Let Us Build Less Parking, Please

Every large American city has parking requirements. New York has parking minimums. Portland has parking minimums. Even Houston, which stands alone in the United States by forgoing zoning laws altogether, has parking minimums. Houstonians can build a multifamily apartment building wherever they like, but they need 1.25 spaces for every studio unit, which is higher than Minneapolis’s current requirement. Maybe Texas has a greater appetite for regulation than they let on. (Or maybe they just to ensure ample space for Texas-size vehicles.)  Even though all cities have parking requirements, there are very good reasons to relax them in Minneapolis. Let’s run down the list.

Free parking encourages bad behavior.

Car-dependent sedentary lifestyles kill thousands of people a year. Drunk driving kills thousands more. Don’t get me started on distracted driving. But there are more mundane costs to free parking. Donald Shoup estimates that, at any given time, one-third of drivers on Manhattan streets are looking for a curbside parking spot. The economic and environmental cost of parking vultures is astronomical. The lottery-style economics of scarce, free parking make our brains go haywire. We lose our ability to rationally weigh the costs and benefits of different courses of action, just because there’s the chance of getting something for nothing.

Building and maintaining parking is expensive.

Structured parking in Minnetonka costs $25,000 per spot to build, and with the higher land costs in the urban core, it would cost even more here in Minneapolis. Maintenance isn’t cheap, either: Edina recently announced a plan to spend $5.7 million renovating a few ramps at 50th and France, which averages out to $6,000 per space. How much of the cost of construction and maintenance is passed to the tenants? It depends. Everything else held equal, a building with lots of parking will be more expensive than a building with less parking. But the developer might choose to make up for the extra cost in other ways besides raising rents. Maybe the tenants lose a pocket park. Maybe the neighbors have to look at slightly cheaper exterior materials. The point is that when parking is oversupplied, someone will get less than they would have otherwise. That might be the developer, the tenants, or the neighbors. Read John Edwards’ post on the price of his empty parking space.

People are driving less these days.

If you’d like to read about the national trend away from cars, I’d suggest the Death of the Suburbs or The Great Inversion. Locally, in the last eleven years we opened up two light rail lines and the nation’s best urban bikeway. The population living near the central business district is exploding. Nice Ride, hourcar, and car2go provide more transportation options. I took a look at data from the American Community Survey, and I found that the number of people in Minneapolis living in low- or no-car rental households has been increasing in the last few years. At the same time, the median household income for renters has increased by about 8% in real dollars, which indicates to me that this is trend is due more to changing tastes than economic hardship.

Low-car and no-car renters in Minneapolis

Low-car and no-car renters in Minneapolis

A few things about this chart. Please notice that according to my analysis, more than a third of Minneapolis (141,599 people) live in a car-lite rental household. That seems like a lot of people! You might wonder why the 0-or-1-car rental households line looks flat, but the average number of renters per household is increasing. It’s because the total number of renters is increasing even while the number of households stayed still. Finally, and the bottom line, which shows how many renters get to work without driving (whether by bus, bike, or foot) doesn’t have an impressive slope, but it shows that this population of car-free commuters increased from 29,988 in 2007 to 39,338 in 2013. If that trend were to continue, we would have about 54,000 car-free commuting renters in 2020.

There is a growing demand for car-lite and car-free living in Minneapolis. We should acknowledge the trend, and see it for what it is: a boon to our city. Then we should get out of its way by relaxing parking requirements for new and re-purposed buildings.

Scott Shaffer

About Scott Shaffer

Scott Shaffer works for a nonprofit community development corporation in Minneapolis. He has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife live in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood with their daughter and two Siamese cats.