American parking requirements: Massive (mostly), arbitrary, and costly

By Eric Sundquist

The abundance of parking in American cities and suburbs, most of it on surface lots without direct costs to parkers, is readily apparent by taking a virtual tour via Google Earth or a similar program. The view below (Figure 1), of a mixed-use section of SSTI’s own Madison, Wis., is fairly typical. We haven’t done the math, but the ratio of pavement to rooftop appears to be substantially greater than one.

Figure 1. An aerial view of a mixed-use section of Madison's West Side. (Source: Google.)

Figure 1. An aerial view of a mixed-use section of Madison’s West Side. (Source: Google.)


Since Don Shoup published “The High Cost of Free Parking” in 2005, the large supply of parking has become a key concern in transportation and land use planning.  Lots of parking makes it difficult for non-motorized modes to function, shifts costs from drivers to others, encourages SOV use, reduces available land for higher and better uses, creates stormwater issues, and so forth.

One factor driving the prevalence of parking is regulation through zoning codes that impose parking minimums. Here in Madison we took a step away from the “acres of free parking” approach by removing some minimums during a recent zoning code rewrite; however, it’s too soon to know the effect. And we still have some parking minimum requirements.

A new blog, Graphing Parking by architect Seth Goodman, takes a look at parking minimums across the country, graphically showing both the remarkable scale of required parking and its arbitrariness.

In scale, required parking often substantially exceeds typical building footprints in area. Among the cities sampled, the median requirement for houses of worship, for example, yields a parking lot nearly five times the size of the building (Figure 2). And that lot typically only sees intensive use for a few hours per week.

Figure 2. The median parking minimum for a 6,000 square-foot house of worship is a parking lot that is nearly 30,000 square feet. (Source: Graphing Parking, 2013.)

Figure 2. The median parking minimum for a 6,000 square-foot house of worship is a parking lot that is nearly 30,000 square feet. (Source: Graphing Parking, 2013.)


Just as eye-opening are graphics showing the wide variation in parking minimum requirements. A 100,000 square-foot, four-story office building, for example, comes with at least 400 parking spaces in San Jose, but half that number in Los Angeles, and none in San Francisco (Figure 3).


Figure 3. Parking spaces required for a 100,000-square-foot, four-story office building. (Source: Graphing Parking.)

Figure 3. Parking spaces required for a 100,000-square-foot, four-story office building. (Source: Graphing Parking.)


Considering the office requirements, along with residential and restaurant requirements described in previous posts, Goodman notes the variation is not only from city to city, but from land use to land use within individual codes:

In comparing the three graphs that I have done so far, it is starting to become obvious that there is great inconsistency not only between cities, but within each individual city’s code. Compare for instance the restaurant requirement versus the office requirement for both Kansas City and Memphis. In examining the restaurant graph, one might assume that Memphis has by far the less onerous minimums. However, in the office graphic above, the roles are strikingly reversed.

Goodman writes that the most remarkable parking minimum he’s encountered so far comes from Baltimore:

In Baltimore “for a religious institution whose worshipers are required to walk to worship because of religious tenet” one space is required for every 8 seats. No one belonging to these congregations can arrive to services in a car (at least not without arousing the ire of their peers), but the best Baltimore can do is half off the normal requirement. All I can think is what a waste that must be. But isn’t that just the perfect summation of parking requirements? You must build parking, whether you want it or not.

In the Pacific Northwest, the Sightline Daily blog also has been taking on parking, in a useful series called “Parking? Lots!”

The August 22 installment, “Apartment Blockers,” is required reading for anyone interested in affordable housing and economic development. It takes on the issue of added and shifted costs from parking in apartments. Here’s an excerpt:

How do parking requirements raise rents? They do it in five ways, some of which affect all of the housing market and some of which only affect parts of it.

1. More Costly Housing. Parking quotas drive up construction costs. … High parking costs for construction effectively exclude new, less-expensive apartments from the market. There’s no way you can legally build your no-parking $800-a-month apartments, nor can anyone else, anywhere in town. The whole apartment market will be missing its bottom end. (It’s already missing most of its granny flats and rooming houses, as I argue in my new book Unlocking Home.)…

2. Less Housing. Parking quotas constrain the supply of dwelling units, particularly of modest, economical ones, which causes their price to rise. …. You may end up building only 25 apartments, rather than 50. The same goes for every other builder in the city. Fewer new apartments mean more competition for all apartments. Rents go up.

3. Building Conversions Blocked. Parking quotas often make it prohibitively expensive to adapt buildings for other uses. Developers cannot convert vacant warehouses into lofts, or aging office blocks into condos, unless they somehow shoehorn floors of parking into the historic structures. … This effect may keep fewer apartments off the market than does effect 2 (above), but in older cities, it can still keep thousands of apartments from getting built.

4. Dispersed Housing. By suppressing the number of apartments on each city lot (see 2 and 3), quotas force housing demand to spread outward across the landscape. In a word: sprawl, which raises travel distances and commuting expenses. Instead of 50 apartments on your in-city lot and many others like it, there may be only 25. Apartment hunters will have to go farther afield, increasing their cost of living, if not their rent.

5. Billing Non-parkers. Parking quotas shift the cost of storing vehicles from those vehicles’ owners into the rent of non-owners. By flooding the market for parking, quotas make it impossible to recoup the full cost of parking by charging its users. …You can’t charge $250 a slot, because the neighborhood is awash in mandatory parking stalls. Fortunately for you, the same parking quotas that have flooded the parking market are starving the apartment market, making it possible to charge higher rents. This effect does not raise the rent on average beyond what effects 1, 2, and 3 do, but it does shift the cost of storing vehicles from car owners to non-owners. Even tenants who do not use parking pay for it.

A forthcoming Sightline analysis will likely reach similar conclusions. If preliminary results hold up, it will show that, at actual apartment and condominium projects in Seattle, the cost of parking is as much as 35 percent of monthly rent. The cost of parking, furthermore, exceeds its market price almost everywhere in King County, so even tenants who do not own cars end up paying for parking through their rent.

These five effects interact and reinforce one another. They knock the bottom off of the apartment market, pushing working-class people to double up or commute longer distances. They raise the rent for everyone, driving up the cost of living while lowering the price of parking. And they shift parking costs to those who don’t use it.

Eric Sundquist is Managing Director of SSTI.