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Cities Need Housing. Parking Requirements Make it Harder

California was a pioneer in minimum parking mandates, which drive up housing costs and climate emissions. Now the state is ready to lead the nation in reclaiming our cities from parking lots. 

There’s a crisis plaguing cities throughout the U.S. that’s driving up poverty, homelessness and carbon emissions. It lowers quality of life, brings respiratory illness and makes cities less affordable. It also makes our streets more dangerous — and it’s entirely preventable.

The culprit: minimum parking requirements, which force developers to set aside vast amounts of valuable land and construction budgets to create vehicle parking for residential and commercial buildings alike. These outdated planning policies make it difficult to build more multi-family homes within urban boundaries, fueling an unprecedented housing shortage that is entirely artificial in origin. 

As a California state lawmaker and a prominent urban planning researcher, we have long promoted policies and research that underscore the ill effects of America’s parking addiction. Now we are hoping that California can lead the nation in reclaiming our cities from parking lots: Introduced by Assemblymember Friedman in the California legislature this month, Assembly Bill 1401 eliminates parking requirements for new buildings near public transit and in walkable neighborhoods. Supported by Professor Shoup, it is the first statewide effort we are aware of that prioritizes affordable homes for people above parking for cars. 

If the bill reaches the governor’s desk and is signed into law, it would transform California’s built environment by reducing the cost of housing and slashing climate pollution from cars. And like many California laws, it could also lead to copycat efforts in cities and states around the U.S. that are seeking affordable housing, clean air and a sustainable planet. The Biden administration’s $2.2 trillion American Jobs Plan specifically calls out mandatory parking requirements as a barrier to affordable housing. Given the new, more ambitious climate goals that President Biden recently announced — halving greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 — such regulations could also play an important role in the nation’s decarbonization story. 

We’ve essentially built many of our cities for cars, and made housing for humans incidental.

The failure to reform parking policy has brought severe consequences, including making urban life less affordable. According to the Terner Center for Housing Innovation, more than two-thirds of California cities require at least two parking spaces per home in multi-family housing. The average cost of garage parking is $23,000 per space, and whether they drive a car or not, residents pay every penny of that cost. Minimum parking requirements even apply to low-income housing projects where many residents can’t afford to own a car. 

Research at UCLA has also found these parking mandates lead to more cars and more driving. One study in San Francisco found that requiring one parking space per home in affordable housing more than doubles the likelihood of its residents owning a car. The result: more air pollution, increased risks to pedestrians and cyclists, and slower public transit. 

The situation gets bleaker when you look at the urban footprint of parking: Los Angeles was a pioneer in parking mandates, introducing them nearly a century ago. Since then, an astonishing 200 square miles have been sacrificed to parking within the city. That’s four times as much land as in the entire city of San Francisco. The problem isn’t exclusive to our coastal megalopolises, either. Across the U.S., there is an average of 1,000 square feet of parking per car — but only 800 square feet of housing per person. 

We’ve essentially built many of our cities for cars, and made housing for humans incidental to that use. First, developers must build the parking and then, the city lets them build the housing. 

So how did we get here?

The history of America’s love affair with car culture is vast and complicated, but the big push to let parking take over our cities came in the post-World War II era. During this time, massive government subsidies for freeways and suburban sprawl created demand for new automobile infrastructure. Most parking requirements were an outgrowth of this era.

In this era of climate change and a crisis of affordability, we have to reclaim urban land for people. Ending mandates for parking is a vital contribution to this project. AB 1401 does just that. It still gives developers the option to add parking if they feel it is needed. But it would also clear the way for more housing choices for residents who don’t want to pay for parking and prefer cheaper, more sustainable transportation options.

The California legislature, like many elected bodies across the U.S., has made strong commitments to addressing both the housing affordability crisis and the climate crisis. While parking reform isn’t a silver bullet to solve these problems, it is a vital ingredient — and one that’s already gaining traction: Many cities in California have already made the leap to break free from the high cost of “free” parking. San Diego and Oakland have eliminated parking minimums near transit, while San Francisco and Berkeley have eliminated them citywide; San Jose, home to some of the most parking per capita in the state, is also considering major reform. 

Still, these harmful requirements remain in place in most cities, reinforcing the need for statewide action to address California’s climate, transportation and housing challenges.

It will be hard to reverse 50 years of car-oriented land use — but it will be harder to solve these problems without doing so.

To put a new spin on an old song: “Let’s build paradise, instead of a parking lot.”

Laura Friedman represents California’s 43rd Assembly District, which includes the cities of Burbank, Glendale, and northeastern Los Angeles County. She chairs the Assembly Transportation and Natural Resources Committees, and is the lead author of Assembly Bill 1401. 

Donald Shoup is distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning in the University of California, Los Angeles Luskin School of Public Affairs and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking. 

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