Sheltering in Place Reveals How Much Parking Dominates Our Cities — and Lives

Even before shelter-in-place orders, many parking lots in San José were often underused.
Photo by Sergio Ruiz for SPUR.

If you’re reading this from anywhere in California, chances are you’ve been sheltering in place for the last month. Whether you live in an urban downtown or the suburbs — and even if you’re an essential worker who commutes — most likely your transportation experience has fundamentally changed. Many of us are driving much less and walking and biking much more. This shift in behavior has made it starkly evident just how much space cities allocate to cars and parking. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of surface parking lots that just sit silent and vacant, serving no purpose during this time, and meanwhile stunned by how narrow and fragmented the sidewalks are throughout many parts of the Bay Area.

Typically, when people lament over congestion, parking and streets, it’s framed as a transportation issue. What we’re less aware of is the impact that parking and our culture’s prioritization of the car have on other areas of our day-to-day life. A number of studies published in recent weeks have shown the pandemic’s positive ecological benefits due to the rapid drop in carbon emissions. Parks and open preserves have seen increased wildlife migration, and the Bay Area’s Air Quality Index, which measures air pollution, has dropped to single digits.

SPUR and others have argued that this emphasis on driving and allocating space for parking has significant negative impacts on communities. But advocacy to reduce parking is sometimes met with concern and hesitation. Sheltering in place gives a glimpse of why cities may actually be better off with less parking. When you begin to unpack all the ways parking impacts your life, being able to park immediately next to your destination may no longer be the most important factor in how your city is designed.

The City of San José is currently considering changes to the amount of parking it requires of new development. That makes it a good time to unpack all the ways that parking impacts neighborhoods and quality of life.

Building parking costs a lot of money. And tenants end up paying for it.

Parking is expensive to build, and excessive parking requirements can add significant construction costs to housing development, reducing the number of units that can be financed and built, and making each unit more expensive to rent or buy.

 In Silicon Valley, land for residential development can cost $5 million to $10 million per acre, and infill sites are often small and oddly shaped, meaning developers must use building types that maximize land-use efficiency and allowable density. This often means off-street parking must be built underground or in parking structures, both of which are more expensive to build than surface parking lots. Local labor requirements and building material costs are also factors taken into account when estimating the overall cost of construction.

SPUR surveyed Bay Area developers and found the following costs for various types of off-street parking:

Surface parking - $30,000 per space
Mechanical stackers parking (two cars per space) - $40,000 per space
Structured parking above ground - $50,000 per space
Underground parking - $75,000 per space

These costs ultimately impact future tenants. Developers are required to build a minimum number of parking spaces per unit, which increases the overall cost of construction and, therefore, the cost to rent or buy a unit. Parking affects affordable housing developers and tenants the most by not only increasing construction costs but forcing low-income households, who often do not own cars, to subsidize parking for everyone else. When housing, either market rate or affordable, is built close to areas with a lot of transit, the parking requirement can be lessened, leaving room to increase the number of housing units, cutting down on building costs and reducing the cost of renting or buying units.

Our friends at TransForm have developed the GreenTRIP Connect program, which identifies evidence-based ways to reduce parking demand and avoid the construction of under-utilized parking spaces that are expensive to build and reduce the amount of homes that could potentially be built on a site.

The San José zoning code allows for parking management strategies like those recommended by the GreenTRIP program, such as renting parking spaces separately from apartments and providing free or discounted transit passes and car share options to tenants. These tools reduce the amount of required off-street parking for housing development. Building homes near transit also reduces the need for parking, as does building 100% affordable housing, since lower-income households demonstrate a greater propensity to use transit and have lower rates of car ownership.

Less parking creates more space for connection.

When we remove parking lots from our cities, we open up opportunities for the community to come together and create a neighborhood that brings out its best qualities. Converting parking lots to other uses gives members of the community more amenities, whether that’s more places to live, more stores and businesses to frequent, or more public spaces to enjoy. When buildings, streets and open space are organized into places that work well for people, most of them will choose to walk rather than drive. In the last month, many of us have used bikes, walking and scooters to explore our neighborhoods. The significant decrease in cars on the road has given us the opportunity to see what our streets could be like if the automobile was not our main source of transportation. This shared experience can give us the opportunity to realize how we can better use space currently taken up by parking lots to meet our needs as individuals, families and communities.

Promoting alternative transportation solutions allows us to reduce parking and decarbonize cities.

Fossil fuel is the single largest contributor to human-caused climate change. Our production and consumption of oil, gas and coal has caused a complete ecological disaster. But as SPUR has argued in the 2016 report Fossil-Free Bay Area and elsewhere, we can significantly decrease fossil fuel use by promoting alternative forms of transportation. The biggest environmental impacts of parking are caused by vehicle miles traveled and the increase in impervious surfaces. A 2013 report produced by Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning showed that the construction of parking often involves paving over land that once served as filtration for rainwater. These surfaces are usually paved in dark concrete that absorbs heat from the sun, which raises air temperatures in urban areas and can contribute to health problems caused by extreme heat.

Principles of smart growth help to reduce vehicle miles traveled by locating homes and jobs centers near transit. Cities can redesign communities to promote walkable, bikeable streets, thus reducing the need for driving and burning fuel to meet the needs of daily life. We also have an opportunity to retrofit suburbia. Reducing car lanes and street parking allows us to open that space up for wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes and increased tree canopy.

Reconsidering parking requirements in San José

Over the past several years, a number of cities around the Bay Area have eliminated the requirement that developers provide a minimum number of parking spaces per housing unit in an effort to decrease driving and promote less-polluting forms of transportation. Over the next year, the City of San José will begin to reform its current transportation demand management policies in response to the city’s Climate Smart Plan. Climate Smart is one of the nation’s first detailed city plans for reaching the targets of the international Paris Agreement. San José’s transportation, environmental services and planning departments are collaborating on this effort and will aim to bring an updated ordinance to City Council for adoption in 2021. Throughout this time, SPUR will be hosting online discussions and workshops to inform this policy change. You can attend our first forum on the topic on Thursday, May 21, when we will explore the impacts of removing minimum parking requirements. We will hear from speakers from Fremont, Mountain View and San Francisco.

If you are interested in learning more, please contact Michelle Huttenhoff at [email protected]

Michelle is SPUR's Placemaking and Public Life Policy Director

Michael is SPUR's San José Policy Director

Amanda is a Program Assistant at SPUR