Cities Should Ditch Their Minimum Parking Requirements

My wife and I moved to Los Angeles last year. Like most new Angelenos, we got sticker shock the first time we looked for apartments. They were all so expensive (even by Portland standards) and far from spacious. One other thing that surprised us, though, was the parking. The apartments we looked at came with small bedrooms, small living rooms, and small kitchens. Yet somehow, they all came with at least one free parking space, and usually two. Most of the apartments devoted almost as much space to parking as they did to living! For a city with a massive housing crisis, LA seemed to have no problem finding plentiful housing for cars.

Even in car-centric LA, you would expect that a few people would be willing to forego a parking space if it meant lower rent. Especially for apartments near UCLA, which are filled with students who can walk to campus. Unfortunately, the City of LA doesn’t allow its residents to make that choice. That’s because of one of the most important but least well-known city policies around: minimum parking requirements.

Minimum parking requirements make it illegal to build almost any building without providing lots of parking. I’ll pick on LA throughout this post, but almost every city across the country has these regulations in their city code. In LA, if you want to build an apartment, you can’t do so unless you build at least one parking space per bedroom. Each parking space in an underground garage can cost up to $80,000, and those costs get passed along to renters. That’s one of the many reasons why housing is so expensive here in Southern California. We’re forced to pay for a lot of parking, regardless of how much of it we want.

If you want to build a restaurant in LA, you need to build a parking space for every 100 square feet of restaurant floor. The average parking stall takes up 320 square feet. That means newly constructed restaurants in LA are over 75% parking! As COVID has shown us, we’d be much better off using that space for dining instead of parking.

These requirements apply to virtually every type of development, so they get pretty wacky. Want to open a music school for adults? You’ll need a parking space for every 50 square feet. For a bingo parlor or a church, though, you’ll need a space for every 35 square feet. How do cities come up with these numbers? Well, they make them up, or they copy some other cities’ code, who made them up.

Because cities require developers to build all that parking, we end up with cities that look like giant parking lots. I love historic main streets, and lots of cities are proud of their downtown areas. But they constructed almost all of them before minimum parking requirements. Now, as Strong Towns points out, it’s illegal to build those same main streets in most cities around the country.

Cities say they want the picture on top (Pocatello’s main street, present day) but their codes create the one on the bottom (Houston’s downtown, 1980's)

Fortunately, a couple of cities have realized how harmful these requirements are. In 2017, Buffalo repealed minimum parking requirements citywide. In 2019, San Diego repealed them near bus and rail stations. After all, if there’s anywhere a city should stop mandating extra parking spaces, it’s right next to public transportation. The state of California is currently working on a statewide bill that would accomplish a similar goal.

What happened when Buffalo and San Diego repealed their parking requirements? The sky didn’t fall! In Buffalo, about half of new projects built less parking than previously required, but the other half kept building just as much parking. Ditto for San Diego. There too, many developers kept building parking. However, affordable housing production increased, as it was no longer burdened by the parking requirements.

This is the key distinction: ending minimum parking requirements doesn’t outlaw parking. It just stops mandating it. Some buildings need a lot of parking; they’ll continue to have it. But without this onerous regulation, cities allow for many types of development that would otherwise be impossible. For example, without parking requirements, it’s far easier to create affordable housing. It’s also easier for family-owned restaurants and other small businesses to get started, because they don’t need to spend so much money up front on parking. Through all these decisions, our cities can start to look less like giant parking lots and a little more like, well, cities.

Minimum parking requirements were supposed to make it easier to get where you were going. Instead, they make where you were going worse. They make housing more expensive, they drive mom-and-pop businesses out of the market, and they fill our cities with strip malls and big box stores. Forward-thinking cities should ditch minimum parking requirements and reap the benefits.

I write about transportation, land use, and their intersection. Current grad student. Former and future plangineer.