Ordinarily, the city requires homes, offices, apartments, restaurants, retail stores, and nearly every other land use to provide car parking on site when that use is established.
The amount of parking the city requires is usually related to the size or intensity of that use. A few common ratios used to calculate parking requirements include…
- 1 space per bedroom
- 1 space per (X) square feet of floor area
- 1 space per employee
But where did this come from? Well throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s when car culture was becoming the American norm, municipalities took it upon themselves to become the authority on parking. And private parking provision became a part of city zoning requirements to prevent development from being under-parked. The City of Manhattan was no exception to this trend, aside from two unique instances.
There are not, nor have there ever been minimum parking requirements for businesses in Aggieville or Downtown. And before you go calling your commissioners about this because you think it “hurts worst” hard to find a parking spot over the lunch hour in Aggieville, let me offer an explanation as to why this is a good thing…
An absence of parking requirements for Aggieville businesses has helped preserved it as the compact, urban, and walkable environment that only one out of ten of us apparently disdain.
If Aggieville businesses were required to provide the amount of parking required by the city in suburban districts, it would actually be about 1,100 spaces short. To put that into perspective, that is about the number of parking stalls in the east lot of the downtown mall, which is about 14 acres of uninterrupted pavement.
In comparison, the Aggieville business area is about 21 acres, streets and all. If we transplanted the mall lot to Aggieville, it would easily stretch from the Bluemont Hotel to City Park. If you don’t believe me, there’s this handy site that allows you to compare the size of different features in Google Maps.
In short, if we required the businesses in Aggieville to provide the amount of park
ing the City requires in suburban districts, Aggieville wouldn’t exist! Two-thirds of it would be a parking lot! The absence of parking requirements throughout the years has kept Aggieville in its historically compact, urban, and walkable environment we all love. And sure, it can be harder to find a parking spot on the weekend or over lunch, but we’re willing to spend an extra 60 seconds looking for a space or walk an extra block from a space because it’s a place we want to be. Were two-thirds of it a parking lot, sure it would be more convenient, but why would anyone want to spend time in a district that is mostly a parking lot? That’s part of what makes Aggieville… well… Aggieville.
And going off of that, excessive parking requirements and increased automobile dependency over the last half-century have contributed this growing problem that urban planners call “placelessness”, whereas environments begin to lack identity, historic significance, and local cultural relevance due to their generic and undesirable nature.
Take these two photos here comparing two very different built environments. One is compact, pedestrian-oriented, and has a nice street environment. The other is sprawling, automobile-oriented, and has a very bleak street environment. You’d probably feel more confident about fining a parking space in one of the businesses in the top photo, but it’s probably not an area you feel like spending a lot of time in, or would be proud so say is in your town, unlike the picture of downtown in the bottom photo. There is a lot more going on here than just parking, but it’s very clear parking is going to be a high priority in the top photo, which has largely contributed to it’s bleak, desolate, and placeless environment.
More than a place-making issue, excessive parking poses other environmental, social, and economical issues.
Environmentally speaking, excessive parking increases stormwater runoff, flood risk, light pollution, the urban heat island effect, and only encourages us to drive more, resulting in increased air pollution.
Socially speaking, excessive parking discourages us from walking, biking, or using public transit. These are more active and healthier alternatives of transportation that can help us all stay in shape.
But I want to really dig into the economic impact of parking. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Likewise, there is no such thing as a free parking space. Take the city-owned parking lot south of Rally-House in Aggieville. Just the land the lot is on has an assessed value of $1.2 million. It has 80 parking spaces. This equates to $15,000 per space in land value. There are also construction costs and ongoing costs of maintenance and operation associated with surface parking lots which one study estimates is on average between $700 and $1,100 per year per space.
The overwhelming majority of parking spaces in Manhattan are free, which means these costs of parking are subsidized one way or another. For public lots like the one in Aggieville, it's the taxpayer. For private property owners, it's the owner. For commercial uses, this cost is worked into the costs of the goods and services you buy. For residential developments, especially larger apartments, this cost is worked into price of the housing (rent). And if we take the estimate of just the ongoing cost of maintaining a parking space, this could mean the average monthly rent includes between $58 and $92 to pay for every parking space associated with that unit. In short, parking can contribute to housing affordability issues.
The crux here is that there is an opportunity cost to parking; it is a land-use efficiency issue. So much of our cities consist of valuable land dedicated to excess surface parking that could be used for homes, commercial buildings, schools, parks and natural greenspace. One of the more tangible ways this is played out is in an analysis of local property tax generated by each property in the city of Manhattan on a square foot basis, shown here.
As you can see, the highest property tax generators per square foot, or the “hardest working” properties in town are overwhelmingly concentrated in Downtown and Aggieville where parking is more scarce and the built environment is more dense. In fact, 98 out of the top 100 hardest working properties are located in Downtown or Aggieville, generating $1.00--$3.65 per square foot on an annual basis. In contrast, the lower-density suburban areas, where parking is abundant, are much less efficient, typically generating less than $0.50 per square foot. That’s because at a certain point, parking lots are an inefficient use of land. Excessive parking and automobile dependency in general dilutes cities and forces them to spread out further, requiring us to stretch more expensive water, sewer, stormwater, and road infrastructure further and further out. The technical term for this is sprawl.
That's not to say parking doesn’t serve a role in our community. Over the last 70 years we’ve kind of built our city to be dependent on the car and parking- and this won’t change overnight. But it’s time we start thinking bigger in terms of the whole cost of parking, especially too much parking, and how it’s bloated our cities. And it starts with zoning regulations, which are not blameless at all. In fact, zoning is one of the biggest contributors to the problem. In many cases, city zoning regulations overburden developers and business owners by requiring them to supply parking spaces that may never be used.
By lowering minimum parking requirements, we can begin to combat the negatives effect of too much parking, while giving developers and business owners greater autonomy and flexibility in deciding how much parking they actually need to make their project successful. In fact, many other cities are getting out of the parking business by reducing or outright eliminating their parking requirements. We have the opportunity to make similar changes though the UDO.
Here is a comparison of existing parking ratios and ratios proposed through the UDO for some typical land uses...
As you can see, the number of spaces required of these uses are generally lower. And that’s not to say that these businesses can’t provide more than the minimum. That’s why it’s a minimum! But why would we require them to have more than they know they need to effectively run their business?
This is how these ratios play out in an example in Manhattan…
Which also raises another question. Should there be a limit to the number of parking spaces a place can have? Many cities are also doing this by introducing parking maximums that combat the negative effects of too much parking. Manhattan currently has no maximums on parking, but it is something proposed through the UDO...
These maximum ratios are designed to reflect the majority of what those land uses are using today in Manhattan, but to cap those outliers that tend to provide as much parking as they possibly can or to provide enough parking for their absolute busiest day of the year. This is less common for local businesses and more common for larger national chain businesses, like retailers who provide enough parking for once-a-year events like Black Friday, despite those spaces going unused the other 364 days out of the year.
By lowering the minimum parking ratios and introducing parking maximums, we can begin to create a more economically, socially, and environmentally resilient Manhattan.