The coming battle over parking

On Friday the transportation department finally released the final version of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, which is supposed to guide city transportation planning for the next 20 years. The plan has all kinds of cool maps about where we should invest in new pedestrian infrastructure, bike infrastructure and transit. One of its overarching goals is to reduce the drive-alone commute share from 74% to 50% by 2039.

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Reducing car use, however, requires a reallocation of two key resources: money and space. Currently, we dedicate an obscene amount of both to cars. Not only by building car-oriented roads but in mandating that private property owners dedicate significant space and money to parking.

Generally, the rule in Austin is that each residential unit must have two off-street parking spaces. There are some exceptions, notably downtown, where there are no parking minimums. Minimum parking requirements are bad for three reasons:

  1. They drive up the cost of development (it’s a major expense that is passed on to property owners and tenants)
  2. They take up space that could be used for better things (housing, sidewalks) and also prevent the type of residential/commercial density that facilitates transit
  3. They subsidize vehicle ownership, thereby entrenching cars as the dominant form of transportation

So parking minimums are an environmental and economic disaster. Getting rid of them should be a no-brainer for a “progressive” City Council. The challenge is that Austinites have become so accustomed to “free” parking and many of them are scared shitless of the following:

  1. Having to spend time looking for parking and/or having to learn how to parallel park
  2. Having more cars parked on their street

I empathize with these concerns. It is indeed easier when you’re driving to have a giant parking lot at every business you visit. However, these inconveniences are simply not greater than the problems resulting from the status quo. We need to pull the band-aid off.

That seems to be what the ASMP suggests doing in its demand management chapter:

Parking requirements should focus on maximums instead of minimums, and parking spaces should be offered to buyers and renters separately from rent or housing purchase, a practice known as “unbundling.”

This was what I dealt with when I lived in Madison, Wis. Few apartments offered “free” off-street parking. You had to pay substantially more for that. I often found myself parking four blocks away.

But that’s inhumane! You’re going to force all of us who have to drive to pay for parking!? No. Parking on the street is free.

Here is what the plan proposes specifically:

Zoning codes should be modified to: reduce parking requirements; promote shared and off-site parking among neighboring properties; utilize unbundling of parking in conjunction with site-specific TDM plans; and to support walkable, mixed-use developments to lessen the need for parking. Unbundling of parking, for example, would help manage demand on the transportation network by only providing parking for those who use it and decrease project costs for the creation of affordable housing. Affordable housing, creative and music venues, and small, local businesses in neighborhoods especially would benefit from reductions in parking requirements.

Council has already unanimously approved exempting low-income housing developments from minimum parking requirements. But will it insist that these reactionary mandates should continue to be imposed on small businesses and housing that serves Austin’s increasingly battered middle class?

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