What Barriers Stand in the Way of Good Parking Reform?

An overreliance on intuitive reasoning and a determination to maintain outdated parking policies have birthed a perfect storm of political inertia capable of taking the wind out of parking reform’s proverbial sails. A recent proposal to abolish minimum parking mandates in the city of SeaTac was unfortunately caught up in this political inertia, hampering the odds of successful reform. The case study in SeaTac makes it clear just how paramount it is for our message to reach the public to ensure people have the necessary tools for successful parking reform advocacy in their own cities.

Two major barriers stand in our way when it comes to successful parking reform:

(1) Inertia: Parking minimum requirements have been a mainstay of municipal zoning ever since car-dependent policies rapidly became institutionalized in the post-war period. Municipal policies with such a long standing precedent will tend to face implicit resistance in the form of inertia when reforms come knocking at the door.

Inertia can take the form of a policy attitude rooted in moderate incrementalism. Planners who are stuck in this political inertia will tend to write planning proposals in a way that doesn’t deviate from the status quo (incremental reforms), at the obvious detriment of recommending evidence based planning proposals. For example, instead of abolishing parking minimums, planners who get consumed by political inertia might instead opt to create overly-specific parking reforms in an attempt to give the appearance that their reforms are targeted and purposeful. They might propose a slight reduction in parking ratios for certain zones or certain land uses, or maybe they might propose a complicated “parking in lieu” system designed to offer developers the opportunity to remove parking mandates from a project by paying fees. Anything to avoid breaking free of the political inertia. Proposing the “radical” option of abolishing all parking minimums clearly violates the principles of inertia. But is abolishing minimum parking requirements really that radical? When planners start to believe that the best evidence-based proposal to tackle a certain problem is considered “radical” because of perceived political pressures, it can lead to a planning environment with a narrow and limited range of abilities. I’d argue that planners who succumb to this type of inertia and willingly choose to propose what is most expedient over what is most effective at solving X problem are doing a disservice to the profession as a whole. I would even go so far as to say that they are failing to fulfill the mandate of their jobs; namely to make informed evidence based planning decisions that meet the policy goals established by the elected legislators of the city they work for.

The forces animating political inertia are largely internal. This is good news because it means there’s a big opportunity for reform given that there is virtually no externally organized political opposition to parking reform. Abolishing this political inertia as well as abolishing minimum parking requirements can therefore be achieved with targeted advocacy in urban planning circles, especially those within city government planning departments. Reinforcing the idea that the overwhelming body of research shows that removing parking minimum mandates leads to positive outcomes for cities can go a long way, especially in planning departments that have succumbed to inertia. In fact, many city planning departments have recently overcome this inertia. There’s been a wave of successful parking reforms with numerous municipal governments having abolished minimum parking requirements with little to no political resistance over the last 5 years (flip the “no parking requirements” to see all the cities who have completely abolished their minimum parking mandates).

(2) Appeal to intuitive reasoning: Efficient land use policy generally isn’t an intuitive field of study, which means that parking reform is a topic where you might expect to see a gap between the opinion of experts and the opinion of the public, especially if the information environment is poor. Someone who is car-dependent and who has never been exposed to land use policy can easily interpret the removal of parking minimum requirements as a negative policy that would limit the ease by which they can freely travel across their city. It’s intuitive to view the removal of an integral and valued part of your life as an injustice that needs to be avoided. Human cognitive ability is not particularly skilled at weighing the relative opportunity costs of a decision across multiple vectors.

We tend to rely on numerous unconscious heuristics and cognitive biases when making decisions, especially more complex ones. Because of this, when someone who is car-dependent gets told that the city is considering removing minimum parking requirements, it’s easier for them to imagine the immediate repercussions for their own transportation needs, than it is to imagine the numerous downstream effects that removing mandates would have across multiple vectors. Even when someone might possess some basic knowledge on land use policy, calculating the cost benefit between the perceived immediate “threat” of removing parking mandates and the purported positive land use outcomes of abolishing parking mandates does not come naturally. Without a strong knowledge set, people will tend towards preferring the familial, and the more simple decision over the least familial and more complex decision. This means it’s difficult to get the public to support parking reform without first exposing the public to specific land use arguments that clearly explain why parking reform is good and why it would actually make life in the city more convenient even if for people who are car-dependent.

This type of intuitive reasoning is also infamously common in state DOTs. The research is clear that widening highways and roads leads to inducing demand for cars. This is why widening after widening congestion tends to be similar to what existed prior. The policy of widening roads to deal with congestion is based on the intuitive idea that more car infrastructure leads to fewer traffic bottlenecks and less congestion. Perhaps a reason why cities keep implementing this failed policy is because it’s easier cognitively to deal with a familiar set of parameters in your decision making (car-dependency) than it is to imagine a better solution outside the parameters of car-infrastructure. In a sense you could say it’s representative of the functional fixedness cognitive bias, a bias that limits a person to use a tool only in the way it is traditionally used. In this case the bias would be at the institutional level, where you have DOTs who have always used the tools of car infrastructure to solve congestion and who have an intuitive belief that more roads leads to less traffic.

Intuitive reasoning and political inertia make a dangerous combination. DOT’s fail to update their congestion policies in accordance with the overwhelming evidence-based policy consensus, because inertia and intuitive reasoning keeps them functionally fixed on using the tools of car-dependency to fix congestion. Similarly, many planners fail to update their parking policies in accordance with the overwhelming evidence-based policy consensus, because inertia and intuitive reasoning keeps them functionally fixed on using the tools of car-dependency to fix a problem (poor walkability, poor livability and poor affordability) that’s inherently at odds with car-centric planning approaches. The good news is that these intuitive arguments and the degree to which they are institutionalized across our political structures can be overcome by ensuring people have access to arguments that clearly demonstrate, using empirical evidence, why parking reform leads to the best outcomes for everyone, even car enthusiasts.

These two barriers are on display across multiple city governments that are currently considering reforming their parking mandates. To ensure we are successful at getting our message out there effectively it’s important to listen to what kind of arguments are being said in cities where parking reform is being debated. The rest of the article will be looking at a specific debate that took place at a recent hearing in a state legislature. The goal is to analyze the kinds of arguments used to support parking minimum requirements and to come out the other side better equipped to effectively advocate against such bad arguments.

The city of SeaTac Opposes Parking Reform

On January 16th, 2023 the Washington State Legislature introduced a bill that would prohibit cities from imposing minimum parking requirements on new developments within a certain distance of public transit routes. This is a welcomed development for Washington State. If this bill (HB1351) becomes law it would help cities add more desperately needed housing along existing transit routes, making cities more livable in the long term.

On February 2, 2023 the Washington State legislature held a public hearing session to give local municipalities an opportunity to voice their opinion on the bill. The public statement from the city of SeaTac was particularly revealing in showcasing the type of arguments that supporters of minimum parking requirements use.

Listen closely and pay attention to the way SeaTac frames the issue, the rhetoric they use, and the arguments they make.

First let’s talk about SeaTac’s language and rhetoric:

Kyle Moore (SeaTac’s communication manager) decided to open his statement by expressing his opposition to a ban on parking. He said “a no parking approach doesn’t work for our city”. Right from the start, instead of honestly framing SeaTac’s position as one of being supportive of parking minimum requirements, Kyle frames the bill as an attempt by the State to ban parking in SeaTac. Framing this bill as an attempt to ban parking, isn’t only factually false, but it can be an effective frame to mislead citizens about the outcomes that follow the removal of parking minimums. We know very well that removing parking minimums has little influence on parking supply in the near term. We know that without other parking policies that intentionally direct developers away from building parking, the market will still choose to build parking at a similar or slightly reduced rate to that which existed when parking mandates were in place. Removing minimum parking requirements is simply the very first step in providing a policy environment where progressive parking reform can take place. A bill to remove minimum parking requirements near transit routes is very far from producing a reality that implies a drastic reduction in the net supply of parking.

Let’s unpack two of the worst arguments that the city of SeaTac put forth in their public statement

(1) Removing parking minimums is not equitable because it disproportionately hurts low income residents.

Choosing NOT to remove parking minimum requirements DOES in fact disproportionately hurt low income residents by forcing people to be dependent on an extremely costly transportation mode. Below are a few figures that prove this point fairly well.

People who live in more car-dependent cities spend a larger percentage of their income on transportation.

We’ve established that mandating minimums parking requirements disproportionally hurt low income groups by forcing them to purchase cars (expensive transportation mode). Apart from forcing people to buy cars, parking minimum requirements also disproportionally tax low income groups because low income groups overwhelmingly underutilize parking compared to higher income groups. In this sense, parking minimums amount to a regressive policy that disproportionally subsidize the cost of car ownership for higher income groups. As we can see from SeaTac’s own census data, 4821 households in SeaTac have 0-1 car. SeaTac is fighting this bill in order to maintain a 1.5-2 parking space per unit on new development. This means the city wants to force households who currently underutilize the city’s parking spaces to subsidize parking space for wealthier households who generally own multiple cars. This is quite literally the opposite of an equitable parking policy.

table shows that many residents in seatac have one or fewer cars per household.
City of SeaTac census data regarding average vehicles per household

(2) Removing minimum parking requirements negatively impacts the business of professional drivers

There doesn’t seem to be any data on this issue, however one can make informed speculations. For one, removing minimum parking requirements can lead to more dense and walkable cities where car ownership rates decrease. Wouldn’t that increase demand for ride hailing services like Uber/Lyft, given that fewer people would own their own cars? Ride hailing services generally operate in markets where there’s a significant customer base who doesn’t own cars and where public transit isn’t comprehensive enough to reliably compete with cars. Given the relatively poor state of public transit in SeaTac, removing parking minimums and increasing housing density would most likely positively benefit the ride-hailing and the taxis industry. SeaTac clearly didn’t think through their argument very well. It’s almost like they were making an intuitive argument centered on the idea that a law that “abolishes” a ubiquitous rule in the zoning regiment of car infrastructure automatically means it will lead to worse outcomes for car drivers. Inertia and an appeal to intuitive reasoning come back to bite us again!

What can be done?

Ongoing attempts at parking reform in a variety of cities and associations across the world face similar kinds of opposition to that seen in SeaTac. If we want bills like HB 1351 to be successfully passed in every city, we need to be aware of what supporters of parking mandates say so that we are in a better place to rebuke their arguments. Relentlessly rebuking these bad arguments, wherever they take place (social media, city council meetings, academic conferences, public events, ect) will not only allow advocacy groups like PRN to be more effective, but it will also ensure that the public has the informational tools at their disposal to counter these bad arguments when they make their appearance. This is why our work is crucial, we need to get the Parking Reform Network’s message out to the public as quickly as possible! In an ideal world, when someone says that forcing developers to build parking is “equitable”, there would be immediate pushback. This ideal world can become a reality if we want it, we just got to put in the advocacy work to make it happen!

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