Portland’s Parking Policies are Still Better Than Ours

Portland, right?

Is there a better city to compare ourselves to than Portland? I haven’t been there, but they seem good at things like biking, streetcars (maybe not?), putting birds on other things, and the like.

So when a 2 year old story about how Portland re-upped their parking requirements started getting re-circulated, I figured someone should dig deeper into the issue. Particularly since Minneapolis council member Lisa Bender is pushing for some parking regulation reform right here in the Midwest (or North? I’m so confused). Portland isn’t some wonderful utopia everyone should blindly imitate, but we’d be fools not to learn from other cities as Minneapolis (and St Paul, too!) become more and more desirable places to live yet struggle to maintain affordability and mobility.


Summarizing the planning staff memo from 2012, Portland decided to loosen its regulatory requirements in the early 1980s to encourage denser development in core neighborhoods. They had the MAX Light Rail on the way (while we were studying our own regional networks only to forget about them for 20-30 years) along with a not-too-old bike plan, all making it possible for car-free or car-light development to sprout up.

So, they removed parking minimums outright for many of their zoning classifications – 38% of their 196,000 parcels required no on-site parking (wow!). Did it work?


Source: Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability (BPS)

Their studies don’t have data from before 2006, but it’s pretty clear that by the mid-aughts there really was a decent number of parking-free and parking-lite building going on. 45% of new construction in that 7-year span had no on-site parking, and many buildings that did provide parking supplied fewer than 1 space per dwelling unit. And this was spaced pretty evenly across buildings by size as well:


Source: Portland BPS

In fact, one could argue that not requiring parking had the biggest impact on smaller projects – roughly half of all structures without parking had 1-19 units (an average of 6 units per structure). This screams victory for small, local citizen-developers, challenging the idea that parking reform only lines the pockets of the soul-less, out-of-town developers (though further data would need to confirm, obviously).

But! As you might expect, people complained. Streets were clogged, businesses suffered, children wept, gnashing of teeth (and so on). An in-depth survey was commissioned to understand car ownership, travel, and parking behavior. It found folks living in parking-free apartments were just as likely to own a car, but they just parked them on the street (for free)!:


Source: Portland BPS


But car ownership wasn’t really tied to car-commuting:


Source: Portland BPS


…nor were non-commute trips..


Source: Portland BPS


…and of all people surveyed (including car owners, car commuters, and users of car-sharing services), a solid majority of people took 5 or fewer trips by car per week:


Don’t ask me why they don’t add up to 100. Source: Portland BPS


So basically, new residents living in car-free or car-light apartments were storing their cars on the street for free but rarely using them, encroaching on business districts and lower density residential areas in the process. This shouldn’t be shocking. When it snows here in Minneapolis, you really get a feel for how many cars sit against the curb for a few days between uses (among other wasted street spaces).

Based on neighbor concerns, and despite their own findings that required parking raises housing prices, they implemented an increase in residential parking minimums to alleviate the strain on residents’ ability to find parking. Seems like Minneapolis would not be wise to follow Portland’s 1980 lead, right?

Was the Reform Necessary?

I’m sure you can guess my answer. What most people consider parking armageddon is usually not so bad. Most people didn’t have to cruise for very long, with the survey unearthing a few key facts:

  • 39% of respondents were able to find a spot within 1 block of their residence. 70% were within 3 blocks
  • 71% reported walking 0-2 minutes to/from their cars
  • 61% of respondents found an on-street spot either “right away” or “less than 5 minutes” (with an additional 16% having off-street parking right away)


This doesn’t seem so bad. The vast majority of people barely trolled the street for a spot, walked short distances, and (most importantly) paid nothing to do so.

Of course, there was another path to alleviate residential and business parking needs. We’ve covered Shoupian methods here at streets.mn before. Donald Shoup himself even tried to help Portland out himself with some interim tactics that may have helped the parking congestion. The city mostly dismissed his ideas, but they could have implemented some market-based reforms similar to what Seattle and San Francisco (and even some areas in Minneapolis) have done.

Portland Still Better


Some cities.. not so progressive. Source: graphingparking.com

First, let’s give ourselves some credit. In 2009, Minneapolis overhauled its parking regulations, wiping them out entirely for most of the downtown district, lowering them slightly for the rest of the city, and even implementing a few maximums.

As far as national comparisons go, we’re pretty darn progressive (and on the surface, very comparable to Portland). Besides, we shouldn’t shy away from further market-oriented reform when the opportunity is right in front of us.

However, even our progression and Portland’s seeming roll-back on parking still leaves us with a much more stringent residential parking code in 2015

Zoning codes vary slightly by city, so it’s never a one-to-one comparison by unit type, use, and form. I did the best I could to lay out all of Minneapolis’ zoning areas that allow residential, then mapped them to similar Portland zones for comparison. Portland’s 38% of parcels formerly requiring no minimum residential parking received only a modest increase. As the units per structure increase, so do the required number of spaces. But it’s important to note that for buildings with 1-30 units, developers still don’t need to provide off-street parking.


Green means better.


We both have exemptions based on site location and substitutions for car spaces. Portland leads the way there as well:



Both in flexibility (number of exemptions) and how many spaces can be reduced, Portland takes the cake. But Minneapolis does have an advantage (albeit slight) in commercial parking requirements:


The difference might not seem like much, but in the cases where Minneapolis requires zero spaces up to a floor of commercial gross floor area (GFA), that may be the difference-maker for infill in traditional neighborhoods where space for parking is at a premium.

One other note, both cities have overlay districts that further reduce required parking (ex. Pedestrian Oriented Overlay Districts in Minneapolis). They’re too complicated to discuss and compare here.

Final Thoughts

No policy will make every single person happy. I’m partial to simply removing parking minimums entirely and letting the market slowly follow. Lenders may be less willing to back a big project without parking at first, but as Portland showed they can change their tune in time.

City staff could just as easily take a slightly more pragmatic approach and follow the Portland model for now, with an plan to re-visit in 10 to 15 years. Proactive on-street price management is a must, especially in areas like Uptown, St Anthony, etc. This might mean that folks accustomed to parking their car on the street have to pay a non-zero amount to continue doing so, be willing to walk further to park for free, or simply ditch the car in favor of a mixture of walking, biking, transit, and car-sharing services.

Minneapolis is becoming more desirable, more walkable, with better transit by the day. Parking reform is one piece of the puzzle to help keep new construction costs in our most walkable neighborhoods down while supporting neighborhoods that prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. Let’s not use Portland’s decision 2 years ago to roll back in regulations keep us from pushing for more reform on our end.

12 thoughts on “Portland’s Parking Policies are Still Better Than Ours

  1. Monte Castleman

    This article makes the point that I wanted to post about the last article, but didn’t because I had no data; my suspicions that a lot of people want to live in the city, do not want to give up their car, and will take the cheapest way to live in the city even if it means parking their car on the street. Even if you don’t use it for work it’s nice to have a car around. I telecommute so there’s a week at a time when my car stays in my garage. I know in the city there’s car sharing, but it’s still a royal hassle to rent a car if you want to take a longer trip out of the city on weekends, or need to haul something bulky around. My thought is charging for on-street parking would result in more developers wanting to build off-street parking as that becomes attractive relative to those without, and thus would be contrary to the goal of providing lower cost housing for those without cars.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Thanks for the thoughts, Monte. I think you’re probably right on what would happen in a reduced parking minimum environment + market rates on streets. Just maybe not to the extent you’re imagining. If developers knew with good certainty that an area will cost is future tenants $80/mo (just postulating) to park on the street, it might make it a little more reasonable to charge $120/mo for structured parking, whereas today they’re charging $100/mo if they do build it, because on-street parking is free (if a minor hassle). But none of that means that same developer will make a clear jump from 0 parking to 1 space per unit. It would probably be somewhere in between, and I’m willing to bet on the low end.

      They may also realize that providing dedicated space for 2 ZipCars, 2 HourCars, 4 Car2Gos, and a NiceRide station out front to serve 100 residents is a heck of a lot cheaper than building 50 spaces for the people who don’t want to give up a car. Especially if that means you can charge $750/mo for your tenants vs $1,000/mo at the same profit level (again, just speculating $$s here), a huge competitive advantage.

      People want their cars for convenience, but their resulting (self-reported!) travel behavior doesn’t rationally support owning a car in many cases. If you’re only driving 1-3x a week, some of those are trips that may even still be replaceable by bike/bus, ditching the car for the occasional car-share is a perfectly reasonable option.

      Besides, public policy shouldn’t be shaped around the notion that some people want to own a car but are unwilling to pay to store it somewhere.

    2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I like to question “at what price?” or append “at a price of zero” to many of these generalizations, and it makes things much more clear. Of course people keep cars around when we make it artificially cheap to do so. Free on-street parking is a big part of this. But if we actually charged a market rate for parking, maybe that dynamic would change and people would make different yet rational choices in response to market pricing.

  2. Monte Castleman

    I also wonder how many people would be lured away from car ownership if car-sharing would allow daily or weekly rentals at a price competitive with the regular rentals, and the option of larger vehicles. Renting a car right now is an ugly, inconvenient experience. It seems trips to the lake cabin or to Ikea are the two main transportation needs not served by car sharing or transit.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I guess in my mind it is already. Hourcar has a couple plan options. For $5/mo, you can rent a vehicle all day for $65, or $75 on Sat/Sun. 100 miles per day are included, and that also includes gas, insurance, etc. Or, if you use the service more often, a $15/mo plan drops the daily rental down to $55 or $65 for Sat/Sun.

      ZipCar has a plan with $5 monthly fee ($60/yr) and $72 max for a full day ($77 Fri-Sun) rental, with 180 free miles.

      Car2Go is the most expensive at $85+ tax for a full day, with up to 150 miles included.

      A quick check of MSP car rentals shows $18 for a weekend day including taxes, but you’re still on the hook to pay for gas, insurance, etc for the vehicle. As you say, the experience is much more of a hassle than a convenient walk/bike to a local car share.

      So that’s kinda the point, I guess. Pay a little extra the few times a year you go to an Ikea-equivalent store (with the option of not needing a car for the whole day), or deal with getting to MSP on both ends of the trip if the trip is longer and $18/day + unlimited miles seems worth it. I would expect more car-free development to be a big signal to the Hourcars of the world to have a couple larger vehicles available, but honestly small 4-door sedans can do a LOT (our Honda Odyssey is rarely at capacity). And, it’s what most people and families own anyway.

  3. Steven Prince

    I agree with your conclusions, but note the parking survey data is based on 113 responses in a city of 609,000. Pretty comical response rate.

    That said, I’ll throw out my idea for a step-in the right direction about residents who store vehicles on the street for weeks at a time. Why not adapt NYC’s “alternative side of the street parking” rules? NYC has lots of free street parking in neighborhoods where you would not expect it, but there’s a catch. Twice a week you have to move your car for a 2 hour window to allow “street cleaning.” The street cleaning rarely happens, but the rule (and its strict enforcement) prevents storage of car for more than a few days. People who drive their cars to work each day are not impacted. It creates a major hassle that discourages most NY’rs from owning cars unless they really need to (or can afford parking garage rates that would rent a nice one-bedroom in Uptown).

    I like this better than critical parking- which just reinforces peoples’ notion that they “own” the street parking where they live. It would also make tree work, street cleaning, repairs, amd follow-on street plowing easier for the City, because they could rely on bi-weekly windows where streets would be clear of parked cars.


    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I guess 113 seemed a little on the low side, but I’m guessing it’s statistically significant enough. Keep in mind a large portion of the 609,000 city doesn’t have parking issues at all (or even 0 parking minimums). They probably targeted critical parking areas.

      Seems to me that alternate side parking in a city where land values are among the highest in the world hasn’t really reduced people’s desire to store their car. A twice-a-week game of musical chairs doesn’t do much to improve turnover for businesses the other 95% of the time.

      I would still say doing something like meters while selling permits is a good compromise. Sell half as many permits as meters you install so residents don’t just clog up meter spaces all the time, and charge enough for the permits to make residents really think hard on buying one. If a meter would yield $1,000 a year in coins, for example, charge $600 for the permit. Lower than daily market rates (since oftentimes the car will be parked overnight when demand may be lower), but high enough to keep spaces available.

      1. aexx

        Duluth is another city that has alternate side parking on some of their streets. Even in relatively tight areas, it doesn’t stop people from driving. It just offers a hassle to car drivers without much of an incentive (I’m partial to options that offer people both carrot and stick when possible). I think it also entices people to move away from car-lite to either no car at all, or probably more likely than people on this board would like to admit, to a car-heavy user.

        I really like the idea of street permitting, but I kind of wonder if it’s throwing money away for city (or coming out at a wash). Such a permitting scheme would require a significant bump up in enforcement, which means you’ve got to have the revenue coming in to ensure there’s enough parking enforcement officers.

        I have my doubts we can do much about charging for street parking before tackling a much larger issue – amenity density and good transportation alternatives. If I can’t get to what I need (and want) easily by bus/bike/walk, then I’m going to use my car. And frankly, Minneapolis just isn’t to that point yet where most can give up their vehicles (I think we’re getting pretty close in Uptown, Loring Park, and the North Loop…as well as downtown generally).

        Yes, you can take the bus to work and maybe walk to your grocery store. But if your friends live 40 minutes (and a transfer) away on the bus, how likely are you to give up your car? In an age of big-box retail, how do you avoid the Target run?

        It seems to me–as someone very supportive of the concept–that we need to make it easier to ditch the car with nearby amenities. Otherwise, you’re tacking on a fee that pushes those most on the edge (who often live in the older apartments that lack parking at all) out to less desirable neighborhoods that usually have pretty bad transit and even fewer amenities but that might provide cheaper street parking.

Comments are closed.