March 29, 2011

Kicking Parking Minimums to the Curb

In the mid-20th century, many American cities started to require a certain number of parking spaces be built any time a new commercial or residential development was created. The assumption was, more people would equal more cars, in a consistent ratio over time, and therefore space must be provided for both side by side. But this also meant requiring that some of the most valuable real estate in the world be used storage facilities, and these facilities have drained downtown vibrancy and the cars they store have clogged downtown streets and airways. Today cities are beginning to rethink parking minimums.

Minimum parking requirements often produce more spaces than are actually necessary to support the community, which encourages excessive auto travel, leading to congestion, increased carbon and other harmful emissions, and to higher carbon emissions and can lead to landscapes which discourage walking, bicycle and mass transit.

San Francisco is on the forefront of American cities that have done away with parking minimums. Low residential population in San Francisco’s downtown meant congested streets during the day, and a near ghost town at night, as worker left and empty parking garages dominated the landscape. In 1973, the Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority (BART) opened, giving commuters another transportation option, and allowing the City to eliminate its downtown parking minimums and institute a maximum of just one space per four residential units. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the city’s progressive parking policies fanned out from Downtown into neighboring residential districts, lifting parking minimums for residential units in the Mission Bay and Rincon Hill districts.  And today, the City is beginning to institute parking maximums that cap the allowable number of spaces to manage transportation demand even more actively. “To some extent (parking maximums) have been achievable because they have been part of a larger package of policy and infrastructure and other changes for neighborhoods as a prerequisite for development,” reports Joshua Switzky of the San Francisco Planning Department.

The elimination of parking minimums in central San Francisco neighborhoods has made streets more attractive to bikers and pedestrians.
The elimination of parking minimums in central San Francisco neighborhoods has made streets more attractive to bikers and pedestrians.


Portland, Oregon joins San Francisco in the ranks of highly innovative parking policies that encourage a return to sustainable land use and walkable, transit-oriented downtowns. In 1992, Portland set the goal of a 10% reduction in both vehicle miles traveled and parking spaces per capita over the course of two decades. Through eliminating parking minimums and instituting maximums in central commercial and residential districts (as well as sites within 500 feet of a public transit line), incentivizing developers to include bike parking or space sharing in development plans, and investing in public transit, the city of Portland has successfully improved its air quality, enhanced its urban form and decreased residents’ reliance on automobiles for downtown commuting.
And of course some European cities [link to MK’s earlier blog post] are getting even more aggressive about limiting the number of new parking spaces a new development can install, prioritizing investments instead in more transit-friendly, walkable and bikeable new developments.

Read more case studies in our European and United States parking reports.


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