End Parking Mandates, Don’t Mend Them

A strip mall in Mount Prospect, Ill.

Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Longtime readers will probably not be shocked by the arguments mounted in my column-length brief against minimum parking mandates that’s new out today, but one point I wanted to draw attention to was my argument that reformers should be seriously trying to eliminate mandates citywide rather than selectively reduce them.

The problem with selective reductions is twofold. First on a concrete level, this is a form of compromise that really fails in its goal of de-mobilizing opposition. If you are a street parker and your priority in parking policy is to defend your access to cheap street parking, then any reduction in parking mandates should spark opposition. Watering the reform down doesn’t lead to any genuine reconciliation of interests. What you need to do is recognize that street parkers have a real reason for wanting to keep mandates in place and find a way to buy them off. I think what I propose at the end of the column would do that. But once you’ve managed to configure reform as a win-win, then you should go whole hog.

The second is that gradualism, by focusing reform on the places that are most indisputably well-served by transit and pedestrianism, actually denudes parking reform of its main promise—transforming neighborhoods. If you imagine a neighborhood that doesn’t have great bus frequency or amazing neighborhood-serving retail and add some housing with less than one parking space per adult, then you’re going to get the additional customers that would be the basis for more frequent buses or new stores. Why would anyone in a neighborhood like that want a unit with no parking space? Why would a couple want a unit with just one space? Probably most people wouldn’t. But some non-zero quantity of people would do it for the main reason people everywhere put up with sub-optimal housing situations—to save money. But those initial people with fewer cars than adults become the customers for the services—whether that’s carshare or the bus or a walking distance store—that make the neighborhood more attractive down the road.

The way things work right now is that parking minimums risk destroying existing walkable neighborhoods through the reverse dynamic where subsidized car ownership leads to excessive car ownership leads to further auto-oriented development. Selective liberalization of parking rules can break that vicious cycle, which is nice, but only citywide liberalization drives the virtuous process forward.