Parking Feedback Loops

Tyler Cowen recently did a column lamenting mandatory parking regulations which prompted a bizarre-but-predictable retort from Randall O’Toole who thinks libertarians shouldn’t worry about this kind of regulation. Which wouldn’t be so noteworthy except that O’Toole is the only person who does transportation policy at two different flagship institutions of American libertarianism. Fortunately, Tim Lee was able to chime in on the Cato blog to observe some of the pervasive impacts of mandatory parking lots on the urban fabric.

But I think Lee leaves out what is perhaps the most important dynamic here, the feedback loop.

The building I live in is two years old. Directly to its north is a vacant lot. To its south is a vacant lot. And to its west is a vacant lot. But it’s actually a very walkable area—only five blocks from the corner of 7th and H which is probably the most vibrant spot in the whole city. So a person moving into the building could get by without a car, but also might plausibly want to have one. If the developer had been required to build more than one parking space in the garage per unit in the building then a couple of things would have followed from that. One is that the building would have had to have been shorter, and thus contain fewer units, since it’s not feasible to dig the garage any deeper than its current depth. The other is that parking spaces in the building would have been “free” to anyone who bought a condo. Making it cheaper to buy a parking space would, at the margin, increase the proportion of residents who own cars.


So now you’ve got fewer people, a larger proportion of whom own cars. And what does that mean? Well, it means the neighborhood will support fewer walking-distance retail options. So what does that mean when the apartment under construction on the lot to the north is completed? Well, it means that car ownership is more desirable than it otherwise would have been. Which means a higher proportion of people will own cars. Which, again, means less pedestrian-oriented retail. And you can lather, rinse, and repeat.

It’s perfectly appropriate that some places are built around this dynamic. Everyone owns cars so all the retail facilities assume car ownership so anyone who moves there buys a car. But it’s pernicious that in many metro areas all places are like that. And mandatory parking regulations essentially make their emergence inevitable. There are tipping points where you either have a critical mass of retail that’s meant to be accessed on foot, or else you don’t.