A World View: Are Parking Minimums an Endangered Species Internationally?


A World View: Are Parking Minimums an Endangered Species Internationally?

Few policy tools are universal, but minimum parking requirements come close. They are a feature of planning codes from Johannesburg
to Manila and from Santiago de Chile to Calgary. 

You may have heard about a push to get rid of these regulations. 

Doing so means leaving parking provision decisions to the discretion of real-estate owners and developers. It means a more market-based balance of supply and demand. It gradually leads to less free parking. It results in a larger proportion of parking being subject to management and pricing. It therefore is a good thing for the parking management industry. 

But is it really happening?

The practice of mandating on-site parking with buildings emerged in 1923 in Columbus, Ohio and gradually spread. By the mid-1990s, minimum parking requirements – let’s call them parking mandates – applied in almost every municipality in the world, even in China and in the former Soviet bloc.

However, the tide seems to
have turned.

Awareness is spreading about
the harms caused by parking mandates. Parking professionals are slowly instilling confidence that cities can manage on-street parking when they need to. More officials understand that they don’t need to boost parking supply.

A surprising number of cities across the United States have already abolished parking mandates, either wholesale or in certain areas. The Parking Reform Network has a handy map (https://parkingreform.org/resources/mandates-map/). 

When did this trend start and is it just a USA thing?

Prof. Donald Shoup of UCLA has been building the case against parking mandates since the 1990s, inspiring a movement, dubbed the ‘Shoupistas’. 

But the trend started earlier, limited to downtowns, at first. 

In 1976, London abolished parking mandates in the City of London (the financial district) and imposed maximums instead. 

In the same decade, New York City, San Francisco, Boston and Portland swapped downtown parking mandates for downtown parking supply restrictions at the behest of the Environmental Protection Agency, and in an effort to ease air pollution problems. 

A different way to defang downtown parking mandates was more popular across the USA and other countries. This involved allowing waivers in return for payments in lieu of parking. Cities used this revenue to fund public parking (and/or other improvements). In Downtown Santa Monica, for example, parking mandates remained, but buildings with zero on-site parking became possible. 

German cities took this approach in an odd direction. Some of them wanted to limit city center parking (to reduce traffic), but they had a problem. German states, not cities, are responsible for parking mandates. The creative solution? Some cities went ahead and banned downtown developments from providing on-site parking. But what about the parking mandates that remained on the books? No problem. These cities simply made developers pay fees-
in-lieu for the required parking that they were banned from providing. Sound reasonable?

But all this was just a limited attack on parking mandates, which still ruled almost everywhere. 

A new twist came in 1997 when Berlin swept away all parking mandates across the whole city. As a city with State-level status, Berlin had the power to make this bold move. 

In 2001, England started a national phase out of its parking mandates. National Policy Guidance PPG13 required local authorities to shift from mandating car parking (minimums) to limiting it (maximums). This was partially reversed in 2019 when the National Planning Policy Framework opened the door again to minimums. Nevertheless, London, still imposes maximums, not minimums, for almost all areas and developments. 

In 2014, Hamburg followed Berlin’s example. In the same year, São Paulo in Brazil abolished all parking mandates. 

Since then, wholesale parking mandate abolitions have accelerated, especially in North America. In 2017, both Mexico City and Buffalo, NY abolished their parking minimums. They were followed by South Bend, IN, Hartford, CT, Portland, OR, and others. The trend reached Canada during the pandemic with Edmonton’s 2020 ‘Open Option Parking’ reform. In early 2022, Toronto has followed suit. 

As of February 2022, New Zealand has banned most local governments from imposing parking mandates. Only parking for use by persons with a disability or with limited mobility can be required, as is typical for parking mandate abolitions.

Many more cities have been abolishing parking mandates, but only in places with good transit service. Paris is one example. In fact, its dense network of Metro lines means parking mandates apply almost nowhere in the inner-city. In 2019, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil abolished residential parking mandates in transit-rich corridors. 

So, is the end of parking
mandates near? 

Momentum is gathering but it would be premature to label parking minimums an endangered species. Most cities in the world still have excessive parking mandates. Most are not yet debating their abolition. 

Some places have little reason to abolish parking mandates. Japan’s have been in place since the 1960s, but they are unusually benign. They are set at low levels, exempt small buildings, and apply only partially to middle-sized buildings. Most parking is managed, and these parking mandates are not an obstacle to the development of small buildings on small sites in Japan’s cities.

Other cities see the harm of conventional parking mandates, but are trying to reduce their harm rather than abolishing them. 

Many cities have lowered their levels, especially in core areas and near good public transport. Tailoring parking standards (both minimums and maximums) according to public transport accessibility is the main approach in the Netherlands and in Swiss cities. In 2004, Seoul adopted very low minimums and new maximums for five of its most intense transit-oriented business districts. Shenzhen, China, has also been lowering its parking minimums, especially in transit-oriented areas. 

Over four decades, San Francisco tried various ways to reduce the harm of parking mandates. By the end of 2018, this tinkering ended in the wholesale abolition of its parking minimums.

What has happened to cities that abolished parking mandates or greatly reduced their harmfulness? Is parking in crisis or impossible to find? The short answer is no. Nothing is perfect, but parking management mostly has them covered. 

Paul Barter writes and podcasts about parking policy at reinventingparking.org. He is based in Singapore.

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Paul Barter
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