) with impervious surfaces that create more stormwater and increase flooding risks. These mandatory minimum parking requirements get in the way of creating walkable neighborhoods with a mix of housing, stores, offices, and park space, and result in development that is hostile to people walking, bicycling, or taking transit.

In response, communities of all sizes, and on both the state and local levels, are changing their land-use regulations to reduce or even eliminate minimum parking requirements.

Recently, California’s legislature overwhelmingly approved legislation to eliminate all minimum parking requirements within ½ mile of a major public transit stop. A city or county cannot require any minimum number of parking spaces, though it can impose parking maximums. Property owners and developers will no longer need to set aside space for parking that they do not need.

In 2020, the City of Raleigh, North Carolina eliminated minimum parking requirements for all buildings downtown and for residential buildings within a transit overlay zoning district. This year, the City went even further and eliminated all parking requirements citywide, added new restrictions on maximum vehicle parking, and expanded minimum bicycle parking requirements for multifamily uses. For parking that exceeds a stated threshold, Raleigh now also requires mitigation such as additional stormwater facilities or landscaping measures. It is a simple and significant change.Raleigh follows in the footsteps of other cities that have eliminated parking requirements, such as Fayetteville, Arkansas (which removed its requirements in 2015) and Buffalo, New York (which removed its requirements in 2017). Research published in the Journal of the American Planning Association shows that after the parking reform in Buffalo, nearly half of new major developments included fewer parking spaces than the code previously required. The change was more significant for mixed-use developments, which provided 53 percent fewer parking spaces than the former minimum requirements.

Overall, communities that have eliminated minimum parking requirements appear to have had positive experiences. Developers and lenders are incentivized to provide enough parking to support their tenants’ needs, while not wasting money on excess parking. Moreover, municipalities can manage off-street parking demand with a variety of tools, such as paid parking and time limitations, residential parking permit programs, and parking districts that fund public parking structures used by multiple developments. For example, the Boulder, Colorado Access Management and Parking Strategy takes a holistic approach towards managing public space to allow access throughout the city by people using all forms of transportation.

In our experience preparing comprehensive zoning code updates, few communities are ready to eliminate all minimum vehicular parking requirements. Instead, they target the elimination of minimum parking requirements in areas where walkable environments already exist, such as a downtown or a historic district. In more auto-oriented areas, municipalities look to “right size” minimum parking requirements to ensure that the cost of unnecessary parking does not discourage investment in their community. Strategies often include minimum parking requirements that vary based on the context of the development—for example, requiring more parking in suburban or rural areas with widely separated development, and less in compact activity areas.

We also recommend including provisions in a development ordinance that recognize the demand for parking on a particular site varies based on a development’s context. Therefore, many of our codes offer developers various ways to reduce their parking requirements, in appropriate circumstances. The Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) for Mooresville, North Carolina, adopted earlier this year, is illustrative of this approach. In Mooresville’s UDO, developers can reduce their parking requirements in multiple ways:

  • If they plan a mixed-use development with uses that have peak occupancy at different times—such as an office building and a movie theater, they can assume one parking space will handle some of the parking needs of multiple uses.
  • They can count on-street parking spaces directly outside their establishment.
  • They can utilize parking in a nearby lot that has empty spaces.
  • They can commit to providing valet parking services.
  • They can demonstrate a likelihood that they will not need all the required parking and defer construction on some of the parking spaces until after the development is complete, when it’s clear whether the additional deferred spaces are needed.

These menus of options cannot address all possible situations in which the minimum parking requirements may be too high. Therefore, we also recommend incorporating provisions that authorize a planning director or other local government official to reduce parking requirements in certain scenarios. Examples include a parking study prepared using professionally accepted methods which demonstrates lower parking demand than the ordinance requires or site constraints that make it difficult to provide parking on site.

Minimum parking requirements are being reevaluated by local jurisdictions and state governments throughout the country. Even if your jurisdiction is not ready to eliminate all minimum parking requirements, many options are available to make sure that developments do not provide more parking than they need.