Land of the Free . . . Parking

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.

Changes like these can also work in existing developments. With no parking requirements, the owners of buildings now surrounded by concrete have new choices: They can expand their businesses, sell land to others for development, or turn parking into plazas.

It might take 10 years to absorb all the excess parking places across America, but scarcity–and a market–would develop. Free parking would dwindle as higher-value uses take over space currently devoted to car storage. And, as drivers begin to face the full environmental and social costs of their decisions, auto use would decrease.

Finally, the United States could eliminate inequitable tax provisions that favor cars over other transportation. At present, taxes encourage employers to supply free parking by treating it as a nontaxable fringe benefit. Employers may give employees parking worth $175 a month as an untaxed fringe benefit–equivalent to pretax income exceeding $2,500 a year.

“Cashing out” employer-paid parking would further dampen driving. A full-fledged cash-out policy requires that employers who give workers free parking let them choose to receive the parking space’s dollar value in cash instead. Tests of this policy in Los Angeles show that as many as two in five commuters take the money and leave their wheels at home.

By shepherding a full-fledged cash-out provision into federal law, President Bush could save more oil than we’re likely to find by drilling. If tens of millions of workers across the country left their cars at home and tacked an extra $2,500 onto their paychecks, it would save 2.5 million barrels of oil a day or more than twice what the Department of Energy estimates we can recover from the Alaska wildlife refuge. Subjecting parking to the free market so revered by the president can diminish the need for new oil wells–and safeguard the livability of so many communities.

Alan Durning is executive director of the Seattle-based research center Northwest Environment Watch (www.northwestwatch.org), publisher of This Place on Earth 2001: Guide to a Sustainable Northwest. Reprinted from the Elm Street Writers Group, an online news service covering environmental and community livability issues. The Elm Street Writers Group, which publishes the work of innovative thinkers in the field, is a project of the Michigan Land Use Institute, Box 228, Bezonia, MI 49616; www.mlui.org.

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