Parking Reform Advances Climate Action, Housing Affordability, and More: Part 1
Parking is a hot-button issue for most communities, and it has been like this for many years. Sometimes this shows up as a concern that there is an insufficient amount of parking within a commercial district or required with new development. More recently, however, there is an increasing sense that communities are requiring too much off-street parking.
Local governments are turning to parking management strategies like metered parking and parking maximums to “right size” parking supply and provide more space for other uses, like housing, outdoor dining, green space, bike lanes, and truck delivery zones. By prioritizing “people over parking,” communities can help support important goals like climate action, housing affordability, and economic development.
This blog is the first in a two-part series discussing strategies that can be included as part of parking reform efforts to discourage excess parking and encourage more equitable, efficient, and sustainable parking supply management.
The Problem with Parking
Most cities are overparked, meaning they have more parking spaces than people. A 2018 Research Institute for Housing America Special Report found that, at the time of the report, Seattle had roughly 30 parking spaces per acre, more than five times its residential density (See this Strong Towns article for an aerial map demonstrating excess parking in Sunnyvale, CA). This much excess parking in the form of surface and structured parking impacts nearly all aspects of community life, from walkability to neighborhood vibrancy.
The more space devoted to parking, the harder it is to walk, bike, or take transit due to infrastructure gaps and an inhospitable walking and biking environment. Because it’s convenient, too much free parking also makes it easy to drive, leading to more vehicle miles travelled and more emissions, which impacts the climate and affects air quality and public health. Conversely, too few spaces, especially in busy areas like downtowns, can lead to cars circling while looking for parking, causing congestion and increased emissions. With its impervious surfaces, parking areas also contribute to the heat island effect and increase stormwater runoff.
Housing affordability (both for owners and renters) is also impacted by overparking. A 2018 American Planning Association article notes that the costs to build parking for residential development are usually passed along to tenants, thereby raising rents. A 2016 study cited in the article found that the cost of garage parking to renter households was approximately $1,700 per year, or an additional 17% of a housing unit’s rent. A 2022 Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI) study further highlights the impact of parking requirements on housing affordability, noting that parking practices add 10-15% to development costs.
Overparking has broad implications for a community’s growth and development goals, too. Areas occupied by surface parking lots and garages could be filled with housing, businesses, and greenspace that not only provide places for people to live, work, and play, but also result in compact, walkable, mixed-use development and less sprawl into rural areas.
Local Context and Engagement
While the impacts of parking on a broad scale are well-documented, analyzing the local context and engaging the public through in-person and online efforts can help frame policy changes. Studies can be conducted on a citywide basis, in areas where parking has been problematic, and/or in growth areas, like downtowns.
In developing its Downtown Parking Study, Spokane evaluated the existing parking system and conducted extensive outreach through stakeholder interviews, surveys, public events, and presentations to committees and council. Twenty strategies, like adopting a formal performance-based management program, piloting shared parking programs, and supporting multimodal improvements, will facilitate growth and activity downtown while making parking more user-friendly. These and other parking changes are supported in the city’s comprehensive plan (see TR 18: Parking).
Olympia also has a Downtown Parking Strategy that includes a study with data and public feedback to help the city understand current parking conditions, as well as key strategies, like management & enforcement tools, improvements to on-street parking, and refinements to residential & employee parking, to address the parking issues identified during the study.
Often as a supplement to in-person opportunities, some communities are engaging the public in parking studies and implementation actions through online platforms. For its Town Center Parking Study, Mercer Island is using Let's Talk Mercer Island, which allows the public to take a survey, map input, and ask questions. The study aims to develop solutions for parking concerns, including the perception that there isn’t enough parking or the right type of parking available to meet the needs of visitors. Bellingham is also using its online platform, Engage Bellingham, to engage the public in projects proposing the removal of some parking to allow for bike and pedestrian upgrades, including a Safe Routes to School project.
Interactive maps with local data can also be used to convey local conditions and impacts to inform parking supply and management decisions. The King County Multi-Family Residential Parking Calculator estimates parking use on a parcel level. Its model takes current data on local parking use and correlates this with factors related to a building, its occupants, and its surroundings – particularly transit, population, and job concentrations. It also estimates parking impacts, like total capital costs, monthly costs per residential unit, and greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle use of residents, thereby assisting decision-makers in determining how much parking is “just enough.”
Parking reform, which includes the parking management strategies highlighted in this blog series, can be a powerful tool among the many needed to fulfill your community’s goals on issues like housing, economic development, and the environment. Changes can happen on a bigger scale, or through an incremental approach, like starting with reduced or eliminated minimums in a certain area or district, and then carrying that forward to other areas as success is demonstrated and needs change. No matter which path you take, starting with robust data analysis and community engagement can help ensure that the policy changes fit the local context.
The next blog in this series will take a deeper dive into a variety of parking management strategies, including examples from across the state.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.