by BEN WOOSLEY
A few months back, Erica C. Barnett of Slog and our own Andrew called for parking maximum mandates for new construction in Seattle. Now, I can understand the appeal of parking maximums. After all, parking-induced sprawl ranks with pollution as one of the worst effects of cars. But I’m more than skeptical of such maximums – not only does the evidence show we’re making good progress without them, I suspect they’re downright counterproductive to the mass transit cause. Surprised? Read on…
Big Bad Brix?
Erica gives the example of Brix condos’ 1.2 parking spaces per residential unit as an example of development gone awry, being inconsistent with the supposed will of Seattle’s people, who removed minimums downtown in 2006, and the lifestyle the surrounding urban landscape supports.
But it’s unfair and misleading to single out Brix’s parking ratio when it’s significantly lower than, for instance, Belltown’s average of 1.5; and Brix was already under development in 2006, when the minimums were dropped downtown. Do we really expect them to redesign their building on short notice to serve an unknown market? Developers and their creditors are understandably somewhat conservative when putting millions of dollars on the line, but this naturally changes with time, as developers experiment and discover parking-free housing to be viable.
And sure enough, if we look at more recent developments, we’re seeing evidence of that change, with planned parking ratios as low as 0.9 in high-rise housing, and as low as 0.67 at “medium-rise” fare such as Moda.
Selling to Whom?
Erica goes on to say:
The problem with simply eliminating minimum parking requirements is that developers can still build as much parking as they want—and that extra $20,000-$30,000 gives them a strong incentive to do just that.
The idea that the extra expense of a parking space is somehow an incentive to build it only makes sense if people are willing to pay for that substantial extra expense. If not it’s just dead weight, and the extra expense will make those units less marketable and reduce the demand for that unit. It all hinges on how many buyers are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a cement box to put their car in.
It’s not hard to find evidence of developers looking to earn the housing dollars of car-free urban buyers such as myself: Moda here and The Civic in Portland, for example, build units with the express purpose of offering them at lower cost, without parking attached. Other developers, wondering where this sort of development can fly, are putting the question to the public.
So again, added expense is not some irrepressible incentive. It’s an incentive only to the extent that people are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to have a place to store their cars. This willingness is dependent on the real needs and desires of people, including ourselves. The corollary being: the better car-free parking sells, the more examples of it we’ll see in the future, and the lower parking ratios will go. As such, it’s incumbent upon us to consider our own options when we make a move. Might you be able to find a better deal by also taking care to support your ideals?
But Andrew here focuses on the areas around light rail stations. Isn’t it reasonable that we should have less parking there? The answer, of course, is a resounding yes, and it’s easy to predict that they will typically have lower parking ratios than buildings elsewhere, even without intervention, because transit serves them better so the buyers see less value in a parking space and aren’t as likely to be willing to pay a premium for one.
But even in this situation we should hesitate from putting maximums in place, because maximums can absolutely do more harm than good. If a maximum actually reduces the number of spaces that are built, it must also reduce the value of the properties that could be built there. If not, entrepreneurial builders themselves would build at those rates, once they understood the demand was there. But push maximums below their natural equilibrium and the value of development in the restricted area will be less because many people aren’t willing to live the transit & car sharing lifestyle just yet, so those units will have more supply than demand. When you reduce the demand to live in a certain area by imposing restrictions on the ways those people can live there, you naturally reduce the builder’s incentive to build housing in that region. So while you’re “saving” space by not building parking, at the same time you’re taking potential housing space away, because the builders won’t build as high, or as quickly.
When you reduce the amount of housing around these stations, you reduce the most obvious, frequent source of ridership. When you reduce ridership, you reduce the real value of the entire transit network. Fewer people ride, so fewer business pop up to serve the ridership. Fewer employees can easily use transit to commute to these businesses, and fewer employers settle along the line, because it connects them to fewer employees and customers. At the same time, it makes areas with unrestricted parking relatively more attractive, encouraging development there. It’s a policy which encourages the city to migrate away from transit, not towards it. All because fewer housing units were built, because we were too eager to realize a future which will come on its own, in time.
The Real Problems
So I’d say the problem is not that we need to force the evil developers to do what “the people” want them to. Nor do we need to discourage people from living around transit with inflexible limits. Parking maximums are unnecessary and counter-productive. But there are other great ways to help push the ball in the right direction.
We can start by fighting to get Seattle to drop it’s remaining minimum parking requirements. There’s no good reason people should be forced to buy a cement car-box along with their house just because they don’t live downtown. That’s the ridiculous part, that’s the part against the will of the people. It also happens to be the cause of a number of other problems, such as a higher cost of housing and the unimpressive architecture of townhomes.
Likewise, Erica mentions so-called “unbundling” regulations which require parking to be sold separately from housing. I think these are a great way to help transit users opt out of parking, while ensuring buyers are explicitly confronted with this car expense.
Finally, we can keep fighting and voting for better, more responsive transit system. Rather than attempt to drag drivers out of their cars, why not entice them with a fast, frequent, reliable system which they want to use? IMO it’s a much friendlier way to build a city, and the challenge forces us to create better answers.
 Another fundamental problem is that these maximums are inflexible, and reality often calls for flexible limits. For example, not all light rail stations are created equal. Some, more urban sections of the line will be more likely to be able to fulfill the needs of the residents, while a person living on a more suburban section of the line might have a life which does not fit so neatly around the station. Many of these people, faced with living a “complete” car-only life, or a new and different transit-only life, will choose the former. So residences at the end of the line should rightly have higher parking ratios, but how much higher? And how should those ratios change over time, as the city matures and grows? I don’t know; does anyone, really?
And that the problem. A city has to mature into a certain rate of parking. This takes time, and is contingent on having a useful, comprehensive transit system. Imposing inflexible limits retards growth in just those areas which are in transition, and slows their progress.
 But let’s say you really hate parking, so much so that you want to actively discourage people from having it. Let’s say you have a good reason, like the costs cars impose on society, through the cost of infrastructure (which doesn’t come close to being covered by the gas tax), or various negative externalities. If that’s the case, the good way to combat these effects is not to institute parking Maximums. Economists have been studying externalities for a long time, and the answer they’ve come up with is the Pigovian tax.
When something has social costs unborn by the buyer, a tax on the product itself can make the buyers act as though they would if they did have to bear that cost. Placing a Pigovian tax on the building of parking spaces would not only decrease the parking ratios of new residential buildings, but the local government collects money along the way. This money can be used to, say, finance transit, or pay for the roads which aren’t nearly covered by the gas tax, or lower regressive sales taxes!
Not only do you discourage parking, and collect funds which would otherwise have to be collected some more harmful way, but you do so in a flexible way. For people who didn’t quite really need a car, $10,000 in taxes can tip the balance toward a life of transit and car sharing. People on the end of the line will still need parking space, and they can have it, it’s just somewhat more expensive. But it’s more expensive across the city, not just around the terminal, so there’s no incentive to live outside of some small regulatory zone. A Pigovian parking space tax discourages car ownership across the city, rather than discouraging development where we want it most.