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.

15 thoughts on “Let Us Build Less Parking, Please

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I mostly agree with your points, but:

    “Donald Shoup estimates that, at any given time, one-third of drivers on Manhattan streets are looking for a curbside parking spot.”

    Isn’t this an argument for more parking as part of requirements for a development? So there’s capacity within buildings and ramps and this behavior is minimized?

    But… my personal opinion is that outside of downtown, things are auto-oriented enough that businesses and apartment buildings are more than capable of determining what they need themselves. As such, we should set maximums, to limit this low-value land use — not minimums, which encourage businesses to build more than they need. A business has a vested interest in its customers having enough parking.

    1. helsinki

      I think Shoup’s argument is that free parking induces wasteful circling for the perfect spot. The lack of price feedback is the critical missing link.

    2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      “More parking.” At what price? That’s what Shoup would ask.

      The reason why such a large portion of vehicle traffic on urban streets is motorists lurking for parking is precisely because that parking is undervalued. In Shoup’s plan, the pricing would ensure that a motorist could find an available parking space on every block. Thus they wouldn’t have to circle.

      The other reason why we have parking lurking is because we’ve created a disconnect between the real value of parking and the price of on-street parking. It is so much cheaper to park on street than in a ramp. Or the price to park in the center of the neighborhood is the same as the price to park on street on a quiet block a few blocks away. With proper pricing, people can make better decisions. And they will lurk less.

  2. Mike SonnMike Sonn

    Condo on market in Lowertown w/ included parking. ~$450/mo in HOA fees. So parking is, what, $150-200/mo in downtown? So now your housing is more expensive if you need that parking or not. At least decouple it from the unit. If you need it, you can rent it.

    1. Monte Castleman

      We spend how much each time we go to the State Fair. But my stepfather and mother are too cheap for parking, so we park for free and then walk for a mile or so on top of all the walking at the fair. If it was me I’d just pay the ten bucks or whatever it costs to park there.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

        The State Fair represents an excellent parking pricing scheme, totally free market. The closer you park, the more you pay. Seems fair to me. (Monte, I too just park close and pay more, although the bus is a great option as well from where I live)

        1. Wayne

          One step further: let’s add fees onto vehicle registration to cover the excess costs of street parking that aren’t paid for by the meters. If we can’t get anyone to actually charge the real price of parking when people use it, at least put it somewhere that only falls on drivers and not those of us who don’t own anything to park. I won’t advocate for 100% user fees for highways or streets in general because I realize they have economic benefit to non-users as well, but street parking? Nope. That’s just a giveaway to cheap drivers and businesses.

  3. Julia

    I’m wondering why your data is limited to rentals. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to see renters being talked about firstly, rather than as an afterthought, but I know of more than a few carfree or car-lite home and condo owners. For some, I am seeing that the car-lite lifestyle is something they try out as renters, commit to when they buy.

    And yes, it’s extremely frustrating as someone who chooses not to drive to constantly financially subsidize cars/parking AND pay the social/environmental costs of poorer air quality, more dangerous streets, sprawling and inaccessible amenities, noise pollution, lower quality of life, more impermeable surface, etc. Drivers get the benefits of me financially subsidizing their choice as well as my absence from the road (lower congestion, better air/noise quality, more money to local businesses, more support for stronger and more livable communities, stronger community/neighborhood, etc.).

    1. Wayne

      “it’s extremely frustrating as someone who chooses not to drive to constantly financially subsidize cars/parking AND pay the social/environmental costs of poorer air quality, more dangerous streets, sprawling and inaccessible amenities, noise pollution, lower quality of life, more impermeable surface, etc”

      THIS. So much this. I haven’t owned a car since I was a teenager in central California (where it was pretty much required to own one) or had a driver’s license in over a decade, yet I continue to help pay for all this stuff that is actively hostile to me as a pedestrian/cyclist/transit user. Even places that are considered to have decent transit or be walkable in America are guilty of this same kind of thinking and spending. I like what NYC is doing lately with their intersection redesigns, but the fact that it took this long to even take another look at how they build their roads is depressing in the city with probably the lowest car ownership in the country.

    2. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

      Good question. It has to do with the policy question in front of us and the data available.

      The parking policy specifically, and our zoning code generally, distinguishes between multi-family residential and single-family residential. The data show that housing affordability is a bigger problem in multi-family buildings, and car-ownership is lower. While it would be nice for single-family homes to be able to choose whether or not to build car-storage on their property, I see it as a less-pressing issue than parking for multi-family buildings.

      If I could have, I would have used data that shows car-ownership and transportation means for people who live in multi-family housing. But the Census doesn’t provide that, they only provide car-ownership and transportation means broken down by whether the people rent or own their home. Not all renters are apartment-dwellers, and some home-owners are condo-dwellers, but this was the best I could do.

  4. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Interesting nugget of information – a developer recently told me the amount of rent needed to cover parking is $180. In other words, say a brand new apartment building has units available for $1,500 that include an underground parking stall. $180 of that monthly rent is needed to cover the construction cost of parking, meaning the unit itself only costs $1,320 per month. In other words, if parking were not “required” (either by market demand or city code), it would be possible to build apartment buildings for a lot less, and subsequently charge less rent.

    This is a ballpark figure, of course, but provides an interesting perspective on the overall debate.

    1. Wayne

      if apartments could be built with less parking … like the one on Colfax that everyone was up in arms about?

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