The Paradox of Minimum Parking Requirements for Bars and Taverns

Zoning codes that mandate a certain number of parking spaces for businesses that serve on-site alcoholic beverages are inconsistent with law enforcement's campaign against drunk driving, says Eric de Place.

The parking-to-floor area ratio in Vancouver, BC, is 1-to-60; Seattle and Portland, 1-to-250; and Boise, Ida., 1-to-300. With this ratio, "bars in Portland and Seattle are legally obligated to provide almost as much on-site parking as they set aside for customers," de Place points out.

He continues, "There's no better measure of our perverse relationship with cars than the fact that nearly every city and town in North America has laws requiring drinking establishments to provide parking, and yet roadside memorials to victims of drunk driving are mostly illegal."

De Place's solution? Make the existing requirement zero. "It's that easy," he says.

Full Story: Law and Order and Parking Lots




I've been saying this for years. It makes no sense whatsoever to require parking at taverns. If you don't live in crawl distance, you lose. Everyone else wins!

Drunk Driving

The problem isn't the drunk part, it's the driving part.

I once had an argument with a Brit friend about our obsession with drunk driving. I asked him "How did you get home from your pub in England?" He answered "I walked." I asked him "What was the worst thing that could happen?" He replied "I once fell down and got a bloody nose." Nuf said.

Better discussion about parking at bars, please?

This post raises an interesting question, but is misleading on the facts. It also avoids the real planning implications of the issue. I would be intrigued and impressed if family or friends were discussing this, I am disappointed by the level of discussion among planners here.

You're making it sound like there's a lot of parking mandated for places specializing in hard drinking. When I look at the codes, I see the references include the higher parking requirements for restaurants that hold a liquor license. That would be an Applebees. How many people who go to Applebees have a drink with their meals? How many have more than one drink with all the food they consume? Among those who do have more than one drink and might be impaired, how many have a designated driver with them? It would seem difficult for a planner to argue that the amount of parking shouldn't be similar to the amount provided for other land uses in auto-dependent communities all across the country.

Now on to the real implications. Let's consider the real saloons where people belly up to the bar. If you were to institute a code that did not require parking, you could be creating a problem by building out properties that could not be easily used for other uses, since other land uses would require parking. Planners should be sensitive to the risk of littering the landscape of their towns with bars that went out of business and then the properties couldn't be sold.

Of course, the issue could be addressed with appropriate setback/open space requirements to ensure the building coverage left enough open space for future owners to provide parking. There may be issues about what happened with all that open space. Perhaps the bar could use the space for outdoor seating, like a beer garden, but maybe there would be a lot of concerns about noise. You might allow coffee trucks or some other type of temporary commercial stands, but then again existing businesses might be concerned about competition from spaces that don't require as much investment and have a lower overhead.

This isn't to say it couldn't, or shouldn't, be done. It's just that there's a more detailed, and more interesting, conversation that planners should have if they want to raise the issue of parking requirements for businesses that serve alcohol.


1st, nobody goes to Applebee's - their food sucks and their drinks are watered down. Everytime I pass by thier parking lot at dinnertime 4/5 of the spaces are empty.
next, "since other land uses would require parking" is WRONG. Modern humans have survived and thrived for thousands of years and only have been using automobilies for the last hundred. There is no land use that "requires" parking. Alternatives to autos produce far higher levels of economic activity per meter of land consumed for mobility and access. Many urban businesses thrive without providing parking. Driving is not a "right" it is a privelege based on your ability to do so safely. Parking is not a right either, it is a use that has consequences and impacts and it should be regulated. A fair percentage of the population is unable to drive (or park) and taking land for that purpose has an opportunity cost to them. Private establishments may provide parking if they wish to use thier land that way, but mandating parking is unnecessary, for any use, especially for uses that leave people unable to safely operate a vehicle.
Do you allow for lesser parking mandates if the property owner agrees to charge for parking - I'll bet not, even though that is proven to lower demand. Your code just forces businesses to provide free parking and pass the charges on to customers who may not even be able to drive. Evidence has shown that parking is destructive of most of the ends planners are tasked with advancing. Requiring large setbacks creates an autodependent built environment that is hostile to pedestrians and makes walk distances between uses inconvenient. Large lots and wide gaps between uses limit the opportunities available in a fixed walk distance. Forcing a tavern to provide parking or set aside land because it "might" go bust and another business "might" want to use that land - is imposing a heavy cost based on pure hypotheticals.
It's not that eliminating mandated parking at taverns ends all drunk driving, or there won't be parking available anywhere nearby or even that businesses will provide less parking if it's not mandated, who knows. But, if someone comes into my city zoning office and requests to build a place that's primary business is selling alcohol to be consumed on site, my conscience and my learned wisdom says requiring them to build parking spaces is a bad idea. Instead of bowing to the supremacy of the auto-garchs why don't you think creatively about providing alternate means of access. What if instead, taverns had to be near transit and open hours were tied to the hours of operation for the transit system, then they might be interested in funding it late at night when it otherwise requires a high subsidy from taxpayers. How about taverns provide free cab rides ($5000/parking stall would buy quite a few cab rides). Or what if taverns could only be placed in areas where there was sufficient residential density in a 20minute walkshed (1 mile) to support the business. No government should ever force a tavern to provide parking. It doesn't pass the smell test...

Not wrong - different discussion - be honest!

Nothing I posted was wrong. You are misrepresenting what I wrote, and really talking about something different.

Almost all your points are addressing the overarching issue of parking requirements. If you want to get on a soapbox about whether zoning should require them or not, that's fine. But don't confuse that macro issue with a pragmatic discussion of how parking requirements (where they DO exist) should address drinking establishments.

I never said government should force bars to provide parking - I said there are practical issues that should be addressed, AND I proposed a few examples of possible solutions.

Please reread the post, and this time try to engage in a more thoughtful and intellectually honest discussion, rather than calling names.

Thank you very much.


So because I have a different opinion I'm not "Thoughtful and intellectually honest?" I don't see anywhere that I called you a name. I have no problem with your position as a valid opinion, but I disagree with it. I directly quoted the part of your statement that is wrong - the assertion that other future uses might require parking. I also made the point that your proposed solution of requiring setbacks is actually part of the problem that creates auto-dependent built environments. I gave a few solutions of my own as well. We disagree, please don't make it personal and don't belittle the intellect of people who hold opposing views.
If you want a thoughtful discussion, answer these questions: What is the public purpose that justifies a government forcing a tavern to provide parking that it does not want to provide? Should we pursue that purpose even when it conflicts with the societal/government interest in protecting public health and safety?
I think that the author's proposal to stop setting parking minimums for taverns, in line with other uses that do not require parking, is prudent and should be implemented as widely and quickly as possible.

Let's be clear

Please reread what you wrote. You were not, and still are not, being honest.

Can you honestly say that a phrase like: "bowing to the supremacy of the auto-garchs" isn't name-calling? (Moreover, that accusation simply cannot be supported by any reasonable interpretation of anything I wrote...)

Nor can you say that you even tried to make a legitimate argument that a family restaurant that serves drinks has a significantly different demand for parking than a strictly dry restaurant by saying "their food sucks" at the neighborhood location of the particular chain given as an example.

You ask: "What is the public purpose that justifies a government forcing a tavern to provide parking that it does not want to provide?" Yet that is a gross misrepresentation of what I wrote; nothing I stated even remotely indicates that taverns should be required to provide parking.

It is impossible for any reasonable person to believe terms like "auto-garchs" isn't name calling, and that statements like "their food sucks" is an honest discussion, or that lying about what somebody else wrote is appropriate.

Full stop.

Ok. Now, if you truly do want to have an honest discussion...

My comments were clearly written within the context of a community that has parking requirements as part of its zoning. Perhaps you just misunderstood, and did not mean to misrepresent the quote you took out of context? In case it wasn't clear, "other land uses would require parking" in order to conform to the zoning requirements governing the other uses.

In terms of the public purpose question you raise, let's be clear. There is an obvious public purpose in ensuring properties can reasonably transition from one permissable land use to another, in order to protect the community from the harms of abandoned properties.

Perhaps you underestimate the problems of allowing significant investments in buildings that cannot be repurposed. Perhaps you have little experience working with abanoned properties in your community. It would be reckless for a planner to knowingly allow a permanent building to be constructed if it would have to be demolished to make the lot conform to the zoning requirements for other land uses. And you really wouldn't be doing the owners any favors by allowing them to encumber the property in such a way, likely without a full understanding of the potential harm to its value.

I appreciate your concern about setback requirements, but only up to a point. Your refusal to consider ways that setbacks could be used positively, as I indicated, shows you are not listening and considering other ideas. How could you even suggest that a beer garden or outdoor cafe filling a lot with outdoor seating would make a neighborhood less walkable? Adding a coffee cart on the lot, another possibility I mentioned, would clearly not decrease the walkability of any community, as your statements about setbacks implicitly suggests. (It sounds like you didn't bother to read and think about the examples I provided.)

And your discussion remains confused. Are you proposing to eliminate all the parking requirements (and setback requirements as well), or just those for establishments that allow drinking? More often, you sound like you are proposing to get rid of parking requirements altogether. That's a fine position, one clearly worth arguing for (although likely not a pragmatic suggestion yet in many communities). But if that's the case, requirements for establishments that allow drinking is a moot question.

If you aren't talking about a complete overhaul of the zoning code, and are talking exclusively about land uses that permit the consumption of alcohol, then you still have not addressed the lack of rational basis for the large disparity in treatment between a family restaurant that serves alcohol and one that does not.

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Rome grey gold tie

Tie one on to celebrate your city!

Choose from over 20 styles imprinted with detailed city or transit maps.
Planetizen Courses image ad

Planetizen Courses

Advance your career with subscription-based online courses tailored to the urban planning professional.
Starting at $16.95 a month