Senior Philly Planner, Unlike NYC Peers, Says Parking Minimums Matter

City Planning needs to decide whether to legalize this parking garage make its illegal extra cars
City Planning is currently considering granting a special permit to this 44th Street parking garage to allow it to buck the Clean Air Act and store 90 more cars than currently allowed. Image: ##,+NY&sll=40.760987,-73.994665&sspn=0.004006,0.009602&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=332+W+44th+St,+New+York,+10036&ll=40.759105,-73.990211&spn=0.000501,0.0012&t=h&z=20&layer=c&cbll=40.759059,-73.990102&panoid=tOjiCEhSM__NQXr2KA0zwA&cbp=12,274.69,,0,5##Google Street View##.

We reported last week that Boston, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. are each making policy shifts to curb the proliferation of off-street parking even as New York City continues to enable the construction of more and more traffic-inducing, land-devouring parking.

Streetsblog followed up with Debbie Schaaf, a senior transportation planner at Philadelphia’s planning department, about her city’s new direction on parking policy and how it compares to the state of parking policy in New York. Our conversation highlighted a rift between policy makers in the two cities, suggesting that under Amanda Burden, New York’s city planners have lurched out of sync with their peers on the issue of off-street parking.

The policy changes in Philadelphia are advancing on two fronts. Right now a rewrite of the zoning code is tightening parking minimums, and in the longer-term, the city’s new comprehensive plan calls for the institution of parking maximums. “We don’t want to overload the city with too much parking, which can encourage more automobile traffic,” explained Schaaf.

New York’s Department of City Planning, in contrast, has denied that there is any meaningful relationship between the amount of off-street parking required by the zoning code and car ownership rates. “It is not the requirements themselves that influence car ownership, but rather, housing density and distance from the core of Manhattan, among other factors, such as the habit of  families with children to select housing in lower density areas where parking is available,” concluded DCP’s 2009 report addressing parking requirements.

Schaaf said she did not agree with New York’s position and that parking requirements and car ownership are indeed related.

She listed a number of reasons Philadelphia is trying to limit the amount of off-street parking that gets built. “It should make development more affordable,” she said. “It should make development more pro-transit.” She also said that less parking would mean a more sustainable city with better air quality.

Maximums, explained Schaaf, will eventually be an important part of Philly’s parking policy portfolio. “Developers sometimes are forced to provide more parking even than they think they need, either by lenders or by community groups that want more parking,” she said. “If you have a maximum in place, it would make it a little bit easier to resist that.”

While New York City has parking maximums in parts of Manhattan and Long Island City, the current Department of City Planning habitually grants requests for special permits to ignore them.

The maximums in the core of New York City date from the 1970s, when the city responded to lawsuits brought under the Clean Air Act. Despite the passage of PlanNYC nearly four years ago, under the Bloomberg Administration, New York has failed to build on its inheritance of progressive parking policy. While cities like Philadelphia are trying to curb traffic by preventing the oversupply of parking, New York has seemingly forgotten what it once knew about the connection between congestion and parking.

  • *sigh*…yet another city goes straight from parking minimums to parking maximums without stopping in between at the market equilibrium. We all acknowledge that maximums are bad, but can’t we at least TRY allowing developers to build as much or as little parking as they’d like? Parking maximums are almost surely the lesser evil, but you’re not going to win any conservative/libertarian support for much-needed reforms if you start imposing parking maximums rather than just doing away with the minimums and leaving it at that.

  • Terry

    I agree with your argument, but Ms. Schaaf makes a good point: community groups often demand more parking. Parking maximums might allow developers to stick to certain parking amounts rather than caving to local pressure. As much as we might want it to be the case, market forces aren’t the only thing influencing development.

  • Two things:

    1. I see your point. Then again, community groups have the power to grant zoning variances today (even if it’s a de facto power), and under a future “parking maximum” regime, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d still have the power to grant variances and if they used those variances to lift the parking maximums. But again, the point is valid.

    2. One thing that does bother me about her statement, though, is the invocation of “lenders.” Sure, in the short-run banks are very conservative and a few may force developers to up the amount of parking, but at the end of the day lenders are profit-seeking entities with the profits of developers in mind, so I see no reason that over time they wouldn’t adjust. The fact that Schaaf denies this makes me think she’s stuck in the same anti-market mentality that destroyed our great American cities in the first place by forcing them to adapt to the needs of cars.

  • JK

    Um, why should developers and current market demand dictate what our city looks like for the next century or more?

  • @JK—

    Pick a city, any city. See all those beautiful buildings that were built before 1940? Those were built by profit-seeking developers, generally without zoning rules. See all those hideous buildings and parking lots that were built afterwards? Those were built under the guidance of (and sometimes by) your benevolent government planners.

    I’m oversimplifying of course, but given the history of America’s experiments with both market-based and planning-based urban outcomes, it seems to me like a no-brainer.

  • zach



    When we get behind “market pricing” or, better, “free market pricing” we will get conservatives involved. In order to get the screaming car maniacs quieted, we capitulate to lower or eliminated parking lot taxation in exchange for elimination of parking minimums and Shoup-style parking meter rates (which will at least balance out the lost parking lot tax revenues).

    We allow the creation of more parking lots, if that’s what the market demands, and allow for the creation of housing and shopping without parking if that’s what the market demands. We allow people to park on the street if they’re willing to pay what the market demands.

    I’m willing to pay market per square foot rate for parking my bike, my baby stroller, and I would pay it for my dog if I had one.

  • zach

    Can we use Shoup to install market-rate tolls on the tunnels? Congestion pricing can be called “free market traffic.”

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    If DCP believes “It is not the requirements themselves that influence car ownership, but rather, housing density and distance from the core of Manhattan,” perhaps it could test the waters by reducing the parking requirements in those very areas.

  • Shemp

    Not entirely true, Zach. Go back a few weeks on Streetsblog DC and you will see that a state policy to reward the relaxation of rigid zoning codes in hopes of fostering more mixed use development and density is under attack by the Virgina Tea Party. When it comes to planning issues, conservatives are mainly engaged in a culture war based around 20th Century suburban and rural car-based lifestyles. They don’t give a shit about traditional “small c” conservative values like markets or deregulation.

  • zach


    Many conservatives DO care about deregulation, if it’s put that way. Not all of them, and maybe not the loudest ones, but enough to make a difference, particularly if we can put it in their terms: unnecessary regulation, red tape, big government. We need to use the talking points that the right use against them in order to take the wind out of their sails. They certainly do it to the left. We have to make parking minimums feel scary.

    Parking minimums are anti-business. They hinder the construction industry. Parking minimums are socialist. The government shouldn’t be telling private business what to do.

    If people don’t want a parking space, who is the government to tell us we have to pay for one? What’s next, will they tell us we have to have a swimming pool in each housing development? Will they tell us every mall needs a fountain?

  • Shemp, the Tea Party types are right-wing populists. The more libertarian types (though not the Kochtopus) are right-wing liberals. In Europe they’d be members of two separate parties – one on the extreme right, often shunned by the center, and one on the center-right, with enough appeal to win national elections. But in the US they’re one party, so some people who’d be right-wing liberals elsewhere pretend to be more extreme to muster points with the base – and being pro-highway is a politically cheap way to do that.


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