Opinion: The Case for Prioritizing People Over Parking

I recently attempted to visit Roosevelt Coffee near Cypress Village Shopping Center to do some work on my laptop. This is the story of that journey, which illustrates why Irvine parking policies – like parking policies everywhere – make cities unpleasant, unsustainable, and bankrupt. 

I decided to take OCTA’s 167 bus line, which is a straight shot to the coffee shop and very convenient, even though it comes just once an hour. My college gives me a fare-free transit pass, which makes me extra motivated to take the bus. I walked 5 minutes to the bus stop at Irvine Blvd and Jeffrey Road and hopped on a very short bus ride to Trabuco and Jeffrey.

So far so good, but here’s where it gets unpleasant: From there, I had to walk an additional 10+ minutes or so through a large parking lot to reach my new favorite coffee shop. Particularly since this was during the summer, the heat from the asphalt radiates onto my face and body with every step as a consequence of the urban heat island effect. Parking lots are not an enjoyable environment for pedestrians.It is walks like these that remind me just how much space is consumed by parking in Irvine and how unpleasant that makes walking a mode of transportation. Pictured below is an image that shows how much of the Cypress Village Shopping Center and accompanying the office complex is parking. The amount of land dedicated to parking for the buildings is larger than the buildings themselves:Large fields of parking lots such as these are not without their negative consequences, many of which I will examine in this article. They contribute to the issues around poor walkability, inefficient transit service, the housing crisis, the climate crisis, and inhibit wealth building in our community. Cypress Village Shopping Center, like every place in Irvine, was mandated to build a certain amount of parking by a little-known law in the municipal code called “minimum parking requirements”. At a time when the City is in a severe housing crisis as well as taking its first meaningful steps in addressing the climate crisis, we must examine poor land-use policies that exacerbate these issues. With the City of Irvine being mandated to zone for 30,000+ housing units this housing cycle, it also poses the question of whether these new neighborhoods will be built from the ground up in the same unsustainable way. It is time that the City re-examine its relationship with parking and change the code to allow for a break in this cycle of car dependency. I will lay out the argument to abolish minimum parking mandates in these new high-density areas so there is some flexibility in the quantity of parking provided. Because of the levels of density we will see in the Spectrum, it is critical that these 20,000 new apartment units that will end up being built prioritize walkability, bikeability, and transit over driving. 

How parking minimum mandates contribute to the affordable housing crisis (more parking = less housing)

Recently at a town hall, when Representative Katie Porter was asked whether she supported Representative Robert Garcia’s bill to reduce parking minimum requirements near mass transit, she responded:

“We have to think about parking as a shared resource among a community. Communities will solve this problem differently, but we should not let parking come before housing. Housing has to come first, and parking has to be part of the conversation.”

See OCR: Rep. Katie Porter talks environment at Costa Mesa town hall

Representative Porter is correct. Parking must be part of the conversation on how we address the affordable housing crisis, including here in Irvine. For one, as pictured above, parking lots often consume more land than the buildings they serve. And because housing is fundamentally an issue of undersupply and sky-high demand, cities can’t afford to over-allocate finite space in cities to house cars that could have otherwise housed people. Because developers have to save space for parking, they end up building significantly less housing overall. On top of contributing to scarcity, parking is a financially unproductive use of land. The cost of building and maintaining large fields of asphalt or large parking structures imposed on developers gets transferred to the renter, further exacerbating housing costs. One researcher put the cost of a single parking spot on average $18,000, with an average rent increase of $225. And thus, those apartments that do get built end up serving high-income earners rather than low-income earners.

In this video essay titled “How the US made affordable housing illegal” by Vox, the City of Cupertino’s parking minimums are cited to illustrate this: For each unit of multi-family housing, the developer has to build two parking spaces. That means if a developer wanted to build 100 units, they would have to supply 200 parking spaces, which means developments that are 100 units often do not end up being built (at least, not without a very expensive investment).It is particularly wasteful when cities impose excessive minimum parking mandates that force parking to be built in excess of demand. There is an example of this in the City of Costa Mesa at the 580 Anton development. Parking at this development complied with local parking mandates and resulted in an over-capacity of parking. They are now applying for a new development on a vacant land near IKEA and they have expressed to the City that they do not want to be forced to do this again, but their municipal code does not allow for that flexibility. In this instance, it is clear that parking mandates prevented more housing from being built and contributed to housing scarcity. 

At a recent joint City Council/Planning Commission study session regarding affordable housing and their upcoming inclusionary zoning ordinance, a majority of both bodies expressed an interest in abolishing or reducing costly parking mandates. Councilmember Arlis Reynolds said the following:

“I’m hearing data on projects already where large projects are not fully utilizing the parking we’ve made people build, and that’s a big opportunity for cost savings. I’d rather see space be built for people to live in versus vacant parking spots or spots for extra cars.” She also mentioned the importance of “work[ing] on reducing the need of one person per car.”

An abolishment of parking minimums would not mean developers will never build parking again. These developments still have to be commercially viable and cannot leave residents stranded without transportation choices. What it simply means is when multi-modal strategies are successfully pursued and practical alternate modes of transportation become available and reliable, the demand for parking will be reduced. Developers will build less parking in line with real demand, and thus build more housing. Some of these strategies might look like land-use planning that places commercial and offices within walkable distances to residential, increasing transit frequency and reliability, building protected bike lanes, car-share, bike-share, and many many more). In this instance, 580 Anton was restricted from doing what should have been done and is a clear-cut example of how parking minimums contribute to the housing shortage. 

Parking minimums are a self-fulfilling prophecy to the vicious cycle of car dependency51% of greenhouse gas emissions from the City come from on-road transportation. This is more than every other category combined. If Irvine is serious about achieving its stated goal of carbon neutrality, it is clear that it will need a drastic shift in modal share. Reducing vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, is how this can be achieved. As you might have envisioned in the introduction of this article, parking lots are one of (if not, the) largest contributions to high VMT in Irvine and much of Southern California, meaning parking lots make our community more spread out, increase trip distances and make it more impractical to arrive at destinations by foot, bike, and transit. This has consequences on the number of deaths on our roadway, particularly among vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists, with the United States seeing a rise in traffic deaths while others in the developed world are seeing declines (source).

In one joint study by several urban planning professors at UC Irvine titled “Mitigating Climate Change Through Transportation and Land Use Policy”, the following quote can be found: 

“Reforming land use regulation might mitigate rising transportation-sector GHG emissions. Many people who would like to live closer to their jobs, spend less money on gasoline, and spend less time commuting are prevented from doing so by the limited quantity and high cost of housing in many of America’s most productive coastal cities. Local zoning rules, parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, height restrictions, historic preservation rules, and other land use policies can limit the housing supply, driving up its cost.”

It is particularly criminal for cities to mandate parking near mass transit. Pictured below are the land-use decisions made at the Spectrum which hosts the Irvine Train Station. The train station has suffered low ridership for decades as a result of these poor land-use decisions:AB 2097 attempts to mediate this issue by allowing developers to bypass local parking mandates if it is within a half mile of high-quality transit. This is a good although limited first step, but it is imperative to make more meaningful reforms given most of the city’s housing will be built beyond that half-a-mile walk shed.

Land use is transportation destiny. Thus, parking minimums are a self-fulfilling prophecy of car dependency. Unfortunately, land-use and transportation decisions have been made in Irvine that reinforce the cycle of car dependency. A lack of parking capacity often drives some to advocate for increased parking. This is a problematic approach because it feeds into the destructive loop that contributes to the degradation of alternate modes of transportation and increased vehicle miles traveled. The demand for parking (similar to the demand for travel lanes) is insatiable and we must not give into the easy trap of trying to satisfy the addiction to parking. Rather, it is time Irvine embraces land-use decisions that make transit possible, and one very significant step at meaningful land-use reform is abolishing or reducing costly parking mandates. The difficult truth is that car dependency will always remain intact with parking minimums still in place. The question before us should not be to increase capacity for parking but to reduce demand for it through multi-modal strategies (primarily land-use reform).

How Costly Parking Mandates Inhibit Wealth Creation Within the Community

Parking minimums hurt local businesses and entrepreneurship for many of the same reasons in the context of housing. It is no secret that Irvine is almost entirely composed of big-box retail and national chains. Parking mandates drive up economies of scale of businesses and are thus one of the most significant barriers to entry that make it difficult for local retailers to succeed. As a result, there is a lack of community wealth-building and that money is not reinvested back into the local community but into the pockets of big-box chains. Walkable communities tend to have a lot more local businesses and money kept within the community. Car-centric urban planning has contributed to the corporatization of America, and we see this very well in Irvine. 

We also see the public sector become poorer as a result of excessive parking requirements and other car-centric land use policies. The non-profit Strong Towns has developed several studies that demonstrate this, such as in the “Taco John’s” case study in the suburb of Brainer, Minnesota. In this study, a traditional development on the lot of the right side of the image from the 1920s, while considered “blight” at the time, was bulldozed in favor of the “modern” development with one fast-food chain that conformed to minimum parking requirements. The previous traditional development with several smaller, more local retailers, did not conform to those rules. The result showed despite the so-called “renovation” that now provided a “sufficient demand” for parking, and despite both developments costing the same amount of money to the City in terms of maintenance costs, taxable revenue decreased for the City.Low-density suburban sprawl has high infrastructure costs, but a low tax base as a result of low density. In walkable, mixed-use urban environments, the inverse is true: high tax revenue with low-cost infrastructure. 

One time during the amphitheater discussion at a City Council meeting, Mayor Khan mentioned the need for a larger amphitheater to ensure future City revenue. One thing that is not mentioned enough in Irvine is how a Strong Towns approach to urban planning can ensure the City’s future financial stability. Suburban sprawl and the financial sinkholes it creates cannot fund itself. A multi-modal city that is not plagued with fields of asphalt is a more financially sound City in both the private and public sectors, and this is the future Irvine needs to start thinking about today.

Read more about the Taco John’s Study conducted by Strong Towns

Conclusion

Land use is transportation destiny, and parking minimums are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Car-centric land use will lead to car dependency. Infrastructure plays an outsized role in pushing us towards a particular lifestyle. People make transportation choices every day not because of “American car culture”, but often as a result of the way our cities are designed to make that choice for us. If we are to succeed in shifting to multi-modality, we will need to change the way we approach land use. For the issues we care about as a City: addressing the severe under-supply of housing, addressing the climate emergency that is mainly propagated by car-dependency, and other areas that this article has touched, it is time we pursue serious proposals that will break the cycle of car-dependency. And one of the biggest culprits of that cycle is parking minimum mandates. As the City is required to zone for 30,000 units of housing, the question is how will this new housing be planned. My hope is most of this RHNA housing (that will be built in the Spectrum and Irvine Business Complex) will not be subjected to this rule so Transit-Oriented Development can truly succeed, which is development that prioritizes walkability, bikeability, and transit, and creates human-scale mixed-use public environments– all things that are impossible to do with parking mandates intact. The Irvine Business Complex fails at being this type of environment despite its density, which perpetuates a lower quality of life (traffic congestion) that has been very controversial in the past. The Spectrum will receive the bulk of RHNA housing and thus is going to effectively be Irvine’s new “downtown”.  Reducing or ideally abolishing parking minimums in parts of the City with strong transit propensity and high population density is a good place to start to allow for needed flexibility in parking in order to create the virtuous cycle of transit-oriented planning: where land-use will enable the success of public transit and create a positive feedback loop. For the issues we care about as a City from housing to climate, it is critical that we start a new precedent of better zoning and urban planning practices that will get us to meaningfully better places.If you are further curious to learn more about parking minimums, I would encourage you to take a look at these op-eds and research:

Housing Matters: How Parking Minimums Impede Transit-Oriented Housing

CNN: This little-known rule shapes parking in America. Cities are reversing it

Streetsblog California: Op-Ed: Why California Should Ban Parking Minimums