As a longtime transportation advocate who mostly bikes and takes transit, I have unusual feelings about parking.
The other day, I drove to my optometrist, which I had never done before (my bike was in the shop). When I arrived, the tiny lot was full, and I had to drive around looking for parking. But instead of feeling irritated, I actually felt joyful that my optometrist wasn’t making it too easy to park. “This is how it should be!” I thought to myself. Of course, I did find a spot, and only had to walk a block, but I also found myself resolving to take transit the next time my bike is in the shop.
I understand that most people don’t feel that way. It’s annoying to drive somewhere and not have a convenient place to park. Removing parking is controversial, often so controversial that bike lanes or other needed projects are scuttled over the issue.
But there are approximately two billion parking spots in the US, amounting to between three and eight spots for every car on the road. In the past, an overabundance of parking seemed like a civic good because it allowed drivers to easily find places to park wherever they went. But most of these spots sit empty most of the time. Space that could be used to build denser, more affordable communities or to create parks, bike lanes, or vibrant pedestrian areas is instead devoted to storing big, inefficient, climate-destroying metal machines.
Parking reform, which to TransForm means changing policies and implementing programs to “right-size” parking, has so many benefits for all of us. At a recent staff meeting at TransForm, Grecia Mannah-Ayon, TransForm’s brilliant Housing Policy Manager, asked staff to share ways that parking reform has benefited us personally. For many, our first reaction was, “Hmm, I don’t think it benefits me personally.” But after a moment of thought, every person in the room came up with something meaningful.
For one person, it was the parklets that enlivened their neighborhood during deep COVID lockdown. Someone who walks a lot noted that bike lanes provide a buffer from car traffic and makes their walks more comfortable. Another team member appreciated the way traffic-calmed streets are a place where kids can ride and play without fear. Someone else mentioned how bus-only lanes had made their commute faster.
What is parking reform?
Parking reform is simply changing the rules about how much parking we build and how it’s managed to enable communities to use space for other purposes besides storing cars.
The biggest benefit of parking reform is more housing at all income levels because including high ratios of parking adds to the cost of housing construction and may even make projects infeasible. More and more, state and local policymakers are moving in the right direction: removing parking minimums and enabling other strategies to right-size parking. TransForm’s Parking Revolution/Housing Solution report outlines many of these strategies. When developers don’t need to set aside as much space for car parking, they have more square footage and more money to build units for people.
California’s parking reforms allow new homes to be built with little to no parking. Unbundling parking from apartments (separating the costs of parking from rent) leads to cheaper rent for people who don’t need the spots and fewer parking spaces sitting empty. Allowing for shared parking lets neighboring businesses, churches, or residential buildings use existing parking more efficiently.
In January, when the Daylighting to Save Lives law (AB 413) takes effect, we’ll gain another benefit from parking reform. By banning parking within 20 feet of crosswalks, daylighting will make it easier for drivers to see people crossing the street and prevent collisions and pedestrian injuries.
When we begin to reclaim our space for uses other than car parking, we open up our shared spaces for new uses: linear parks, outdoor restaurant seating, parklets, bike lanes, bus boarding islands, wider sidewalks, greater pedestrian visibility, and more. Instead of paving our cities, we pave the way for thriving communities.
How parking reform has benefited me personally
Grecia’s question initially stumped me. But after about five seconds, I smacked my forehead! I have benefited personally in an enormous way: Berkeley, where I live, used to require two off-street parking spaces to add an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). A few years ago, though, they changed the rules. So in 2020, we built a one-bedroom house in our backyard. Without that change, we wouldn’t have been able to add a new housing unit, even though our neighborhood has plenty of street parking, is within walking distance of three BART stations and countless bus lines, and is steps away from a prime bike boulevard.
At the moment, we rent our little house to a postdoctoral researcher (who happens to get around by bike and bus), creating a housing opportunity that wouldn’t have existed without parking reform. Eventually, I hope, my mom will move into the unit so that she can be close to family as she ages, or one of my kids may live there during their young adulthood. The unit we built adds permanently to Berkeley’s housing stock and is relatively affordable.
When we right size parking, we gain so much. How has parking reform benefited you and your community? Do you have new protected bike lanes or bus rapid transit lanes? Will daylighted intersections make your children safer as they walk to the playground or school? Did a favorite restaurant stay open through the pandemic because it used a parklet?