by Katherine Howe, Urban Planner
Almost all cities have codes that regulate how much off-street parking a developer must build. Out of date and often based on suburban standards calibrated to maximum car use, these codes are, at best, a blunt instrument. They often over estimate the amount of parking needed, which encourages people to drive by effectively subsidizing the cost of storing cars. This, of course, is not new information, and much ink has been spilled in the discussion of the high cost of free parking. After multiple decades of this approach, many communities – from Issaquah to Bothell – are finding that they now have 50% -75% of their existing developed commercial land area in one kind of use: surface parking.
The off-street parking cycle is hard to break because it requires a paradigm shift: a switch from accommodating personal mobility via cars, to other modes that also compel a retrofit of the land uses already in place. To do so requires a headlong push in the other direction. It’s too expensive to go half way, i.e. to keep building lots of parking at suburban rates but in structure or underground. This doesn't work, except in the most valuable areas, such as a strong downtown. Even there, building all that free storage space for cars can make that future project's lease rates no longer competitive with what’s already there. A New Urbanist solution, such as Kent Station or Mill Creek, tuck the oceans of surface parking behind retail establishments along a "walking main street." But this superficial solution just masks the problem and is only an aesthetic fix.
Removing requirements for parking altogether is often discussed in TOD plans as one of the first strategic moves a city can make to support incremental infill development. This can help projects pencil economically and also allows them to be designed in a more compact, transit friendly way. Furthermore, developers can charge separately for what it really costs to build parking (from $35,00-$45,000) per space.
Neighborhoods tend to be skittish about moving in this direction, because when many people consider new developments all they see is traffic! I've heard this over and over again. Even in our existing, transit-rich environments this change to take on the parking problem is slow. In part it is due to a failure of imagination, and in part it is because reversing course takes a lot of work. It requires setting up a whole new system, where all stakeholders can see the end point, with options that work for each party.
This is where a GreenTRIP program will be most useful. GreenTRIP effectively creates something like a LEED awards program for infill development in already transit-friendly locations. It provides an alternative and pre-validated set of choices to reduce our dependence on the provision of new parking spaces as our only solution for urban mobility.
The program has been designed to allow a partnership between developer and the City to participate without taking on added risk, or taking a lot of public flack for “giving away something for free” by reducing parking requirements. It is also intended to reassure neighborhood residents and financiers by clearly showing exactly how urban design (read street edge development that you want to walk to, and closely mixing together uses) can, when combined with support for particular behaviors such as free transit passes, access to a car share, and un-bundling your parking space from your unit (you rent it separately), result in less overall driving by residents. That means less congestion on already busy roads, more transit riders, and the beginning of a virtuous cycle of people who will positively support transit. More likely than not, it might also mean better living spaces because dollars are invested in the building and not in the parking garage. In short, the program frees up private sector dollars to support something other than new car infrastructure.
At VIA, we've been working on similar issues for some time. We are looking forward to collaborating with King County on their upcoming Right Sized Parking Project, which will tackle similar questions: How can we help cities to better adjust their parking requirements in support of transit? How can we elevate this to a broader question about improving personal mobility at a regional level, and give real options that don't require a fight in each neighborhood?
Perhaps it’s really just about adjusting what we can realistically take for granted. Combining smart urban design with a range of transportation options has the potential to catalyze big changes in how people choose to travel around the Puget Sound region, and ultimately reverse the vicious parking cycle.