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Monday, January 11, 2010

The Urban Parking Paradox and the Need for Regulation

As previously discussed, providing the necessary parking to meet local government regulations can be both costly in terms of finances and social impacts to the immediate neighborhood in which the parking is built. The question should be asked about whether parking should be regulated at all in terms of how much should be provided.

In the Central Business District and historic neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine there is roughly 92 acres of surface parking lots. To put this into real terms, the amount of surface parking lots present in our urban core is nearly equal to the entire size of Burnet Woods (89 acres).

The Gateway Quarter parking garage sits empty on a typical Saturday afternoon (left), while much of the on-street parking remains readily available (right) for those looking to shop in the rejuvenated district of Over-the-Rhine.

Many of the commonly used calculations for parking requirements have been seen as arbitrarily derived. One reason this is thought to be the case is because of the limitless variables presented in each particular situation. In an area with high transit ridership and lots of pedestrian activity there should be a lesser requirement for parking than an area that is solely dependent on the automobile. This is reflected in the zoning code to a certain extent, but what would happen if the regulation disappeared completely?

No Regulation:
Parking is an amenity, not infrastructure, and should be treated as such. Government should not be regulating how many square feet of closet space there should be in each dwelling unit, nor should it be regulating how many parking spaces need to be provided for retail and office development. This is something a private developer should know based on their client demands.

If a developer feels that they can successfully renovate a handful of historic rowhouses along Race Street in Over-the-Rhine and provide zero parking spaces, then that should be their risk (or reward). Similarly, if a developer feels that they need X number of parking spaces for their new office tower in the Central Business District, then that too should be up to them. The potential problem with this approach is not providing too little parking, but rather too much.

The areas in black indicate the 92 acres of surface parking located throughout Cincinnati's Central Business District (left) and the historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood (right).

Parking Maximums:
Since some might say that no parking regulation whatsoever might allow the market to run wild and produce unsustainable results. In that case the lack of any regulation could be replaced by a parking maximum, or a cap. For Cincinnati this would make most sense in places already developed and built in a way not suitable for parking facilities. This would allow for developers to create the parking they feel is needed up to a certain extent deemed appropriate by the local government.

From there policy makers could decide whether it is in their best interests to allow flexibility with contingencies, or not. For example, a developer could exceed the parking cap if the overage was built with pervious paving, that the additional parking be shared, or if the developer paid into a fund that would then help offset the costs of other infrastructure improvements needed in the affected area.

In a nutshell though this would allow for developers, no matter how big or small, to make the decision of how much parking they actually need with regulation limiting their actions. This would prevent big box retailers from over-parking their sites and thus reduce the amount of impervious surfaces, loss of urban fabric, and other negative externalities.

Both scenarios presented above could be addressed by removing minimum parking requirements. This would enable small businesses and investors to succeed without the costly parking mandates while also not adding additional regulations through maximum parking specifications that would experience similar issues as minimum parking requirement regulations.

But in either case, the above scenarios seem to be better than the current urban parking policies currently used in Cincinnati and widespread across the United States. Both scenarios would empower small businesses and investors while also maintaining a free market system. Both situations would demand less staff time to oversee and thus reduce costs and/or improve service levels at the local government level.


Venkman said...

Good points. Less regulation about parking overall makes sense. As you alluded to, not every situation is alike and the parking requirements shouldn't be either. It should be left up to the developer, who can likely make the decision more efficiently, as they stand to either make or lose a lot of money if they make it incorrectly. Parking requirements are good guidelines for most design situations, but should be just that.. guidelines and not hard rules. There are too many factors that can't be accounted for on a standardized, code basis, like the ones we see in OTR, where there is an abundance of on-street and garage parking.

I don't know if a maximum really needs to be regulated though. It may just erase one set of problems and create another.

Randy Simes said...

I tend to agree with you, and in the next article of this ongoing series I will propose the alternative which I like best. It leaves more of the decision to the developer, but does create some government oversight so that we don't end up with a mess.

Originally I thought that a parking cap was the way to go, but after doing further research it does seem like a regulatory cap would create another set of problems.

Unknown said...

Perhaps I should wait for the next article for your preferred approach, but I think some kind of guidelines (a range perhaps?) are appropriate. With no regulation, the developer (who typically has a 3-5 year outlook) may commit resources (land) in a manner that doesn't fit with the longer term goals of the city. Some connection to a comprehensive plan is best - of course that's a whole separate issue around here...

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