Parking tweaks could save money and fight climate change

Minimum parking requirements are rules set by the city spelling out the fewest off-street parking spaces that a new or rezoned property must have. They are designed to be very high – to guarantee plenty of parking even at the busiest times – meaning that most of the time, there is an overabundance of spaces.

These very specific requirements – Quincy requires a bowling alley to have four parking spaces per lane! – sound scientific, but they are rarely based on the needs of their communities. In Quincy Center, for example, 37% of households don’t even own a car, and the neighborhood averages 0.88 cars per household. But even the lowest parking minimums in this neighborhood specify at least one parking space per household in residential buildings, meaning that many families are forced to pay for parking spaces they don’t need.


PARK(ing) Day in Washington, DC, part of an open-source global event where citizens, artists, and activists temporarily transform metered parking spaces into public places. Credit: Edward Russell

And we do pay for these parking spaces – their overabundance makes them feel free, but building a parking structure costs $25,000 to $30,000 per space to build, not even counting the cost of land. Including ongoing maintenance, these garage spaces cost homeowners around $100 to $150 per month. Surface parking naturally has far cheaper construction costs, but requires more land. As developers and business owners are legally required to pay for more than enough parking, they rarely charge us to use it, but the cost of land, construction, and maintenance for these parking spaces is passed on to us in the price of everything else – our homes, goods and services – and is even reflected in our paychecks.

All these additional parking spots create extra space between buildings, making it harder to walk or take public transit. And because we pay for parking whether we use it or not, they make driving more attractive compared to the alternatives. This pushes people into their cars, increasing the demand for parking that the requirements try to satiate and increasing traffic congestion. Studies show that an abundance of free parking incentivizes people to drive more: free parking near home increases car ownership and free parking near work increases the share of commuters who drive.

The end result of all this extra driving? More carbon emissions.

For all these reasons, QCAN supports reducing minimum parking requirements, especially given that developers and business owners can always provide more if their customers demand them. One common objection is the fear of spillover – that reduced parking requirements will drive up demand for on-street parking. But metering in commercial districts and residential parking stickers in residential ones will solve these problems, and any revenue raised can be returned to the neighborhoods that earned it, in the form of enhanced public services.

Each September cities around the country celebrate Park(ing) Day by turning some unneeded parking spaces into more vibrant and welcoming spots, helping residents envision the improved cityscapes that would result from some tweaks to our zoning code. Just imagine what Quincy could do with a few less parking spaces!