The parking problem: Does form really follow function?

January 28, 2016 Craig Lewis

How minimum parking standards make it difficult to design places for people, not cars


Raise your right hand and repeat after me – “I will work to reduce the negative impacts of automobiles on our cities and towns, beginning with the elimination of minimum parking standards.”

For years I’ve used the phrase “form follows parking” to describe the state of our cities caused by poor site planning and architectural design. I’m really analyzing our profession’s general acquiescence to the dominance of the automobile over our urban form. The influence of vehicles became firmly rooted in our zoning and building codes decades ago. Today, it’s not uncommon to see codes that often exhaustively attempt to regulate every facet of a car’s existence: from the width of a homeowner’s driveway, to the number and size of parking spots it has available while away from home.

However, I believe form should follow people, not cars. Our cities should be formed by what is best for the pedestrian and cyclist, not for the parked car. So today, I make a pledge to advocate for the repeal of all minimum parking standards.  

Why am I making this pledge? It’s simple. Government has been a terrible predictor of human behavior – and minimum parking requirements is a zoning standard predicated on human behavior. It assumes what we drive, how long we park, and how far we are willing to walk. In that zealous desire to ensure that every car has the maximum amount of convenience, we have paved over tens of thousands of greenfields and old-growth forests. We’ve increased stormwater runoff, urban heat islands, and water pollution. Parking lots created by minimum requirements have served to spread communities apart, making them far less walkable and bikeable, ensuring that every building be completely self-sufficient in the unlikely event of a parking catastrophe. Thus, we’ve made land financially inefficient by precluding more income-producing opportunities with largely unused asphalt.


Many shopping center parking lots go largely unused


How did we get here?
When the suburban revolution began following World War II, millions fled the cities in favor of “greener” pastures. But the suburbs came with a hitch – you needed a car to survive. Thus, the automobile had to become a central component in community design. So, while the suburbs were paved with the greatest of intentions, mostly they were just paved.

Thus, minimum parking requirements were born. If the car was going to be the lifeline holding suburbs together, then managing them in their “parked” state (which is nearly 95% of the time) is THE primary requirement. As a result, zoning codes today include a table of minimum parking requirements that span a dozen or more pages.

With 30% or more of our communities covered by asphalt, it’s time for our profession to take action. In 2000, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) recommended 4 to 4.5 spaces per thousand square feet for shopping centers, depending on the size of the center. These numbers are based on peak demand at centers across the country. According to their own analyses, the ULI/ICSC parking ratios “provide for a surplus of parking spaces during all but 19 hours of the more than 3,000 hours per year during which a shopping center is open.”


The Results Are In
Spartanburg, South Carolina chose to eliminate their standards years ago. In doing so, development decisions shifted from being centered around parking cars to being centered around the pedestrian – how close they were to the central square or other amenities. Places for people came first, and parking was more efficiently managed as a collective utility, resulting in individual parcels performing better economically. Smaller buildings in downtown can now be viably reoccupied without the burden of off-street parking standards.

Other cities have followed, like Fayetteville, Arkansas, a city that recently stopped using minimum parking standards citywide and Fargo, North Dakota, a city that discovered the vibrancy that ensues in downtown when parking is no longer the “driver.”

We’ve even seen improvement in places where we were only able to reduce minimum parking requirements to half the prevailing standard. Like Cornelius, North Carolina, and Germantown, Tennessee – the free market took over and each city determined what they actually needed. In many older suburban areas, these unused parking fields are now ripe for redevelopment.


This aerial view shows how much parking can overtake some communities


A Necessary First Step
Removing parking requirements alone won’t solve the problem. Unraveling the web of standards that supports the automobile’s dominance over our cities will take time and a concerted focus around revising zoning ordinances.

If your community isn’t ready to take the plunge, these baby steps will help.

  1. Cut existing standards in half. It still preserves a safety net and finds compromise with those who believe parking standards are necessary.
  2. Eliminate standards for small buildings. The best way to energize a vacant building is not to require more parking to re-occupy it, but less. Consider eliminating requirements for buildings that are less than 5,000 square feet.
  3. Eliminate parking standards in downtowns. In downtown areas, parking should be treated like a utility just like water and power, and managed collectively. Most downtowns are actually plagued with too much parking.

When I wrote my first minimum parking code almost 20 years ago, we cut the current standards in half and it turned out just fine. The parking apocalypse never occurred. Instead, those communities became more compact, more walkable, and more vibrant. Today, I ask you to join me in reclaiming our cities and towns. We can begin by driving a stake in the heart of minimum parking standards.

About the Author

Craig Lewis

Craig Lewis, AICP, LEED AP, CNU-A, is a planner and urban designer in our Urban Places team, with more than 20 years of award-winning experience implementing new urbanism and sustainability in hundreds of communities throughout the United States.

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