For urban planners, parking rules established decades ago have become a contentious 21st-century challenge. Parking takes up about one-third of land area in U.S. cities; nationwide, there are an estimated eight parking spaces for every car.
But despite growing support for parking reform, there is little data showing how such changes affect urban development. As part of ourwork on urban planning, we quantified changes in construction during the first two years after Buffalo adopted its new “Green Code,” repealing minimum parking requirements citywide.
We found that the Green Code is changing Buffalo’s urban form in ways that had been difficult, if not impossible, under former zoning rules. As local leaders seek to reenergize the urban core and spark a post-industrial renaissance, public transit is now a priority. Inactive storefronts, underutilized historic structures and former industrial buildings are being rehabilitated, and vacant parcels are being developed in fragmented neighborhoods.
Most building codes prioritize cars
With rapid post-World War II development and an explosion in car ownership, cities and towns across the U.S. introduced minimum parking requirements during the 1950s. These zoning ordinances required new buildings to include off-street parking lots. The mandates remain nearly universal across America, raising real estate prices, bringing more cars into cities, increasing air pollution and carbon emissions and lowering use of public transportation.
Parking standards were created arbitrarily, without adequate data. Zoning laws usually require one parking space per apartment, one per 300 square feet of commercial development and one per 100 square feet for restaurants. For context, a parking space measures 160 square feet on average, plus additional area for driveways and driving lanes, so an eatery’s parking lot may be three times the size of its dining area.
Prioritizing cars limits space for housing, businesses, parks and other land uses that benefit citizens and contribute to local tax bases. It also increases construction costs, which are then passed on to tenants and buyers. In Los Angeles, for example, each parking space costs developers at least US$50,000 – a price tag that has scuttled some development projects.
Buffalo’s long-standing zoning code, established in 1953, reflected the emergence and dominance of the automobile as America’s transportation mode of choice. Inflexible minimums ensured plentiful parking at bowling alleys, dance halls and skating rinks. The code did not ease parking provisions for mixed-use development or offer flexibility to reduce parking at small businesses providing neighborhood necessities.
The result: Nearly half of downtown Buffalo was converted to parking lots. Locals joked about parking: “If the goal was to destroy downtown, we only halfway succeeded.”
Our review of the Green Code’s initial effects found that from April 2017 to April 2019, the amount of off-street parking included in new building projects varied widely. Developers of 14 sites mixing retail space and residential units incorporated 53% fewer parking spaces than required under previous zoning. Four added no parking, opting instead to share parking with other properties.
In contrast, many single-use developers maintained or exceeded former parking requirements. Despite city leaders’ ambitions for more accessible transportation options, the car remains king in development plans for office buildings and townhomes, hampering reform in a region characterized by suburban sprawl and travel habits based on car ownership.
Despite these challenges, we found that developers of 36 major projects – including two large housing complexes targeted to graduate students, with over 200 units apiece – included 47% fewer parking spaces than previous zoning required. One-third of the developments in our study made parking an amenity, charging user fees rather than bundling it into rent or purchase prices. Overall, the Green Code encouraged less parking in transit-rich locations along primary commercial corridors.
Though development slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the desire for livable urban places has not. Nor has the need for affordable housing. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has introduced a bill that highlights the need for equitable development to address the nation’s affordable housing crisis. It would withhold funds from development in areas that require parking minimums.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.