Buffalo Becomes First Major U.S. City to Eliminate Parking Minimums

Photo:  Buffalo Rising
Photo: Buffalo Rising

In a major breakthrough for walkable cities, Buffalo, New York, has adopted a new zoning code that eliminates parking minimums.

Since the 1940s, parking minimums have required developers to include a base number of spots, with the amount of parking depending on the type of building. These rules subsidize parking and driving to the detriment of walking and transit. Like many cities, Buffalo is scarred by parking lots and pocked with garages built to satisfy the mandates.

Some American cities are taking measures to roll back minimums in downtowns and other limited areas. Buffalo has gone much further, eliminating them citywide. The move is expected to improve the market for development in Buffalo, which hollowed out during the decades when the region sprawled and the city planned for cars, rather than people.

Robert Steuteville at the Congress for New Urbanism’s Public Square blog explains how this change and a number of others included in the code will benefit Buffalo:

Buffalo became the third major US city to adopt a form-based code (FBC) for the entire city, after Miami and Denver. Many other cities and towns have adopted FBCs for portions of the municipality — the Codes Study counts 362. The Green Code, like other form codes, focuses on regulating urban form rather than separation of uses. In doing so, these codes are designed to improve the public realm — making it more human-scale and pedestrian friendly.

Buffalo’s code breaks new ground in that it eliminates minimum off-street parking requirements citywide. “Many cities have selectively eliminated minimum parking requirements, such as Rochester, which eliminated them downtown. But Buffalo will be the first in the United States to eliminate minimum parking requirements citywide,” reports The Buffalo News. It will stop forcing developers to build parking lots that damage walkability and let the market decide how much parking to provide.

The elimination of minimum parking requirements will make some projects more financially feasible, and the transparency and predictability of the Green Code should also encourage builders once they get used to the new system.

The Green Code addresses street design in a meaningful way. Also from The Buffalo News: “The public will now have more say in how streets are designed. Improvements in the right of way will be reviewed for the first time as part of the planning board review process.”

What we’re also reading this morning: Green City Blue Lake explains why opening up Public Square to buses in Cleveland would benefit everyone. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reports that people walking and biking now account for half of the city’s traffic deaths. And Daniel Kay Hertz digs into data on declining Chicago bus ridership and finds that data from a single month has skewed the numbers.

  • djconnel

    The Republican Party, led by Trump, should be all over this approach since it allows the free market to determine the optimal supply of parking, rather than a government mandate. Result: this spreads like wildfire through the red states? 🙂

  • betty barcode

    One of the ways that parking minimums damaged pre-automobile cities like Buffalo is that they rendered landlocked buildings economically useless. To comply with minimum off-street parking requirements, developers who wanted to restore & reactivate vacant, pre-automobile buildings (of which Buffalo is rich in) would basically have to buy two of them and demolish one in order to provide the mandatory parking lot. Lots of otherwise viable buildings went to the landfill because of off-street parking requirements and the result was a gap-toothed streetscape.

    For generations, automobiles made all of our city planning decisions. Unlike some of my aging baby-boomer peers who cannot imagine life without their cars at their sides at all times, I am delighted that this era is ending.

  • Hoboken Urbanist

    The funny thing is that most Republican and Trump supporters are likely for parking minimums and more parking. On the Hoboken facebook page, people are always complaining when spots are removed or how they need more parking. Many of these individuals happen to be Trump supporters. When someone suggests an increase in the parking rate to help open up more spots, they flip out.

  • Yeah I’m not sure if this is sarcasm or not, because it seems like Republicans SHOULD appreciate the free market aspect of this approach. But nah, conservatives tend to hate this kind of thing. They like the free market when it benefits them or lowers their taxes; if it means someone building something they don’t like next door, or raising their parking rates (even if there’s good economic cause for doing so), they flip out. They somehow turn it into the government taking away their rights, as though they have a right to control what their neighbors build and how they live, or a right to pay no more than x dollars per hour for a parking space on public land.

  • ohnonononono

    This gets rid of minimum off-street parking requirements, but replaces them with a “transportation demand management plan” requirement. It looks like a step forward replacing inflexible auto-oriented standards with ones that focus on actual demand across all modes. But it will be interesting to see how that pans out for reusing old buildings and building new infill: http://www.buffalogreencode.com/December_2016/Art_8_Dec_2016.pdf

    A transportation demand management (TDM)
    plan must be prepared for certain development
    projects, as follows:
    1. A TDM plan is required for new construction
    of a principal building in excess of 5,000
    square feet.
    2. A TDM plan is required for substantial
    renovation of a principal building with a gross
    floor area of at least 50,000 square feet and
    involving a change of use.
    3. A TDM plan is not required for single unit
    dwellings, double-unit dwellings, or
    any project in a D-C, D-IL, or D-IH zone,
    irrespective of the above requirements.

    B. A TDM plan must be reviewed and approved,
    approved with modifications, or disapproved by
    the City Planning Board as part of major site plan
    review per Section 11.3.7. No building permit or
    certificate of occupancy may be granted prior to
    approval of a required TDM plan.

    TDM Performance Standards. In making its
    decision, the City Planning Board must make
    written findings of fact on the following matters:
    1. The project includes performance objectives
    to minimize single-occupancy vehicle trips
    and maximize the utilization of transportation
    alternatives to the extent practicable, taking
    into account the opportunities and constraints
    of the site and the nature of the development.
    2. The project must meet the anticipated
    transportation demand without placing an
    unreasonable burden on public infrastructure,
    such as transit and on-street parking facilities,
    and the surrounding neighborhood.

    ^ That last sentence has me skeptical that this is quite as momentous as it sounds in eliminating parking requirements citywide. I can imagine a future where the Planning Board is pressed to disapprove TDMs for projects that don’t provide “enough” off-street parking to placate surrounding NIMBYs fearful of competition for their on-street spots. It sounds like a developer still wouldn’t be able to come build a large project that meets zoning but has no off-street parking. So it may be an elimination of parking requirements in technicality only.

  • bolwerk

    It’s because they’re still unwilling to fund proper transit, or they aren’t nimble enough to adjust transit routing/service to respond to real-world demand. Maybe they don’t even have the political power to do so, of course.

    Being prepared to run more buses in a suddenly busier neighborhood, or convert some busier bus lines to rail, must be a part of post-autocentric transportation planning. And it shouldn’t be a very politicized process. There should be a mechanism that does it when it’s needed. Instead it probably takes a year of board-level wrangling, some public hearings, etc..

    Nobody calls a public hearing because 50 more cars show up though. Which is more disruptive? 3-4 more buses an hour or 50 more cars?

  • Alex Brideau III

    Yeah, in my experience the modern-day GOP tends to espouse a “fair-weather free-market” philosophy. That said, while many Dems tend to favor eco-friendly measures, the Democratic Party tends to be more center-left and the powerful “center” portion of the party would likely balk at facing any inconvenience in parking their (hybrid) cars. 🙂

    Interestingly, if we’re talking political parties, I think getting rid of parking minimums is one of those rare issues that would unite Libertarians and Greens … for different reasons, of course.

  • It should be, but it’s not because of eight years of Alex Jones, et al. screaming that removing parking minimums is part of Obama’s communist “Agenda 21” plans to stuff everyone into tiny boxes and dictate their lives.

  • laldm109

    Generally, the NFTA does add buses when demand requires. If you look at the rationale for schedule adjustments they post on the individual route pages on their website, the rationale is often “bus added to eliminate overcrowding.” They typically keep their buses pretty full, but react pretty quickly to changes in demographics.

  • bolwerk

    Yeah, believe me, I wasn’t trying to knock Buffalo transit. Haven’t used it, but from what I’ve read it is pretty good, certainly for a city that size.

    Still, I somehow doubt they have the ability to handle a meteoric increase in demand – which is exactly what I think they should be encouraging.

  • Judah

    This is pretty interesting stuff. Well equipped developers in NYC generally hire land use counsel and go the demand-based route for accessory parking requirements through a variance action with a separate agency, which often takes about a year to get through. From what I understand, this essentially makes that by right. Makes sense.

  • Alexander Vasilenko

    Except it is the Red cities with the parking requirements…

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