Parking Reform

There’s been some talk in the blogosphere lately about DC’s building height limit and the potential benefits for lifting it. That’s important, but at the moment there’s no more important issue for the future of urbanism in DC than the Office of Planning’s proposal to change the parking requirements for new development in the city. At the moment, the main reason large swathes of DC are very nice places to live is that most of the city’s buildings were built before the current rules were put in place. Another important contributing factor is that it’s possible to get the requirements waived. But the existing requirements, as applied to small buildings, destroy the urban character of the city while, as applied to large buildings, unduly hamper redevelopment of large underutilized parcels.

Today comes the news that reform got a big boost as the Zoning Commission offered largely favorable remarks on the proposal to mostly scrap the parking minimum requirements.

This issue, it should be said, really hits hard in rowhousey areas that became afflicted by blight in decades past and now are making a comeback. Some of that comeback simply manifests itself in existing structures being renovated. And so far so good. But part of the legacy of blight is a lot of “missing” buildings, vacant lots, or underutilized open-air parking areas. As neighborhoods like that become more desirable, what one wants to see is new infill development filling those gaps. That adds vitality to the neighborhoods, makes neighborhood retail more viable, and helps keep the price of housing from spiraling out of control. But current parking requirements typically make it illegal to build a new building that’s just like the old buildings in the neighborhood — instead you need to build much more parking, in a way that’s often just impractical on a small lot. This becomes a major burden on the neighborhood as a whole, with vacant spaces simultaneously degrading quality of life and artificially pushing up housing costs.

But beyond that specific case, mandatory minimums for parking are just generally undesirable. They promote economically inefficient use of space which brings down everyone’s material standard of living. They involving richer-than-average car owners getting, in effective, subsidies from poorer-than-average non-owners, which is stupid. They promote excessive levels of traffic which is annoying for people who drive. And they fail to internalize the full costs of car ownership, which encourages higher-than-optimal levels of driving, which is bad for public health and the environment. Most of all, though incumbent residents naturally worry about the potentially deleterious impact on their existing parking arrangements, this can be resolved through “performance parking” programs. What can’t be resolved is that fact that with existing minimums in place, new development risks destroying the city rather than providing it with new vitality as it ought to.