How to Accelerate Parking Reform in U.S. Cities

Step one: stop talking about parking so much.

Image:  Piqsels via Creative Commons
Image: Piqsels via Creative Commons

To get more cities to finally reform their outdated parking standards, we need to stop talking about “taking away” spots and focus on what we all stand to gain, like an accelerated path to ending climate change.

That’s one of the findings of a new report from the Institute for Transportation Development and Policy, which examines the perennial question of how to build support for common-sense parking reforms, such as rationally pricing spaces, removing minimum parking requirements for developers, and more readily allowing residents to use empty curbside asphalt for literally anything else. 

But unlike the countless studies that have used stats to outline the benefits of cutting car storage — from reducing emissions to curing congestion to curbing VMT and on and on — this study instead explored the messaging and organizing tactics that might actually sway those who most often stand in the way. (Think: your change-resistant mayors, business owners, financial lenders, and local drivers who are most resistant to reform.)

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“At this point, parking reform is a political issue more than a policy issue,” said researcher and People for Bikes alum Martha Roskowski, who was the lead author on the report. “We know exactly what we need to do, based on the work of academics like Donald Shoup. To me, it’s about mustering the will to take it on in the face of opposition that cuts across all these demographics.”

To understand what an effective parking reform effort actually looks like, Roskowski and her collaborator, the Institute’s Michael Kodransky, identified 40 experts who have been in the trenches of the debate for years, such as the National Association of City Transportation Officials and grassroots organizations like Portlanders for Parking Reform.

But some of the most insightful interviews came from unexpected sources, like Walmart’s head of real estate John Clarke, who implied that bureaucratic inertia at the city level might be a bigger problem than big-box bloat.

“We are driving the reduction in parking, rather than the cities,” said Clarke. “We would ask for variances below their minimum requirements, and they were always approved. Most places are still using codes from 15 years ago. [But] every retailer wants the exact size [parking lot] they need.”

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Of course, not all retailers realize that removing the often-massive maintenance obligation we call a parking lot could save them money without costing them customers — or that if the city-subsidized spot outside their door goes away, their business will often increase as foot traffic does.

For skeptical stakeholders, the experts agreed it was less effective to rub a random study in someone’s face than to deliberately frame a proposed reform around what the skeptic stands to gain from losing a spot, using intelligible, compelling language and graphics — and making sure you emphasize what they care about, rather than what you think they should care about.

“One of the things that I think we can do more of in terms of messaging and communicating, [for instance, is] speaking directly to affordability,” said Naomi Doerner, co-founder of the Untokening and director of equity, diversity and inclusion for Nelson Nygaard. “We could build more affordable housing if we didn’t have as much parking. … We need great graphics, a way to visualize it: For a family of four, based on percentage of AMI, [if] you’re living in the city, how much of your rent is actually parking costs? What would the potential savings be? De-wonk it, make it visual, do better communications.”

Roskowski also noted the importance of good storytelling to build public support for parking reform, like Streetsblog’s own semiannual Parking Madness competition.

Image: Portlanders for Parking Reform via Parking Reform Network.
Image: Portlanders for Parking Reform via Parking Reform Network

Of course, solving U.S. cities’ parking problems will take more than just convincing individual skeptics one at a time. In the second half of the report, Roskowski and Kodransky detailed 10 recommendations for campaign organizers who want to speed up parking reform more broadly, including which stakeholders it’s most important to reach.

There’s already proof that the approach works. Kodransky noted that the recommendations were similar to the strategy the Institute for Transportation Development and Policy itself used in its “Less Parking, More City” campaign in Mexico City, which galvanized the mayor, the urban planning secretariat, local real estate developers and more to abolish parking minimums and make parking maximums the norm.

“By the end, there really was a rising wave of voices that said, ‘All this parking is not doing anything good for our city,'” Kodranksy said.

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There may be no more important time for advocates to organize around local parking reform than now. That’s because the impending federal infrastructure bill may soon force hundreds of thousands of parking spot across America to do double duty as EV charging stations — even though scientists agree that we must focus on shifting away from driving of any kind to avoid planetary disaster.

“EVs won’t save us from climate change, but parking reform might,” Kodransky noted. “Right now, there’s an overemphasis on EVs as a solution to our greenhouse gas emergency. But if we reform parking, we have to think about how to give people access to mobility in other ways than just driving, which opens up a much more important conversation.”

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