Mandated parking minimums: Take the #BlackFridayParking Challenge

Is Too Much Parking a Problem for Your City? Take the #BlackFridayParking Challenge to Find Out. Black Friday will be here soon. And if you expect to see parking lots overflowing with cars and crowds of (hopefully) festive shoppers, get ready for a surprise. The sad truth is parking lots across America sit mostly empty even during the consumerism frenzy that is Black Friday. The culprit? Mandated parking minimums.

parking minimums

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The average person may not be aware of local laws requiring private property owners to maintain huge numbers of off-street parking spaces. And they probably also aren't aware of the many ways these laws and their outcomes harm communities.

Black Friday is the perfect chance to get aware. If we have too much parking on the busiest shopping day of the year, what does that say about the other 364 days? When you realize how unnecessary all this parking is, how can you not get aggravated?

Chances are, your own community has mandatory parking minimums. Whether you're opening a clothing store or building a duplex, your city's zoning code likely has a "parking minimum" that mandates, say, 1 space per 300 square feet of retail or other arbitrary parameters that aren't based on real demand.

Meanwhile, you've likely seen shopping districts with far less parking (think walkable downtown areas with cool shops and restaurants) successfully manage shopping crowds and stay financially productive. It can be done—without creating paved-over dead zones of empty space that could surely be used to make a community stronger and better.

#BlackFridayParking is a nationwide event, hosted by StrongTowns.org, that's meant to draw attention to the economic harm caused by minimum parking requirements. Each Black Friday, participants post photos of dramatically under-used retail parking lots. Click here to learn more about the event and here to see a round-up of last year's photos.

The last thing most cities need is more parking lots. They are the least valuable use of urban land, a city's most precious and scarce resource. They promote car travel rather than walkability and produce little to no financial value.

Plus, parking lots are expensive. A typical parking space costs between $5,000 and $10,000 to construct, and all that asphalt must be maintained, too. The fiscal costs are staggering—and they don't even take into account the opportunity costs, the "what might have been" factor.

Excited to participate in the Strong Towns #BlackFridayParking Challenge? Here's how:

STEP 1: On Friday, November 29, head out to a local shopping area (you were probably going to do that anyway!) and snap photos of the underused, largely empty parking lots in your town. Be creative!

STEP 2: Upload your photos to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram with the hashtag #BlackFridayParking.

STEP 3: Include a note about how that parking lot could be put to better use in your community. (Housing? Offices? Park? You decide!) It's also helpful if you note the location of the parking lot and estimate how full it is.

STEP 4: Check out other people's photos from across the country.

It's that simple. Snapping and sharing your #BlackFridayParking photos fuels the movement to convince cities to quit paving over America and find better uses for their land.

We want communities to take a deeper look at how parking minimums really affect them. The #BlackFridayParking Challenge is a great way to get the conversation started in your town.


11 Reasons We Must Stop Paving Over America

Excerpted from www.strongtowns.org, founded by Charles L. "Chuck" Marohn, Jr. Marohn is author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity (Wiley, October 2019, ISBN: 978-1-119-56481-2, $25.00).

All across North America, mile upon mile of paved surfaces sit empty or nearly empty. That's because most cities have mandatory parking minimums requiring private property owners to provide and maintain a certain number of off-street parking spaces. These laws wreak financial havoc on communities and the citizens and business owners who live and work there.

Intuitively, most people understand that cities don't need so much parking—especially considering how financially strapped most are. But to drive (pun intended) this point home, each year on Black Friday, Strong Towns readers take to the streets and snap photos of near-empty parking lots at malls, big box stores, and strip malls, as part of their #BlackFridayParking Challenge.

Read on to learn why communities in North America must stop mandating the construction of excessive parking lots:

The Fiscal Cost of  parking minimums

It's expensive to build. It costs between $5,000 and $10,000 to construct a typical surface parking stall (including the value of the land it occupies). A parking space in a garage can cost between $25,000 and $50,000. A 2018 study by the Mortgage Bankers Association shares that the parking in Des Moines, Iowa, has a total replacement cost (what it would cost to rebuild all of it from scratch today) of $77,165 per household, or 60 percent of the cost of the median-priced home in Des Moines.

Parking minimums are brutal for small businesses. Small, locally owned businesses have to put a huge percentage of their overhead into building and maintaining the required parking spaces. Compare that situation to a large chain retailer or restaurant, and you'll realize that parking minimums put national corporations (with deep pockets) at a large competitive advantage over local businesses.

Excessive parking impacts housing availability. In cities facing affordability and supply crunches, developers who build parking pass the cost on to the tenant—whether that parking was required by a local law or would have been included anyway. Seth Goodman at Reinventing Parking did an analysis in 2015 and concluded that a parking space adds (with much variability) an estimated average of $225 in rent per month.

Parking costs the public sector. Some claim that parking lots require little to no ongoing service cost because they require few services. However, this argument misses a key point about infrastructure costs. Infrastructure—roads, sidewalks, pipes, gas and electric, etc.—exists to serve productive land uses, that is, places where people are. By devoting a large amount of land to parking, cities spread those productive uses farther apart. The costs of this are very real—and paid for by the public at large, through local government and utilities.

Parking imposes indirect, but real costs by reinforcing car dependence. Devoting so much land to parking has a "spreading out" effect that makes walking, bicycling, and even public transit become less viable transportation options. Parking—especially mandated, ample, free parking—reinforces car dependence. That means that some of the real costs of driving—from tailpipe emissions to health impacts and 40,000 deaths per year—can be laid at the foot of parking requirements.

The Opportunity Cost of Parking

In North America, free parking is so much a part of the landscape that we rarely think about what else might have been. The question that must be asked is, "What's the opportunity cost?"

In some cases, it's that a developer can't build much-needed housing. Or that a prospective small business owner can't build an amenity, such as a grocery store in a food desert. And a local government can't collect much-needed taxes from potential taxable properties. A few examples:

Opportunity Cost for Businesses and Developers

Parking minimums often impede the traditional development pattern. Even when the zoning code allows a mix of uses (like an apartment above a store), allows buildings to come right up to the sidewalk, and allows a fine-grained mix of smaller structures, parking minimums make an old-fashioned Main Street impossible. The parking simply takes up too much land.

Structured parking isn't an easy answer. Structured parking refers to enclosed parking in an underground or above-ground garage. This saves land relative to a surface lot, but it is up to ten times more expensive to build, so it may not be an option except where a development opportunity is valuable enough to justify the expense.

Parking requirements can price out viable development projects. It's not just that rent in a new building must be higher to cover the cost of building parking. Often, that cost is higher than what the market will bear.

Imagine that you are a developer, and you believe you can get $1,400 a month in rent for a new two-bedroom apartment. Without parking, maybe a rent of $1,350 will cover operating expenses and pay back your construction loan. Add a three-story parking garage, and perhaps the rent needed to break even jumps to $1,600. If you can't find a tenant willing to pay that price, you can't move forward with the project. And this goes double for subsidized affordable housing. These projects have very slim margins between viability and non-viability; a parking minimum can easily derail them.

Opportunity Cost for Cities and Citizens

Understanding the idea of places versus non-places helps us understand just how much we are giving up when we mandate excess parking. Places are destinations a person would go out of their way to purposefully visit, like residences, workplaces, sidewalks, parks, and plazas. Non-places are the padding between destinations like roads, freeways, and landscaping "green space." Parking lots are non-places.

Here are some ways parking minimums carry an opportunity cost for cities and citizens:

Parking dramatically impedes walkability. The lack of ability to walk conveniently and safely between destinations is an opportunity cost of parking. Even though malls, giant shopping complexes, and restaurants and shops may be in close proximity, they are often surrounded by a no-man's land of parking lots. Huge gaps in street space created by parking lots depress walking by creating a feeling of desolation for anyone outside a motor vehicle.

Parking takes land out of productive use. Land is finite. Every bit of it not put to productive use carries an opportunity cost.

Public on-street parking occupies street space that might have gone to another use. It might have otherwise been recreational space, like a parklet. Or an expanded sidewalk, which could house café seating. Or a bike lane. Weigh the value of these alternatives against the benefits of devoting the space to parking.

The message is clear: Parking minimums affect your city's financial strength and resilience. Once you understand how utterly destructive, indefensible, and baseless they are, there's no going back.


About the Author:

Charles L. "Chuck" Marohn, Jr., is the founder and president of Strong Towns and the author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.



About the Author

Charles L. Marohn, Jr.
Charles L. "Chuck" Marohn, Jr., is the founder and president of Strong Towns and the author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. He is a professional engineer (PE) licensed in the state of Minnesota and a land use planner with two decades of experience. He holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's of urban and regional planning, both from the University of Minnesota.