BY STEPHANIE NAKHLEH
When I first was introduced to the idea of decreasing parking mandates, I had the same reaction I see others having: we need MORE parking, not less! But over time I’ve been convinced of the argument that when planning a city, people should come before cars. Infrastructure should be built around a walkable, clean, affordable city. Car-first infrastructure is the opposite of that.
First, some facts: It’s important to recognize that America has far too much parking already: we have eight spaces for every car. Parking takes of a third of the land use in America. In Los Alamos, a survey of residents found they overwhelmingly think we have plenty of parking downtown. I encourage people to fire up Google Earth and look at the amount of land space in Los Alamos already dedicated to parking: it’s a lot! And no matter what time of day the satellites are taking the photos, most of it is just empty asphalt. Wasted space. We are not facing a parking shortage, and the parking we have isn’t going away. Given the modest town growth advocated in the town’s Comprehensive Plan, how do we want to allocate our precious land going forward? House people? Or house cars?
So let’s talk about parking requirements, and let’s be clear about what parking requirements are: expensive mandated parking. When a developer is told they must provide X parking spaces per unit, they have to offset that cost somehow. A parking space costs upward of $30,000 to build. It’s not cheap! You’re taking taxable, useful land and turning it into pricey dead asphalt. That land could be housing. That land could be retail. That land could be a park.Or, it can become expensive, hot, ugly, pollution-causing car-housing. This is a zoning choice cities must make, and residents should be very aware of what they’re wishing for when they demand more parking. They should know what the cost of that decision really is.
One effect of parking requirements is scaring away development, a situation we’ve seen play out in Los Alamos. Many developers simply won’t bid for a project with high parking-per-unit mandates, and that has been the case in our town, where development has languished. The CB Fox building was going to become something cool, but the plan died when expansive mandated parking became a deal breaker. When developers do choose to go forward with a project in spite of the parking mandate, they simply pass the cost on to the residents, making that housing more expensive. It’s not the developers who pay, it’s the residents. And this especially harms historically marginalized residents. (Yes: parking policy can be racist.)
The nightmare scenario that played out in my mind, as I first looked into this, is a big apartment complex with no parking at all. But that’s not what happens when costly mandated parking is dropped. Residential developers will provide what they think they can sell, whether that be an extra bathroom, granite countertops, or extra parking. Without mandates, parking will still be built, but it will be built according to market principles: cities have done this experiment and seen the results. Parking mandates are well-meaning, but they distort the market in unforeseen ways that harm cities, and that specifically harm low-income residents who want to move closer to where they work. Instead of undertaking a long, carbon-spewing commute to Los Alamos to work as bank tellers, teachers, waiters, and firefighters, people would like to live here, near their jobs. The Lab, of course, is desperate to bring workers into the town as well, but they can’t do that if the town has chosen zoning laws (such as parking mandates) that block housing development. Nobody moves to a town that chooses asphalt over housing … and ultimately, that is the choice.
To illustrate this, imagine you are a developer looking at creating housing in a town that has mandatory parking requirements, say 1.5 spaces per unit. What would you rather build, an apartment complex with 30 small, affordable housing units and 45 incredibly expensive spaces, or a development with 15 spacious, luxe units and only 22.5 parking spaces? Remember, you’ve got the one piece of land to work with, you are space-limited. In fact, that’s exactly what developers have done: they build larger, more expensive units because it means wasting less money on parking. Affordable housing goes right out the door with these mandates because we’ve created an incentive against it.
Cities are laboratories, and we’ve had millennia to learn what makes them work. We’ve had almost a century of car infrastructure mistakes to learn from. Planners know, and this is not at all controversial, that building a city around car infrastructure means building a city that, frankly, sucks to live in. Albuquerque is a city built around car infrastructure. It’s miles and miles of asphalt, it takes 40 minutes to get anywhere you need to go, and it’s incredibly deadly. There are so many downsides to asphalt cities, and the upsides really only go to car manufacturers.
The obvious question: without mandated “free” parking, where do you park? The answers to that are many. First, going back to Google Earth, we already have a lot of parking that’s going unused, so this is not actually a crisis. Second, a city is not obliged to provide space to every car, boat, RV, motorcycle, and bicycle residents bring in. People shopping for a house will find the one that suits their various vehicle needs, assuming we’re building plenty of stock. I grew up in La Senda, where you really can have all those vehicles on your property if you want — but right now, those houses are locked up due to the housing shortage. Build more housing, and there’s more to choose from … the 2-acre-lot house my parents built with their own hands in 1974 doesn’t face a bidding war when it goes back on the market. This is a process called “filtering,” explained here by Vox reporter Jerusalem Demas.
Next, shoring up public transport is a huge piece of the puzzle; this investment doesn’t just benefit the poor, it benefits everyone. The very poor, of course, don’t own cars at all because cars are expensive, so public transport is a necessity for them. But all levels of society benefit from good public transportation: My daughter and her husband (he’s a teacher, she’s a student) live in a medium-sized city and have only one car, a thing they can get away with because that city has good public transportation. For those who do want to drive, or where public transport isn’t yet ideal, there are progressive parking strategies cities can and do use to moderate parking without incurring a huge cost to those least able to afford it.
Is this a partisan issue? Not really. Zoning overhaul generally, and parking reform specifically, is a rare area where I’ve seen a remarkable coalition come together: Free-market conservatives and social-justice advocates concerned about housing as a human right; government-skeptical libertarians and planning officials who work for the government. There’s overwhelming agreement across the board that expensive mandated parking harms housing access, and therefore harms cities. The people who are against parking reform, for the most part, are people who, like me when I first stumbled across this issue, haven’t really thought about what the costs of mandated parking really are: it hurts housing, it hurts business, it hurts the poor, it hurts the environment (not just emissions, but parking-lot runoff is very polluting), it’s ugly, and it’s a terrible use of precious, scarce land.
The final plea I am going to make, and this one is aimed at our County Council, is to consult our county’s founding policy guide: the Comprehensive Plan. The Comp Plan is not neutral on the question of parking: it’s in favor of reducing expensive parking mandates. We have other policy documents, too, like the 2019 Housing Study, that support reducing mandated parking. There will always be individuals who are against a thing, but the Comp Plan includes a community survey; it’s a reflection of what we, as a community, want for our future. This is our policy guide and where there’s any debate, the Comp Plan ought to solve it. If it doesn’t, you owe us an explanation why.