Are Residential Parking Permit Programs Racist?


Are Residential Parking Permit Programs Racist?

In theory, parking is color blind and unbiased. A parking space doesn’t know the color of your skin, your economic status, or any other personal features that may relate to you. It doesn’t care if you are a doctor, lawyer, administrative assistant, or customer at a restaurant—all it asks is that you pay the appropriate fee and/or follow the posted restriction. 

But is parking as equal as we think? Are there elements within the parking industry and in the parking experience that are inherently biased toward one group or another? Naturally, it is easier for those that make the most money to choose to park in the most expensive reserved monthly permit space or at a costly curbside meter, but even those of us who don’t have the same wealth can choose these same options. 

It is acknowledged that RPPP is inherently a policy that both municipalities and residents “love to hate,” given the administrative complexity of the program and the limitations it places on the
residents themselves.

However, in the authors’ experience, there is one municipal parking program that can and often does benefit the rich over the poor and, frequently, white people over traditionally marginalized and underserved groups—the residential parking permit program or district (RPPP/RPPD).

In this article, we will review the origins of the RPPP, provide examples of overly simplified and overly complicated RPPP policies, and identify the advantages that single-family neighborhoods can receive over their multifamily development neighbors when RPP districts are created. 

As racial diversity may be more prevalent in multifamily residential communities, this article then suggests how RPPPs are sometimes used by more homogenous, single-family neighborhoods to prevent vehicles from more racially diverse communities from parking in those neighborhoods. 

It must be noted at the outset that the authors are not implying that all multifamily residents are of lower average incomes or are predominantly part of a minority group; however, national statistics on multifamily demographics combined with experience in the management of residential parking permit programs does suggest that diverse minority groups tend to be a larger percentage of residents in multi-family neighborhoods and, as a result, could be a reason why their more homogenous, single-family residence neighbors choose to create exclusive RPPDs.

RPPPs or RPPDs were first created in the late 1960s and early 1970s in various cities across the country as bans on commuter parking in residential neighborhoods. In 1972, Arlington County, VA, adopted restrictions on commuter parking to reduce congestion in the Aurora-Highlands neighborhood near Crystal City, which was, at that time, a recently developed complex of office buildings and hotels along U.S. Route 1. 

Legal challenges immediately followed, noting that curbside parking in residential neighborhoods, or any neighborhood for that matter, falls within the public right-of-way and, therefore, belongs to commuters and residents alike. Arlington County’s parking ordinance was revised in 1974 to fend off additional legal challenges, but a unanimous ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court stated that the ordinance was a violation of commuters’ constitutionally guaranteed right to equal protection under the law. 

The U.S. Justice Department joined Arlington County in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, noting that Arlington’s ordinance sets goals for measures that include protection of residential neighborhoods from air and noise pollution, the preservation on the value of property, and the protection of the personal safety of children and other pedestrians. 

In Arlington County v. Richards (1977) the Court said, “the Constitution does not outlaw these social and environmental objectives,” overruling the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision. Arlington’s RPPP in Aurora-Highlands was then implemented, and cities across the nation soon followed suit. 

Today, there are thousands of RPPPs or zones throughout the nation, and they can be found in cities of all sizes. They address the need to mitigate outside-of-area parking activity that is generated by rail stations, bus stops, high schools, colleges/universities, large employment centers, and vibrant bars and restaurants. 

The language used to justify the creation of a RPPP or zone can vary just as the size of the city varies. Some codes and administrative policies are simplistic, while some are complex. In Newark, DE, the ordinance only requires a majority of residents to complete a petition that is then reviewed and approved by the City Manager, Traffic Commission, and City Council. 

In Fredericksburg, VA, the application process also includes a requirement that 75 percent of the parking spaces available in such areas are occupied during any hours of any seven days in a 15-day period. Fredericksburg City staff, therefore, are required to conduct a field survey of parking activity. 

Fairfax County, VA’s, RPPD program also includes a requirement that 75 percent of parking spaces in the study area are occupied at the time of study and that 50 percent of those parked vehicles are determined by the County’s Department of Transportation to be nonresident vehicles. 

In Arlington County, the source of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 1977, nonresident vehicles are defined as those that are registered outside the “affected zone.” When an application process is started, County staff define the boundary of the new or expanded zone based on a variety of codified criteria; if 25 percent or more of the vehicles parked during the specific time of impact within a new/expanded zone are registered to addresses outside the zone, then the application and petition is approved. 

Unfortunately, the process of defining and then identifying “nonresidents” and/or “out-of-area” impacts can be flawed, as some programs prohibit multifamily residents from creating and/or joining a RPPD. Additionally, multifamily residential developments and the demand for curbside parking that they can generate also can be a catalyst in the creation of an RPPP/RPPD in an existing single-family neighborhood. 

Single-family residents may use the intent of the RPPP and protection of the environment and personal safety as curtains behind which their true goal is hidden—namely, the reservation of the streets and curbside spaces in front of their homes for their exclusive use of single-family residents and their visitors, thereby prohibiting “outsiders” from those same public streets and spaces. 

In effect, the combination of zoning boundary definitions, reduced off-site parking, and the prohibition of new multifamily residents from creating or joining an RPPP zone or district created physical lines of division between the single-family “haves” and the multifamily “have-nots.” 

This was not what was intended in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Arlington County v. Richards decision. Furthermore, given the fact that single-family communities tend to be less diverse and higher income than their multi-family neighbors create a social, and possibly racial, barrier that was certainly not the goal of that 1977 decision. 

Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey Black, Hispanic, and Asian or Pacific Islander constitute 55 percent, 51 percent, and 42 percent of the retail market in the United States while Whites constitute 29 percent. 

Additionally, multi-family residences tend to have a larger number of adults per household than single-family residences. A report published by The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2013 noted that “households with single, adult offspring ages 18 through 29 years increased substantially from 2003 to 2009, registering a 24.6-percent change among renter households.” The report also noted that households with householders who are Black, Hispanic, or non-Hispanic/other race and those with foreign-born householders are more likely to be “doubled up”. 

It is acknowledged that RPPP is inherently a policy that both municipalities and residents “love to hate,” given the administrative complexity of the program and the limitations it places on the residents themselves with regards to annual or biannual renewals, visitor permits, and the need for self-policing. 

However, for residents near commuter stations, high schools, universities, and large employment and entertainment centers, the program is a necessary evil. Unfortunately, the way many of the ordinances and policies are written, some residents can utilize RPPPs to segregate themselves from the rest of the community simply because of the opportunities afforded single-family residents. 

So, what is next? As noted above, the highest court in the land established that RPPPs are constitutionally just when air and noise pollution, the preservation on the value of property, and the protection of personal safety is used to justify their creation. 

However, many RPPPs are being utilized on a neighbor vs. neighbor and on a street-by-street basis to preserve valuable curbside parking for single-family residents who mistakenly believe that the portion of roadway in front of their house is part of their property. 

The development of multifamily apartments and townhomes in these same neighborhoods is creating new and more intense conflicts. 

Planners, developers, elected officials, and the public should reexamine on- and off-street parking policies before allowing residential permit programs, zones, and districts to grow. 

In Arlington County, where RPPP was first challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, the program is under moratorium and no new zones or districts are being created. County staff and the public are working to define policy that supports the County’s transportation goals, protects the quality of life for all residents, and does so in a fair and equitable manner. 

Maybe parking isn’t color blind and can be biased, but as parking professionals it is our responsibility to identify inequities in our parking programs and eliminate them. The first step in that process is acknowledging that there is a bias inherent in the system and that we can and will work to correct those inequities. 

Michael Connor is an associate with Kimley-Horn. He can be reached at

Article contributed by:
Michael Connor
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