The Case Against Parking Minimums

This year, California has a unique opportunity to grapple with the consequences of one of the most misguided planning ideas: parking minimums. For decades, planners have required new businesses and developers to set aside a certain amount of their projects for parking. Unfortunately, this process of estimating the “right” amount of parking is a broken mix of pseudo-science and paternalism that does not work. But even more pernicious are the values implicit in parking minimums: the idea our government should prioritize productive space not on housing people or jobs but housing cars.

Here in LA County, we have approximately 19 Million parking spaces, almost double our 10 Million residents and over five times our total housing units. We can assume that the vast majority of these are vacant at any given time. A study in King County, Washington, found that almost one-third of parking spaces in apartment complexes sit empty overnight, to say nothing of the overnight vacant parking in commercial zones.

Now, many people’s first reaction to dropping parking requirements is skepticism, given the importance of cars as a symbol of individual freedom to move throughout our city. Cars genuinely can be a crucial step in people’s pathway to economic opportunity, and being able to park a car is a valued convenience.

But arguing that people highly value cars does not mean that the government should mandate how parking is provided for them. That should be left to the market.

I have spent enough time around entrepreneurs to know that they are always hustling to create solutions to unmet human needs. We have evidence from other cities showing that even in the absence of parking requirements, many housing developments still choose to include garages. If Angelinos love their cars as much as purported, there’s no reason for the government to mandate that businesses include parking, rather than letting people and businesses make their own choices.

Every parking space in a new building costs $55,000 to build. Including parking increases monthly rents between $100-300 a month.

By not charging a fair price for storing a car at the end of a journey, mandating parking serves as a hidden subsidy for solo car trips. Not only does this incentivize congestion and air pollution, but it also serves as a tax on the poorest Angelinos who drive less. Cars often cost tens of thousands in upfront costs to buy, and with insurance, gas, repairs, and interest on loans, they can cost several thousand dollars more every year to maintain. Thus it’s no surprise that a 2017 survey found that 84% of bus riders in LA did not own a car, and their median household income was $15,620. Other data shows that residents of South and East LA drive far less than suburban residents of the San Fernando Valley.

When we were first married, my wife and I lived in a small, 12-unit apartment complex where we had two parking spaces but only one car. We were not allowed to rent out the unused space to a neighbor or friend, and our landlord was not inclined to reduce our rent simply because we didn’t make use of the parking space. So instead, valuable land in a dense LA neighborhood sat vacant. Eventually, we moved into a cheaper apartment with no off-street parking spots provided. Not having dedicated parking is occasionally an inconvenience, but in the long run, we are clearly better off because the market gave us an option to prioritize cheaper rent over parking spaces. An untold number of Angelinos never get to make that choice and are forced into more expensive units instead.

Neighborhoods with minimal off-street parking are quite popular with residents and tourists alike. From Barcelona to New York’s brownstones, to Minneapolis’ Milwaukee street, there is such a large untapped desire for walkable neighborhoods that they often become prohibitively expensive for most working people. Giving developers the ability to create more of these neighborhoods in more of our cities would make them more accessible across income lines.

We don’t have to look for how this reform can do good. San Diego ended its parking requirements near transit stops in 2019; it saw a five-fold increase in the housing built around its transit stops. This included 1564 subsidized affordable units created around transit, 1292 more than were created the year before. Many of those units were part of 100% affordable projects that were presumably made feasible because the developers could reduce the cost of providing parking.

AB 2097, a bill currently in the California state legislature, would eliminate parking requirements in the areas of the state best served by transit. Given these immense costs of parking minimums, legislators should consider that bill a key first step in this movement to make our city more affordable for all residents.

Thomas Irwin works for a faith-based non-profit in Los Angeles focused on economic development. He helped start Elevate Equity, a program for under-resourced entrepreneurs, and also works with a network of Southern California churches to advocate for more just housing policies. He lives in East Los Angeles with his wife and son.