OPINION: Progressives Should Look To Outlaw Parking Minimums

AOC is insisting that her endorsees commit to ending single-family zoning. She should require them to discourage car use, too.

cars cars cars AOC

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political-action committee, Courage to Change, came out with a new Council candidate questionnaire that asks anyone seeking her endorsement to commit to ending single-family zoning and encouraging density and mixed-income development. The move earned her accolades in the housing world, and as a fellow socialist, I, too, applaud AOC for enthusiastically bringing to the fore progressive housing policy.

Nicole A. Murray
Nicole A. Murray

A progressive agenda for cities means creating the conditions for public transit to win: Residents of cities with dense housing with storefronts tend to support and use buses and subways. But another feature of zoning is just as critical for any reform serious about promoting transit and dense housing and mitigating climate change: ending mandatory parking requirements. 

Such parking requirements force developers to supply a minimum number of off-street parking spots, which results in lower housing densities and transit use, and higher vehicle densities and more driving, along with higher rents. These outcomes undermine the Green New Deal’s stated goals of mass affordable housing and high transit mode share.

AOC has addressed parking minimums in Congress, by sponsoring a bill in 2019, “A Place To Prosper Act,” that would have denied federal roadway funds to municipalities that, among other things, enforce “requirements for off-street parking for housing.” (It died in the last Congress.) In any event, such measures lend themselves more readily to local pushes; more than 200 American cities have eliminated them in recent years, according to the Parking Reform Network. AOC’s candidate questionnaire contains language promoting “multi-modal transit and walkable communities,” but she explicitly should insist that her local endorsees oppose parking minimums, too.

Like single-family zoning, minimum parking requirements were designed and advocated by businesses and executed by governments in order to shape urban spaces for the benefit of certain industries — and a certain kind of resident. Originally pushed by the likes of The American Auto Association and Automotive Safety Foundation (which is associated with “automotive and allied industries“) to accommodate the influx cars in the post-war years, the parking requirements enshrined in the zoning law that has guided city policy since 1961 have mandated residential and commercial storage space for thousands of vehicles, regardless of proximity to (current or future) transit, the transportation needs and demographics of residents, or even local air quality or traffic-safety statistics.

Here’s a few ways the mandate causes transportation and housing itself to fail:

  • It’s expensive: Each spot raises the rental cost of each housing unit. A survey of eight New York City parking garages found that the average per-stall construction price for a space was $205,552, or $615 per square foot. Inevitably these costs — which can total many thousands of dollars —are passed on to renters, whether or not they have a car.
  • It’s a space eater: A parking spot in New York must be 102 inches by 18 feet. That means that this new 99-unit, mixed-use development in Sunnyside, Queens — that is, in AOC’s district — will have 99 parking spots taking up at least 21,114 square feet (not including aisle width), or about 31 apartments-worth of space. Car-less residents outnumber car owners in that ZIP code 17 to 3.
  • It creates congestion: According to parking guru Donald Shoup, a mere one-unit hike in parking requirements is associated with an increase of 6,000 vehicles per square mile.

These reasons alone should goad city and state governments to strike parking requirements from the books. Getting rid of the minimums will get us most of the way there, but binding maximums are needed, too. Some housing advocates think that developers never want to build expensive parking stalls, so the stalls make a good bargaining chip for affordable units or other concessions. But without maximums, the city could see developers adding even more parking spots than the requirement in order to cater to high-income motorists who will pay a premium to avoid taking the bus. In fact, the above-mentioned 99-unit Jackson Heights development, which is around the corner from the No. 7 train, is zoned to require at most 50 parking stalls. The Real Estate Board of New York, to name one giant local lobbying group, opposes parking maximums, as a way of catering to its luxury clientele.

Parking requirements hurt renters, who must pay more in rent for the amenity whether they drive or not, and carless transit users, who do not derive any benefit from private resident parking. Rather, it is fossil-fuel and auto companies that gain through the state-mandated and renter-subsidized storage of their products. Robert Moses couldn’t dream up a better deal to keep mass motoring alive.

Vitality comes to a city when you build housing, not parking — not even for electric cars. It’s time for progressive and socialist policymakers to tackle parking regulations so that we can build a brighter, greener, more equitable urban landscape.

Nicole A. Murray (@nicoleamurray) is a member of the Ecosocialist Working Group of NYC-Democratic Socialists of America.

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