Land of the Free . . . Parking

The pay lot could be the key to our energy future

| September-October 2001

Fully 50 percent of the cost of parking is paid by employers, businesses, and taxpayers. Another 40 percent is paid through rent and mortgages for off-street parking at home. With everybody splitting the cost of free parking, it’s no wonder that drivers have almost nothing to gain by leaving their cars at home.

The remaining 10 percent of the nation’s parking bill is pay-per-use at meters, lots, or garages—a far smaller share than most nations. Pay parking is rare outside the center of big cities because antiquated provisions in zoning and tax codes—along with auto-centered street designs—bloat the parking supply and glut the market. Most zoning codes require a surplus of parking spaces. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, office buildings are required to provide up to four spots per 1,000 square feet of floor space. Many stores provide enough parking to accommodate cars on the Friday after Thanksgiving—the busiest shopping day of the year—and most of the lot is empty (and the land wasted) for the next 364 days.

The resulting oceans of parking give employees and customers a big incentive to drive; they also discourage transit, bike, and pedestrian travel by interposing vast parking lots between streets and buildings and by spreading out the destinations people want to reach.

A few communities have recently begun reforming parking policies. Portland, Oregon, exempts downtown residential development from off-street parking requirements. Downtown Olympia, Washington, has no minimum parking requirements.

But here’s a simpler reform: Strike all off-street parking requirements from the law books and leave it to property owners to decide how much parking to provide. Many owners, especially real estate developers, would devote less land to cars and more into buildings, increasing the supply of housing and commercial space.

In new communities, streets can be made more narrow, eliminating on-street parking. Olympia plans to build residential streets as skinny as 13 feet in one fast-growing neighborhood—one-third the conventional width—while Missoula, Montana, Eugene, Oregon, and Kirkland, Washington, have reduced some streets down to 20 or 24 feet.