Answers to 12 Questions About California Assembly Bill 1401

Assembly Bill 1401, one of the most closely-watched land use bills in the California State legislature this year, would remove parking requirements in "High Quality Transit Areas" statewide.

June 15, 2021, 9:00 AM PDT

By Donald Shoup

@DonaldShoup


Metro STation

Jarrett M / Flickr

AB 1401 is a bill in the California Legislature that will prohibit cities from requiring off-street parking within a half-mile of public transit stops in transit-rich areas.

Why should California prohibit its cities from requiring off-street parking? The statewide consequences of parking requirements give the Legislature a dozen excellent reasons to prohibit parking requirements in transit-rich areas.

In cities, the politics of parking are local. Drivers support parking requirements because they want convenient free parking. NIMBYs support parking requirements because they want to limit development. City planners and council members who don't want to confront angry voters have little incentive to reform their parking requirements.

At the state level, the politics of parking are not local. California aims to build affordable housing and reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and carbon emissions, but parking requirements do the opposite. By prohibiting off-street parking requirements in transit-rich areas, AB 1401 will promote the goals of more affordable housing and less traffic congestion, air pollution, and carbon emissions. By reducing driving, AB 1401 will also promote other state goals, such as increasing active transportation and reducing fatal traffic accidents.

Despite parking requirements' popularity at the local level, AB 1401 has done well in the California Legislature, passing in the Assembly by a vote of 51 to 17 and now being considered in the Senate. When legislators consider all the statewide harm caused by local parking requirements, AB 1401 makes perfect sense.

To understand why the state should prohibit parking requirements in transit-rich areas, we should first examine the results of the parking requirements themselves. Parking requirements are a subsidy for cars and a barrier to new housing. As a result, California has free parking and expensive housing. In practice, the dream of abundant free parking has turned into a nightmare of traffic congestion, air pollution, expensive housing, and growing homelessness.

Here are my answers to twelve questions about removing parking requirements in transit-rich areas.

1. What are the costs and benefits of parking requirements?

The costs of parking requirements are hard to see, but city planners should be able to grasp them. In The High Cost Free Parking, which was published by the American Planning Association, I argued that parking requirements do immense damage and create severe inequities. They raise housing costs, subsidize cars, encourage sprawl, increase carbon emissions, degrade urban design, prevent walkability, damage the economy, and penalize everyone who cannot afford a car.

To my knowledge, no member of the planning profession has argued that parking requirements do not cause any of these high costs. "The Pseudoscience of Parking Requirements," an eight-page article in the APA's Zoning Digest, summarizes these costs. Parking and the City, an edited book with 51 chapters, reports the results in cities that have reformed their parking policies.

If parking requirements produce no benefits other than ensuring ample free parking, city planners should support AB 1401. Free parking is not worth more than affordable housing, clean air, walkable neighborhoods, good urban design, and a more sustainable planet. Our misguided parking requirements block progress toward many goals that planners care deeply about—from building affordable housing to slowing global warming. AB 1401 may be the simplest, cheapest, and quickest way to achieve these goals.

2. Why should state legislators vote to ban parking requirements in transit-rich areas?

If parking requirements are politically popular in cities, why would state legislators vote to ban them in transit-rich areas? Here are two major reasons.

First, the federal and state governments give cities billions of dollars every year to build and operate mass transit systems. Nevertheless, most cities require off-street parking for every building on the assumption that nearly everyone will drive everywhere they go. Parking requirements work against all the transit investments.

For example, Los Angeles is building a subway under Wilshire Boulevard, which already boasts the city's most frequent bus service. On parts of Wilshire Boulevard, the city requires 2.5 parking spaces for every dwelling unit, even for the smallest apartments. Constructing the required parking increases the cost of the apartments and results in fewer residents riding public transit.

Second, and much more important, city council members mainly consider the local politics of parking requirements, but state legislators must weigh the statewide consequences. When all these consequences are considered, the state legislature has excellent reasons to prohibit parking requirements in transit-rich areas.

3. Is AB 1401 a one-size-fits-all policy?

Some opponents have argued that AB 1401 is an inappropriate one-size-fits-all mandate. But AB 1401 refers only to "High Quality Transit Areas." The Southern California Association of Governments has produced a map of these areas, showing that AB 1401 will not affect most of the region.

In contrast, cities impose one-size-fits-all parking requirements for the precise number of parking spaces for every land use. For example, Modesto has parking requirements for 49 different land uses. These requirements are precise, arbitrary, and sometimes ridiculous, like the one for beauty colleges: 2.5 parking spaces per station. No one knows how these requirements were set because, as one planner said, their origins are "lost in the sands of time."

Cities that require a precise number of parking spaces for every building cannot unhypocritically complain that AB 1401, which affects only transit-rich areas, is a one-size-fits-all policy.

4. Will removing off-street parking requirements overcrowd on-street parking?

Opponents of AB 1401 have argued drivers will park on the street if a building doesn't have enough off-street spaces. But there is a cheaper and better way to prevent parking spillover. Instead of requiring off-street parking, cities can better manage on-street parking. One simple strategy is to allow the residents of any block to adopt an Overnight Parking Permit District. These districts prohibit overnight parking on the street except by residents and prevent nonresidents from storing their cars in front of residents' homes.

Los Angeles, for example, charges residents $15 a year (about 4 cents a day) for overnight parking permits. Residents can also buy guest permits for $1 per night. Enforcement is easy because officers need to make only one visit during the night to cite all cars parked without permits. If residents don't want an overnight permit district on their block, the spillover problem can't be that bad. Permit parking districts are a politically feasible way to begin managing on-street parking.

5. Should cities impose parking requirements in order to sell parking variances?

Some opponents of AB 1401 have argued that parking requirements are flexible because cities sometimes issue planning variances in response to special circumstances. Sometimes the special circumstance is a donation to a bureaucrat or politician.

When cities establish parking requirements, city officials have something to sell: a reduction in the parking requirement. Just as the medieval Catholic Church sold indulgences for the remission of sins, cities can sell planning variances, legally or illegally. In Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor of Seville explained why the Church was popular even though it threatened Hell as the punishment for minor sins: "Every sin will be forgiven if it is done with our permission." Similarly, if cities require off-street parking, officials can forgive the sin of providing fewer than the required number of parking spaces.

Seeking a parking variance from city hall sometimes resembles buying an indulgence from the medieval church. Money goes in and favors come out. Removing parking requirements will eliminate the temptation to sell parking variances.

6. How will removing off-street parking requirements affect development?

Removing off-street parking requirements will reduce the risk of development. Requiring developers to ask for a variance increases the riskiness of their projects because everyone has the legal right to oppose the variance and extract concessions, even when parking is not the opposition's real concern. Local opposition to a parking variance can make it appear that everyone wants more parking when what the opponents really want is to stop development. If a city allows development without parking, the objections to granting a parking variance will vanish, and developers can propose financially viable by-right projects.

Parking requirements prohibit housing without parking. NIMBYs use these parking requirements to exclude lower-income residents from their neighborhoods. Requiring two spaces per housing unit, for example, gives developers an incentive to build fewer and more expensive units rather than more and cheaper ones. One study found that after Oakland introduced its first parking requirement of one space per apartment, construction cost per apartment rose by 18% and the number of apartments on a typical lot fell by 30%. Developers said adding an apartment required another parking space but enlarging an apartment did not, so they built fewer but larger apartments and devoted more land to parking. Another study by U.C. Berkeley's Terner Center found that structured parking increased the cost of building affordable housing in California by about $35,000 per unit. AB 1401 should therefore allow more affordable, mixed-income neighborhoods.

7. Will removing minimum parking requirements make cities less livable?

One opponent of AB 1401 wrote, "Prohibiting agencies from requiring parking for any new homes, housing, businesses, or other development within 1/2 mile of a transit stop is to condemn every resident and every small business within that radius to a miserable existence if any at all."

Removing off-street parking requirements may once have seemed unthinkable, but it's thinkable now because many cities have already done it. Berkeley, Buffalo, Edmonton, Hartford, Oakland, Minneapolis, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, and South Bend have removed their parking requirements. New Zealand has prohibited off-street parking requirements in the whole nation without condemning everyone to a miserable existence; in 2021 the Economist magazine rated Auckland the world's most livable city.

8. Do transportation engineers insist on parking requirements?

Transportation engineers are often cited as the source of parking requirements, but in 2019, the president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers recommended eliminating all off-street parking requirements.

9. Will removing off-street parking requirements promote compact development?

Parking requirements prevent compact development. AB 1401 will make compact development more financially feasible. Saying that prohibiting off-street parking requirements will promote compact development is like saying that prohibiting foot binding will promote healthy feet. Both statements conceal the fact that there was anything wrong with the previous policy.

Prohibiting parking requirements will not prohibit parking, and cities do not need off-street requirements to have off-street parking. AB 1401 will allow local homebuilders in transit-rich areas to provide as much parking as they estimate families will demand. Homebuilders and their lenders have a strong incentive to provide the right amount of parking in new housing because without sufficient parking, fewer people will want to buy or rent it. Commercial developers and their lenders also have a strong incentive to provide parking because without adequate parking fewer people will want to shop or rent space in it.

City planners and councilmembers do not know more about the demand for parking than local homebuilders do. Consider all the things planners don't know when they set a parking requirement: 

  • How much the required parking spaces cost.
  • How parking requirements limit the housing supply.
  • How parking requirements increase the price of everything except parking.
  • How parking requirements affect architecture and urban design.
  • How parking requirements affect travel choices and traffic congestion.
  • How parking requirements affect air pollution, fuel consumption, and CO2 emissions.

City planning students learn nothing about setting off-street parking requirements, because their professors know nothing to teach them. Planning for parking is an ad-hoc talent learned on the job and is more a political activity than a professional skill. Despite a lack of theory and data, planners have managed to set parking requirements for hundreds of land uses in thousands of cities—the Ten Thousand Commandments for off-street parking. These parking requirements are a fertility drug for cars.

10. Will removing off-street parking requirements increase developers' profits?

Some opponents of AB 1401 have argued that all the cost savings created by removing parking requirements will increase land values and developers' profits rather than reduce rents for housing. But few people are willing to pay the same rent for two apartments that are identical except that one has no parking and the other has two spaces. Apartments with less parking will have lower rents. Car-lite families will capture the value of the smaller parking supply in the form of lower rents or purchase prices.

When Los Angeles removed parking requirements for office buildings converted into apartments, tenants whose apartments did not come with parking paid about $200 a month less.

11. Will removing off-street parking requirements harm people with disabilities?

AB 1401 exempts accessible parking spaces from the ban on parking requirements. Cities can continue to require parking for people with disabilities. Parking for people with differing abilities can become more of a priority. Planners can focus less on accommodating every person with a car and more on designing for people with disabilities.

12. Will removing off-street parking requirements harm low-income families?

Mandating ample off-street parking is a poor way to help low-income residents, many of whom cannot afford a car. Small apartments cost less to build than large, luxury apartments, but their parking spaces cost the same. Because many cities require the same number of spaces for every apartment regardless of its size or quality, the required parking disproportionately limits the supply and increases the cost of low-income housing. One study found that parking requirements raise housing costs by 13% for families without cars. We have free parking and expensive housing.

Another study found that one space in a parking structure costs at least three times the net worth (assets minus liabilities) of more than half of all Hispanic and African-American households in the country. Because cities require parking spaces at home, work, stores, restaurants, churches, schools, and everywhere else, there are several required parking spaces for every household. The parking may be free to drivers, but all residents bear the heavy cost in higher prices for everything else. Carless households pay more for food so richer drivers can park free at the grocery store.

The only way a low-income family can take advantage of planning-required parking spaces is to buy a car they can ill-afford, and they may pay a ruinously high interest rate on a car title loan. Although one parking space costs more than many drivers are worth, cities compel every household to pay for several off-street parking spaces even if they don't own a car. In a misguided attempt to provide enough free parking for every driver, cities have inadvertently created a serious economic injustice by forcing poor people to pay for parking spaces they can ill afford.

Conclusion

A city where everyone happily pays for everyone else's free parking is a fools' paradise. Cities have been so complacent about the economic, environmental, and social costs of parking requirements that the state is entitled to act. AB 1401 will help California reduce housing costs, air pollution, and carbon emissions.

The federal government has the same goals of reducing housing costs, air pollution, and carbon emissions. To achieve these goals it could give all states an incentive to enact laws like AB 1401. For example, the U. S. Department of Transportation could increase its local transportation grants by five percent for any city that does not prohibit housing without parking. The way for cities to get extra transportation funds would be to remove parking requirements for housing.

Although parking may seem too small to be of statewide importance, it is the largest land use in most cities. Parking may also seem too local to be of national importance, but Homer made the Iliad from a local row. AB 1401 can benefit California, and laws like it in the other 49 states can benefit the entire nation.

Donald Shoup is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA. His research has focused on transportation, public finance, and land economics. In his 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup recommended that cities should (1) charge fair market prices for on-street parking, (2) spend the revenue to benefit the metered areas, and (3) remove off-street parking requirements. In his 2018 edited book, Parking and the City, Shoup and 45 other academic and practicing planners examined the results in cities that have adopted these three reforms.

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