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Politics, not good sense, drive Portland parking minimums

Opponents of DC's zoning update are touting news that Portland, Oregon is re-instituting parking minimums. They claim the Portland case proves eliminating minimums doesn't work. But it actually shows how sometimes leaders bow to political pressure and resident fears, even for a bad (popular) solution instead of a better (less understood) one.

SE Divison Street in Portland. Photo by Matt Kowal on Flickr.

Portland removed parking minimums in many neighborhoods with high-frequency bus lines in the 1980s. Recently, residents in the Richmond neighborhood pushed to reinstate some parking minimums after plans came to light for a new 81-unit building without off-street parking.

Many neighbors were frightened that the new building could make parking on street more difficult. It's an election year, and candidates wanted to cultivate votes from active residents in the area. They gave those residents what they wanted. Unfortunately for Portland, those residents skipped over a much better policy tool: on-street parking permits.

As Dick VanderHart explains in the Portland Mercury, the neighborhood has a vibrant nightlife which attracted new visitors to the area. Those visitors compete with residents for parking. Curbside parking is free at all times.

Residents can request residential permits to limit visitor parking and overnight parking. Last year, the city created a "mini" parking district program so individual neighborhoods can create new small parking districts, but so far, none have requested one.

Perhaps that's because it's not really hard to park there. In a Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) survey, most residents said that they usually park on the street 1-2 blocks from their homes and most spend little time looking for parking.

It isn't clear that a parking problem exists in Portland today. Plus, building more off-street parking will not do anything about visitors patronizing the new bars and cafes in the area. That's especially true as long as parking is free on every street in the area. No matter how much garage parking new buildings have, many people will find it more convenient and cheaper to park on the street until the city limits on-street parking or charges for it.

This closely parallels issues in DC. In many neighborhoods, it's becoming more difficult to park. We have parking minimums, but they clearly aren't preventing this. The solution is not to cling tenaciously to parking minimums, but to set up a better system that actually manages on-street spaces.

The Portland zoning code didn't fail. Instead, the residents didn't or couldn't use other parking management tools. We don't know yet if switching the code back will improve matters for unhappy residents—the vote just happened last week—but it's unlikely.

The new Portland policy require one space per 5 units for buildings with 30-40 units, one per 4 for buildings of 41-50 units, and one per 3 for buildings over 51 units. If the developer puts in bike parking and car sharing, they can relieve some of the requirement.

Perhaps because of the impending election, Portland's council may have acted hastily. The city was also working on other policies to deal with parking through basic transportation demand management measures, but that proposal was not finished in time for the council vote.

Opponents have been complaining most strongly about the DC proposal to exempt residential buildings of up to 10 units from parking requirements citywide. Portland still exempts buildings up to 3 times that size.

Plus, while many tout Portland as a transit mecca for its pioneering streetcars and other policies, the percentage of trips by transit here is triple that of Portland, which has no subway at all. TriMet has cut service in recent years, while WMATA has not. DC neighborhoods whose residents consider their transit fairly meager still have a lot of transit by the standards of many parts of Portland.

Portland's parking experience is not proof that parking minimums are necessary. Instead, it shows that politics can get in the way of good parking policy. Just because politicians in one city had a knee-jerk but nonsensical reaction to a certain neighborhood's complaints does not mean DC should do the same.

Abigail Zenner, is a former lobbyist turned communications specialist. She specializes in taking technical urban planning jargon and turning it into readable blog posts. When she's not nerding out about urban planning, transportation, and American History, you may find her teaching a fitness class. Her blog posts represent her personal views only. 


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1 spot for every 3 units for a building over 51 units is still more generous than a lot of DC requirements, and that's the strictest it gets.

I mentioned in a different thread yesterday basically what was said. That evidence that Portland is going back on this isn't evidence that the program has "failed" in any sense.

by drumz on Apr 17, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

This oddly comes off as an article bashing Portland, which is a much smaller metro area (2.3M vs. 5.9M for DC) and a much less dense region than DC and its suburbs. That pretty much explains the large discrepancy in transit service between the two regions, which I freely admit and is something that Portland needs to improve. I think Portland needs much greater frequencies and duration of service (late nights and weekends especially) to make car-free living more attainable for everyone.

The decline in payroll tax revenues over the past several years and escalating health-care costs for the transit union have created almost a crisis situation at TriMet which has yet to be resolved. But instead of the apples to oranges comparison of the DC and Portland metros presented in this article, it would be more accurate to say that Portland has punched above its weight in securing federal funding for light rail, compared to other regions of comparable (or much greater) size.

And if we are going to compare transit bonafides, let me know when DC builds a light rail/streetcar/bus/bike/ped bridge over the Potomac completely off-limits to private motor vehicles.

Another reason why no-parking apartments are seen as feasible by many in Portland, besides transit service, is the high bicycle mode share, which at 6.3% for commute trips is double the size of DC (3.2%). But again, not a fair comparison.

Also one correction: it was just announced that the Kerns neighborhood is the first to apply for the mini parking permit zone:

by Reza on Apr 17, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

Politics (and corruption) is certainly involved in DC also with Gray's re-election campaign gearing up.

Tarring everyone who wants smart-growth concessions in return for dropping parking minimums with a broad brush of being in the "entitlement" crowd may appeal because of it's simplicity but doesn't further getting the best result. Studying how other similar cities handle the issue does. Not just Portland but Seattle, Boston, Arlington, LA, and plenty of other cities have dealt with the issue and had experience we should study.

I think the greatest fallacy is that people who will move into buildings with no indoor parking for rent at high prices but with almost free RPP parking available on nearby streets will usually not have cars. Portland is a good example for how that did not happen, even in high-transit areas. In DC over 1/3 of residents do not have cars, but that includes many low-income people without cars. Newcomers in new buildings have much higher incomes and probably have some number of cars. In my own neighborhood, Dupont/Logan, I know the general (optimistic) rule is about 50% in new buildings. And we're about as transit heavy and central as DC gets. Only the Arlington practice of requiring RPP concession in return for dropping minimums actually produces buildings with no new cars and lower prices since no parking is available.

Seattle swaps multiple required parking spots for car-share spots, EV spots, bike corrals, etc. Saying that you're for these type things is nice but reducing parking minimums is where the rubber hits the road in actually bargaining for them.

In a recent WBJ article about Tom Buzzuto turning over a lot of control to his son Toby it mentioned that Buzzuto had gross revenues last year over $1.1 Billion. I doubt if Hoffman, JBG or Douglas are far off that mark. Unconditionally dropping all parking minimums while allowing RPP is a huge windfall to these companies amounting to millions of dollars per typical medium-to-large project. I doubt any of it will result in lower rents since on-street parking is available, but I also know that the election campaigns are expecting considerable appreciation from the developers.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 17, 2013 3:28 pm • linkreport to make Portland less sensitive to political concerns, you suggest what? Where you seem to be going is either unfathomable or unthinkable.

by goldfish on Apr 17, 2013 4:16 pm • linkreport

I dont think Portland particularly needs our advice. They will deal with this over time themselves. The point is for people in DC not to misread whats happening in Portland.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 17, 2013 4:20 pm • linkreport

Well its not so much what Portland should do but rather that to tout this as an example of the elimation of parking regs as not working is to miss what's really going on.

All evidence seems to indicate that the program is/was working. The change is for future development that people feared would be a final straw.

by drumz on Apr 17, 2013 4:25 pm • linkreport

Tom Coumaris is spot on.

Nice attempt at framing, though. Sure, it is that evil politics -- you know, the expressed will of the people at elections -- that is driving this.

Another headline "Voters not liking parking minimums, not good sense, drive Portland parking minimums"

Not quite the same ring?

by charlie on Apr 17, 2013 5:30 pm • linkreport

It's a better headline than "omg, parking minimums don't work!"

by Drumz on Apr 17, 2013 6:09 pm • linkreport

@ charlie:evil politics -- you know, the expressed will of the people at elections

It is completely legitimate to question the will of the people expressed at elections. The people can be misinformed, underinformed or just plain irrational. Furthermore, since American politics only come in two murky flavors, one should never assume complete agreement with that entire flavor when a flavor is elected.

The will of the people is not by definition the best solution to a problem. The role of politics is to find a balance between the best option and the will of the people, whatever it is.

Now, on the issue of parking minimums. This is not a black and white thing. Not having parking minimums is not always the solution. The free market rarely yields perfect solutions. That said, not having parking minimums does not prevent builders from building spots. It's like (gay) marriage. Allowing it does not force you to it, it just gives you options.

The question is whether you should have parking minimums, and if so, what they should be, which depends on location and transit accessibility. There is an enormous scale between the two spots per unit that suburban areas hang to and zero spots per unit.

Actually, the debate in Portland shows that you might be well off with a fractional spots per unit; 1 spot per 4 units or so.

by Jasper on Apr 18, 2013 8:14 am • linkreport

It is completely legitimate to question the will of the people expressed at elections. The people can be misinformed...

This comes across as sour grapes. Elections are fallible, but the alternative is worse.

by goldfish on Apr 18, 2013 9:55 am • linkreport

@ Jasper; spoken like a true European.

by charlie on Apr 18, 2013 10:01 am • linkreport

Let's not get it twisted that this article is somehow arguing for a dictatorship.

It's great that the democratic process worked. There still isn't evidence that Portlands rules about not requiring a minimum of parking spaces for development failed in any way.

by drumz on Apr 18, 2013 10:02 am • linkreport


theres a long tradition of Americans questioning the wisdom of the people - including Mark Twain, HL Mencken, etc.

As for alternatives being worse, of course ("democracy is the worst form of govt, except for all the others") No one is suggesting a military coup to restore the earlier zoning code in Portland.

What the post is saying is "Portland voted for X /= X is a bad idea"

Which seems pretty obvious, you know? I mean Md democratically increased their gas tax, while Virginia democratically decreased theirs. So based on the people always being right, which is the correct policy? Were the people of Portland wrong 3 years ago when they democratically supported ending parking minimums? If in 3 years they go back to no parking minimums will that be right - and what DC should follow?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2013 10:05 am • linkreport

@AWitC: yada yada, even more sour grapes.

by goldfish on Apr 18, 2013 10:08 am • linkreport

"sour grapes" does not mean what you think it means.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2013 10:14 am • linkreport

Goldfish: yada, yada, more illogic.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 18, 2013 10:14 am • linkreport

So now that we've got that out of our system.

So lack of parking minimums actually didn't harm the availability of on street spaces. It may get to that point sometime in the future and thus the new minimums are pre-emptive. However, the larger lesson is that parking minimums are a blunt tool for dealing with on street parking. It would have taken more input to set up a RPP type system in Portland but it would also be a more effective tool.

by drumz on Apr 18, 2013 10:23 am • linkreport

@drumz, actually the most interesting part to me was portanders were parking one or two blocks away -- not the right in front of their house as demanded by DC residents.

by charlie on Apr 18, 2013 10:37 am • linkreport

@AWitC: try this logic: the election was held, and parking minimums were reinstated, fair and square. For those that disagree with that policy, better luck next time.

The questioning of the election result by the article and the comments here is an exercise in hubris. I dare say the people that voted know very well what the issues are. "The people have spoken" is usually said by defeated candidates, as an act of humility. It is the correct response.

by goldfish on Apr 18, 2013 12:06 pm • linkreport

@drumz- I think a telling part of the WW article is that one of the parking-free buildings owners makes a claim that only 50% of his tenants have cars, while: ""WW conducted a survey of residents at Gerel’s 23-unit apartment complex. We talked to 10 residents, who own a total of 11 cars and 14 bicycles."

The buildings have to have 1.1 enclosed bicycle slots per unit, they have grooved slots to easily get the bicycles up the stairs, (they don't have environmentally-destructive elevators), the rents are $650, they're on transit, and most of the tenants seem to work in environmental causes. Seems like a perfect combination for low car ownership but it didn't happen.

So in DC we absolutely need to have an estimate of how many people in buildings without expensive indoor parking available but practically free on-street parking will in fact have cars and how that will affect congestion. I think the evident assumption that anything other than an Arlington solution will produce Zero new cars is naive.

Demanding trade-offs like enclosed bike parking, car-share spots, CaBi stations, etc. might help (though in Portland it didn't seem to, which disappoints me a lot).

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 18, 2013 12:10 pm • linkreport


try this logic: the election was held, and parking minimums were reinstated, fair and square. For those that disagree with that policy, better luck next time.

What election result?

There wasn't a referendum on this in Portland. Portland recently elected a new mayor, and parking was one of many issues discussed in the campaign.

by Alex B. on Apr 18, 2013 12:15 pm • linkreport

. I think the evident assumption that anything other than an Arlington solution will produce Zero new cars is naive.

Producing zero new cars is not the goal.

The goal is to ensure parking is available on street. That means we must manage on-street parking.

by Alex B. on Apr 18, 2013 12:18 pm • linkreport


So they asked half the residents of the building and they all said they had cars? Meanwhile the landlord is saying that only 50% of his tenants have cars. Is he lying? There's no way to tell but the "survey" done by the articles author is hardly authoritative.

That article talked about a lot of things but what it didn't mention was whether all this parking free development has made traffic worse or made it harder to find a spot.

Re: trading parking minimums for other things. We've been over that so much I don't know what there is to say about it.

by drumz on Apr 18, 2013 12:23 pm • linkreport

try this logic: the election was held, and parking minimums were reinstated, fair and square.

And of course the lesson for DC is that the way that we here who have argued for reduction or elimination of parking minimums were pretty much correct in what would happen. Buildings were built without parking, parking on the street is still pretty easy (especially compared to DC).

by drumz on Apr 18, 2013 12:26 pm • linkreport

May be a very naive thing to say but I thought a general consensus was that we want to encourage as few new cars coming into DC as possible AND to more effectively manage our present auto capacity AND to increase multi-modal capacity.

With DDOT's recent decisions to allow commercial zones RPP parking and with the (so-far delayed) large % which will be reserved for handicapped, we may be setting up a grand scheme for schadenfreude on DC residents, but not much in the way of congestion relief through fewer cars.

Of course in reality I know that just like Gray's budget-busting capital improvements $1.5B programs (read contracts for pay-to-plays), 13% raise for city employees (read payoffs to critical public employee unions), this huge windfall for developers is just part of the financing for Gary's 2014 re-election campaign.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 18, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

The questioning of the election result by the article and the comments here is an exercise in hubris. I dare say the people that voted know very well what the issues are.

You know who else came to power because of democratic elections?

(Invoking Godwin's Law on the (silly) portion of the thread that's debating whether democratic outcomes are always wise.)

by oboe on Apr 18, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

"You know who else came to power because of democratic elections?"

Well, Benito Mussolini, for example. He was an urbanist, after a fashion. And he was very strong on rail transit. After all, he made the trains run on time.

by Ron on Apr 18, 2013 4:47 pm • linkreport

@oboe: Godwin's law is invoked, indeed.

by goldfish on Apr 18, 2013 5:13 pm • linkreport

@oboe- I don't think is was about any election. It seems more like every sane person involved had an almost unanimous consensus that Portland's dropping minimums was a failure. It did not achieve it's goal, which one would assume was the lessening of car ownership.

Charlie Hales, the promoter of the Portland streetcar system ("Choo-Choo Charlie) and high density and the original sponsor of dropping parking minimums 12 years ago just finally agreed with everyone else that it failed to achieve it's goals and caused too many problems: "" Hales tells WW. “But what the city can do is reassess. All these good-hearted neighborhood activists support the big idea of Portland being dense and livable, but they want it to be done right.""

Doing something right is a lot harder than just doing something (and admitting failures is really hard).

If the goal of dropping parking minimums is decreased autos then the policy needs to be tailored to that end.

If the goal is to just to fund Gray's 2014 re-election campaign,then we're on perfect course.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 18, 2013 5:27 pm • linkreport

"You know who else came to power because of democratic elections?"

The guy you are referring was trounced (53-37%) in the only national election he ran in by a doddering, half-senile old man with a famous dirigible named after him. He got appointed (not elected) anyways in the midst of some closed-door political intriguing, but that doesn't reflect poorly on the judgment of the voters.

Anyways, I think the issue is the scale of the decision-making. Give neighborhoods power over land use controls, directly or indirectly, and often they will rationally vote in ways that keeps their properties expensive, and the parking abundant, through scarcity of homes. Just because it is rational doesn't make it beneficial to the common good, though.

"It did not achieve it's goal, which one would assume was the lessening of car ownership."

I had thought the goal was to reduce rental costs and permit greater flexibility in housing options. Lessened car ownership might be a side effect to the extent parking minimums were serving as a subsidy for cars, but maybe not. Free street parking seems like the much bigger subsidy.

by RTA on Apr 18, 2013 10:24 pm • linkreport

If the goal is to lower housing costs then what evidence do we have that omitting $225/mo indoor parking availability but providing free RPP parking causes rents to lower? I own some units with no parking and a friend owns some next door that have outdoor parking for $200/mo. We charge exactly the same rent.

I'd think that is a much more dubious result than lowering car use.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 18, 2013 11:52 pm • linkreport

when was that building without parking built? The point is that by relaxing the minimums, you will get more development, and thus more supply, and thus lower rents.

That will lower rents on all units.

Including the ones you own, BTW.

Certainly if its true that Mayor Grey has incentives to relax parking minimums, its also true that owners of existing rental properties have incentives to oppose any policy that will make additional supply easier.

And if they own properties lacking parking, they have an incentive to favor the Arlington solution over, say, increasing the price of RPP's.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 19, 2013 8:37 am • linkreport

@Walker- You have it reversed: If someone owns rental without any on-site parking they have a huge incentive to favor having RPP available for their tenants. If they have parking they rent they have just as great an incentive to want their tenants excluded from RPP like Arlington so they're forced to rent parking from them.

And I'll guarantee the new $3K-$4K apts next to my $2K ones haven't lowered any rents; just made me feel foolish for not raising rents.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 19, 2013 11:54 am • linkreport

Im assuming that the arlington solution only applies to new building, so neither would have their tenants excluded. The reason an owner of a building without parking would want the arlington solution, is so their tenants with RPPs can actually find spots. If a new building means parking spots are more scarce, their lack of a parking space becomes more of a problem for tenants, therefore lowering the rent they can charge.

"And I'll guarantee the new $3K-$4K apts next to my $2K ones haven't lowered any rents; "

Do we really have to discuss filtering again? Do you really think there's no connection between the high end markets and the less high end markets?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 19, 2013 12:05 pm • linkreport

Walker- It's not that there's no connection or filtering. It's that there is such a thing as gentrification.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 19, 2013 12:20 pm • linkreport

A. Its not clear that incremental large buildings add that much to gentrification. Some neighborhoods have gentrified through the renovation of existing housing stock alone, and AFAICT in others a few new buildings have been enough. Requiring parking does not stop new building from occuring (obviously) but results in fewer new buildings.

B. Even if the gentrification effect offsets the supply effect in a given neighborhood, a new building in a different neighborhood will only have a supply effect. IE an owner of a rental unit in neighborhood X, considering a new building in neighborhood Y, will see a supply effect that is much stronger than the gentrification effect.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 19, 2013 12:27 pm • linkreport

I am one of the residents of SE Portland that rebelled against the transformation of a residential area with character into a crowded mess of bars and ugly boxes.

The developers and anti-car folks opposed us, but we won.
Requiring parking does costs developers more, but the market decides the rents. Faked studies by our city planners could not hide that fact. I love the enlightened comments on this blog- I guess folks in DC "get" democracy. In Portland, our anti-car crazies are crying just because citizen action worked.

BTW- don't imitate Portland- we just scared Nike away, and a big telephone company is leaving. Look what we do and then do the opposite. We are a reliable indicator of what does not work.

by Oregonian on Apr 21, 2013 12:06 pm • linkreport

Aren't most buildings box-shaped?

by Drumz on Apr 21, 2013 12:20 pm • linkreport

"Requiring parking does costs developers more, but the market decides the rents. Faked studies by our city planners could not hide that fact. "

the market decides rents, and the costs impact the market. If the portlanders who won beleive that means that city planners faked studies, than that reinforces my belief that the vox populi was mistaken in this case.

"Look what we do and then do the opposite."

Y'all just reinstated a parking minimum. I agree, DC should do the opposite of that.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 21, 2013 2:44 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Oregonian on Apr 21, 2013 2:55 pm • linkreport

"Just because politicians in one city had a knee-jerk but nonsensical reaction to a certain neighborhood's complaints does not mean DC should do the same."

The citizens of Portland who argued for parking minimums were neither nonsensical nor knee-jerk. You don't know our area.

by Oregonian on Apr 22, 2013 11:07 am • linkreport

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