The following editorial published in the “Houston Chronicle” on July 29:
Buses. Light rail. Uber. Lyft.
In a city with growing transit options, regulations that perpetuate traditional car use make little sense.
That’s why we’re glad to see the City Council made the right turn on parking policy recently. Council members eliminated minimum parking requirements in east downtown and part of Midtown, allowing developers – and not the city – to determine how many parking spaces residents and businesses need.
Outside downtown and the areas covered by the new rules, Houston regulates how many spaces a development must have. Want to build a hospital? You’re going to need 2.2 spaces for each bed. Starting a restaurant? It must have 8 spaces for every thousand feet of floor space. Even opening a bar, you’re going to need 10 spaces for every thousand feet – to accommodate all those designated drivers, we suppose.
The council’s actions are part of a growing trend nationally to change development regulations, William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told the editorial board.
“Minimum parking requirements prevent the efficient and profitable use of urban land,” he said. “When you have areas in high demand, where land is expensive and where the goal is to try and use that land to house people and provide them ready access to amenities, those requirements get in the way.”
Along with increasing the cost of development and housing, these minimum parking requirements also subsidize cars and encourage their use, leading to more traffic and pollution.
“Each parking spot costs $15,000 on average. Parking requirements mean you are forced to invest in parking, and once you invest in car storage, you’re going to use it,” said Jay Crossley, executive director of Farm and City, a nonprofit that advocates for smarter urbanization. “There is no public benefit to these minimums.”
Crossley pointed to the work of Donald Shoup, a professor in the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA, who in his book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” compares parking minimums to requirements that all hamburgers must come with fries. A great analogy that bears repeating.
Those who don’t eat the fries pay higher prices for their hamburgers but receive no benefit – besides the self-satisfaction of exercising willpower. Those who eat the fries they wouldn’t have ordered eat unhealthy food they wouldn’t have otherwise. And those who would order the fries if they weren’t included are no better off because the price of a hamburger would increase to cover the cost of the fries, Shoup wrote.
During the July 16 City Council meeting, the lone dissenting vote on the new ordinance was by District G Councilman Greg Travis, who brought up a common concern: that homeowners will see residential streets full of commercial parking.
There’s a remedy for that: to charge for street parking and protect the neighbors with residential permits. This may seem inconvenient, but the right of way belongs to the public, not only to the adjacent property owner. And frankly, the issue comes with the territory. Residents of the affected areas should have different expectations and understand there are trade-offs to living in a more walkable area.
Travis also worried that businesses would be hurt by not having enough parking, but eliminating minimum requirements isn’t about doing away with parking, it’s about using current parking options more efficiently.
Fulton pointed to a Kinder Institute study that found that while drivers complained there was no parking to be found at Rice Village, especially during the lunch rush, within a quarter of a mile of the high-demand area there were at least 1,000 empty spaces at any given time. Access to them varied, but property owners were free to work together to solve parking problems.
City policies encouraging this kind of cooperation would be a good next step. For example, a parking garage used during the day by an office building could be used at night by a restaurant, or an electric shuttle could ferry people back and forth from a parking lot to a business district. And as the city prepares to look at transit corridor regulations, it should seriously consider doing away with minimum parking requirements there as well.
The council deserves recognition for moving toward reducing government interference in the free market, pushing for increased use of public transportation and improving walkability. Houston may be a car city, but its policies should emphasize that it’s a people city first.