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Why California Has Too Much Parking and How It’s Making Climate Change and the Housing Crisis Worse

Parking on the Bay

Photo by Sergio Ruiz

Laws that require new buildings to provide a minimum number of parking spaces are undermining California’s investment in affordable housing, public transit and environmental resiliency. A recent SPUR Digital Discourse discussed the state’s role in mitigating the over-parking crisis. Panelist Clarissa Cabansagan of TransForm outlined just how much excess parking there is: In the United States, there are 8 parking spots per car, and up to 30% of the land area in American cities is covered in parking. A survey of Bay Area multi-family apartment buildings found that 42% of parking spaces in San Francisco and 27% of spaces in Santa Clara County go unused. According to the California State Transportation Agency, CalSTA, “free” parking costs California $20 billion to $40 billion per year in construction and maintenance.

Over-parking contributes to the housing affordability crisis, which disproportionately falls on the shoulders of low-income Californians. Panelist Carter Rubin, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, highlighted San Diego’s estimate that parking requirements add $35,000 to $90,000 to the cost of a housing unit, which is then passed to residents in the form of higher rents and mortgages. The cost of building required parking means there’s less money and space to build the housing the state desperately needs, and the parking itself takes up space that could have gone to additional housing units. UCLA Urban Planning Professor Donald Shoup estimates that on a typical construction site in Los Angeles, parking requirements reduce the number of units in an apartment building by 13%. The financial burdens of higher rent and the limited supply of available housing due to parking impact low-income residents more severely.

More parking means more cars on the road, which degrades the environment, increasing air pollution and greenhouse gases. It also reduces the livability of cities, contributing to traffic, taking up space that could better serve the community and decreasing walkability.  

An Inflexible and Antiquated System

California parking policy is out of touch. Policies like parking minimums no longer serve people and communities and should be changed to meet the needs of today.

Many parking rules and regulations are inflexible, resulting in unnecessary parking that is expensive to build, harms the environment and degrades cities. For example, the new development at the Berryessa/North San Jose BART station is adjacent to 1,527 parking spaces managed by VTA. However, because of outdated and rigid parking and zoning codes, the developer will still have to build new parking rather than share use of the surplus parking space.

Insufficient State Involvement

Panelist Avital Barnea of CalSTA described four current areas of state involvement in parking:

  1. Creating guidelines for city general plans that advocate for eliminating parking minimums, managing parking demand and implementing shared parking
  2. Requiring funding from the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program and the Transformative Climate Community Program to build housing instead of off-street parking
  3. Operating Park & Ride lots aimed at reducing miles traveled
  4. Subsidizing parking for state employees that is not matched in benefits for transit riders or bikers/walkers . While the above measures help mitigate over-parking, this one runs counter to the state’s goals of reducing driving and increasing transit use.

Although the state is taking some steps to mitigate overparking, these measures are insufficient because they don’t address a bigger problem: Current parking policy undermines the state’s investment in affordable housing, public transit and environmental resiliency. First, because of the high cost of building mandatory parking, the state gets less out of the money it invests in affordable housing. Second, the state is investing billions in public transit infrastructure and services, yet the neighborhoods being built around these services have parking requirements that make driving the more appealing option. And lastly, California's current parking policies incentivize driving, which increases air pollution, harmful stormwater runoff and urban heat islands, and contributes to climate change — despite California’s commitment to and investment in clean air, clean water, halting climate change and promoting climate resiliency.

What Can the State Do to Drive Real Change?

Parking policy reform is speeding up in cities across California, but not quickly enough. For every Berkeley or Sacramento, there are hundreds of other cities that still have antiquated and damaging parking policies. If the state steps up with some of the following relatively minor changes, California could see massive improvements in parking policy to help address the urgent climate and housing crises.


1. Eliminate parking minimums and mandate maximums instead.

Parking minimums produce more parking than we need. Eliminating minimums and imposing maximums does not advocate for the elimination of parking — it makes the case for building parking only when it truly fills a need. SPUR-sponsored Assembly Bill 1401, introduced at the state legislature last week, would eliminate minimum parking requirements and promote walkable, safe and healthy communities.


2. Reform parking subsidies for state workers to encourage less individual driving.

Currently the state supplies 8,500 parking spaces across California for state employees to use while at work for the very low rate of $40 to $95 per month in pre-tax payroll deduction. State employees who do not have access to one of the 23 parking facilities can deduct up to $270 each month pre-tax from their income. These subsidies incentivize individual driving. By contrast, transit commuter benefits are much lower: a 75% reimbursement on the cost of public transit passes up to a cap of $65. The bicycle commuter program provides the smallest benefit, reimbursing bicycle commuters with a taxed $20 per month. The state should eliminate the parking subsidies and replace them with equivalent benefits for transit, biking and walking, which would result in less driving, less congestion, cleaner air and better cities.


3. Remove use requirements and enable shared parking statewide.

Strict and arbitrary parking use requirements create a system where some parking spots can only be used by a restaurant, while other spots can only be used by homeowners. The state should prevent cities from designating parking for specific uses and allow parking owners to rent out their parking to others so, for example, the same parking can be used by a restaurant during the evenings and weekends and by a neighboring office building during the weekday.


4. Unbundle the cost of parking from the cost of housing.

Unbundling means separating the cost of renting a parking space from the cost of a residential unit by allowing tenants to opt out of renting parking. When the cost of parking is optional, rather than built into housing costs, those without cars aren’t burdened with paying for unwanted parking, and people who would use a car often change their behaviors to avoid the extra cost. The state is already considering requiring unbundled parking in some of its largest projects, and it should do so for all new developments statewide.


5. Require state, regional and local transportation plans to incorporate parking supply and parking management strategies.

Requiring thoughtful parking strategies in transportation plans will encourage more foresight and signal serious state commitment to better parking management.


6. Enforce and expand the existing parking cash-out law.

The state’s parking cash-out law demands that eligible employers who offer their employees free parking offer employees who choose not to drive the option to accept cash in lieu of the value of the free parking. This program has proven very effective in convincing employees to carpool, ride transit, bike or walk instead of driving. However, this state law is limited in scope and has seen little enforcement. The state should expand the applicability of the law and require proof of compliance to ensure that it is enforced. SPUR will be researching this issue in 2021.

California’s parking policies have created far too much parking, and it’s damaging to our environment and cities. If the state takes on a larger role and implements some of the above strategies, California could see huge results in mitigating overparking, making housing more affordable and meeting our climate goals.