Greater Greater Washington


Parking requirements aren't one-size-fits-all

Hearings on DC's zoning update continue this week with sessions today and Thursday on parking minimums. I'm testifying about the need to reduce or eliminate parking requirements downtown and in transit-accessible areas.

Differences in parking requirements across the US. Image from Graphing Parking.

Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to present my testimony. My name is Matt Malinowski and I live in the Truxton Circle neighborhood in Northwest DC. I would like to speak in favor of the proposed revisions to the zoning regulations, and in particular in favor of eliminating parking minimums downtown and minimizing parking requirements elsewhere, especially near frequent transit.

The current off-street parking requirements for general office uses most of downtown, including the C-2-B, C-2-C, C-3-B, C-3-C, and C-4 zones for buildings on lots greater than 10,000 square feet, is 1 parking space for every 1,800 square feet of floor space in excess of 2,000 square feet. This rule seems very precise, and I am sure that there are parties here tonight who would like to maintain it. But is it right?

Many cities across the United States either have or have had parking minimums, so there seems to be a precedent for maintaining them. But what is interesting is that each city has a different minimum, with Baltimore requiring more and Philadelphia less.

How can each city be right? Or are all the cities, and the idea of parking minimums with it, wrong?

One explanation for the variation is that each city is built differently, and the urban form of each city demands different amounts of parking. Sure enough, even within DC, the minimum parking requirements vary by zone, with less-dense commercial zones like C-1, C-2-A, and C-3-A requiring 1 parking space for every 600 square feet of floor space in excess of 2,000 square feet.

In effect, crossing the street from one zone to the other has tripled the parking requirement. But has the urban fabric changed so much that three times as many people will now drive to work?

M Street NW forms the boundary between C-2-A and C-2-C zones, drastically altering the parking requirements. Image from the DC Zoning Map.

The current system breaks down not just at the boundaries, but also within zones. In Truxton Circle, there are three schools within a block of each other: the newly rebuilt Dunbar High School, one charter school, and another charter school in planning. According to neighbors, cars are overflowing the parking lot at Dunbar, while the existing Community Academy Public Charter School (CAPCS) has recently built a parking lot for 140 cars overnight, and apparently without any permits.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming Mundo Verde Public Charter School is seeking a variance to give up 36 of its 53 required parking spaces and build gardens in their place. Staff are expected to ride bikes, so there are 20 bike parking spots instead, and the Metro is a 10-minute walk away.

Mundo Verde conceptual site plan showing proposed gardens. Currently, the entire lot is covered by parking.

So even for the same uses in the same location, one-size-fits-all parking requirements do not apply. Rather than develop even finer zone boundaries or zone definitions (an overlay specific to green charter schools?), how about a simpler solution: eliminate or minimize parking requirements wherever possible. That means downtown, in other higher-density zones, and near high-frequency transit.

Rather than perpetuating the current set of arbitrary requirements based on unknowable ratios of drivers to occupants, please focus on what we do know: land in DC is expensive and driving is unsustainable and causes congestion. Eliminating or minimizing parking requirements allows for the market to provide parking to those who truly need it, while making it clear that free parking is not a right, and that DC values its residents and natural environment over its cars.

Next Tuesday, there will be another hearing about parking minimums. Each hearing starts at 6pm at 441 4th Street NW, near Judiciary Square. To sign up to testify or show your support for the zoning update, visit the Coalition for Smarter Growth's website.

What do you think about my testimony? Please let me know in the comments. I hope to see you at one of the hearings!

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Matt Malinowski is a consultant advising government clients on improving the energy efficiency of consumer electronic products, but is interested in all aspects of sustainable infrastructure and community resilience. He lives with his wife and son in the Truxton Circle/Bates neighborhood of DC. 


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Can somebody give me a legitimate reason why zoning laws and city building regulations require parking minimums? I don't get it, it's not a building safely regulation like fire extinguishers or egress requirements. It's not aesthetics, it's a luxury to have parking spaces. It shouldn't be required any more than a requirement to have built in central vacuum systems into all newly developed units. Can somebody explain the legal precedent behind parking minimums?

by Bill the Wanderer on Nov 12, 2013 10:41 pm • linkreport

The theory was that as owning a car became ubiquitous that parking was needed to keep congestion down and not overload street parking. Now in a city like DC, where there is already a huge stock of buildings without parking that's a little tough to argue since even if you live in a building with a garage, presumably you drive the car around to different places and need to park the car once you arrive.

Add the fact that people are increasingly drawn to cities (DC especially so) because of the options for living without a car then it's a mystery why parking is still seen as essential to the success of a project when that's not always the case (DCUSA being the biggest example).

So it was meant to help stave off a parking shortage, what actually happened is it probably made parking worse in areas where its already hard to park.

by drumz on Nov 13, 2013 7:54 am • linkreport

I think it was also that back in the day there was a lot of city that didn't have built in parking space because it was built before parking. The problem is that they overcompensated and you ended up with parking desserts instead. I see the next zoning update as a way to swing back the needle a bit to balance it out again, I don't think anyone really wants to see no parking.

by BTA on Nov 13, 2013 8:47 am • linkreport

Even with no parking minimums it is extremely unlikely that no parking will be built - developers will find that some projects don't need parking and in other projects adding parking will enhance the value for potential customers.

by MLD on Nov 13, 2013 8:58 am • linkreport

mmmm. parking dessert.

by Mike on Nov 13, 2013 9:42 am • linkreport

I think the theory was that the market would lag in the provision of parking, and that market players might not see the demand in time to build needed parking, which would then result in investment in parking-intensive development being delayed.

It's a hangover from the 50's and 60's.

by Crickey7 on Nov 13, 2013 9:53 am • linkreport

If you want to see the ridiculous nature of parking minimums you should actually go out of the city. Go to the Twinbrook Metro station, look at the lots between Rollins/Twinbrook Pwy to the south, and Halpine Rd, and the road parallel to Rockville Pike by the Metro, Chapman Ave. Here is a Google Map link. The only lot that I've ever seen full there is the Metro lot. Otherwise, all these lots sit half-empty, especially the lot north of Halpine between Chapman & Rockville. What a waste of space. Instead of parking minimums they should allow lots to be shared by businesses and if that doesn't work provide Metro overflow space. It just doesn't make sense.

by dc denizen on Nov 13, 2013 10:13 am • linkreport

@dc denizen: it's true in most suburbs. big stores usually have an enormous back lot that's never used and exists to meet the parking minimums. usually the stores don't even have doors back there, and getting in would mean walking all the way around the building. but that's not a waste of resources because cars.

by Mike on Nov 13, 2013 10:33 am • linkreport

@ dc denizen

Twinbrook is a typical example typical American suburban strip mall, car-centric parking-lot land. I've actually seen worse offenders in the DC Area, but it seems that Rockville's planning department didn't exist before a decade ago. Just up the street in "downtown" Rockville there was/is a far more offensive lot in the Town Center (offensive because it is entirely surrounded by urban mixed-use development), but the northern half is now being redeveloped into a mixed-use high-rise with the southern half to follow sometime in the next 5 years. Then there's that jumbled parking mess it in that large triangle between Beall, 355, and Washington S, but there correcting this as well

Also, if it makes you feel any better, most of the parking lots you mentioned in Twinbrook will be totally gone within the next 10-15 years. The Metro lots (on both sides of the station) are being redeveloped by JBG, the old Syms lot is being redeveloped into two residential buildings, the Bassett/Ethan Allen building is being redeveloped into mixed-use residential/Safeway, the lot north of Halpine is being redeveloped into 1.15 million sq ft of mixed-use high rises, and finally the property north of that (with by far the ugliest patchwork of parking lots) will be redeveloped by Saul Centers at some point in the future.

by King Terrapin on Nov 13, 2013 10:41 am • linkreport

Da Pike will be an interesting study in redevelopment of strip mall retail over the next 20 years.

by Crickey7 on Nov 13, 2013 10:45 am • linkreport

re: parking dessert

I guess that's what I guess for posting before I have my coffee and breakfast!

by BTA on Nov 13, 2013 10:48 am • linkreport

Yeah, I've seen that in quite a lot of suburbs. I chose to point out Twinbrook because I used to have to go that Metro everyday and walk to work from there. It's walkable but not very pedestrian friendly. But all those empty lots just make it eerie. Pedestrians will have to crowd on this very narrow sidewalk while there is tons of empty surface lots.

@King Terrapin
That is good news, but for the future. I no longer work out there. And, yeah, that lot north of Halpine is truly bizarre.

by dc denizen on Nov 13, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

@Matt Malinowski

So what are the parking minimums in NYC(Manhattan)...and why was it so glaringly omitted from the graphic?

Also if anybody wants a detailed analysis of the perils of free "anything". I'd suggest reading Shoup's 'The High cost of free parking'. Although his solutions promote government intervention, his discussion of sound economic principles regarding "parking" help explain alot of the inequality in this world, and makes us libertarians proud. If only this line of logic could be absorbed by the DC powers that be, we would have some of the cheapest, greenest real estate in the country.

by Bill the Wanderer on Nov 13, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

I think you should emphasize that building underground parking dramatically increases the cost of building and thus contributes to our housing affordability problem. Developers won't build a building unless they can get a high enough rent to cover their costs. Higher costs mean higher rent or no building. This also hampers business formation as office and retail space will cost more than necessary due to the required parking.

by JohnB on Nov 13, 2013 2:32 pm • linkreport

I expect I will get a lot of feedback form the carbon-free visionaries who frequent this site, but I can think of one key reason why parking garages should be provided in high-rise DC buildings.
The reason is that our public transit systems are not capable of conveying everyone who would desire to work or live in these buildings, and our local governments show no sign of possessing the will to fund the massive increase in service necessary to get people out of their cars.
I haven't had to drive to work since 1979, but I'm well aware that I am an exception to the prevailing mode of personal transport. When we begin to see empty parking spaces on the streets of congested areas in DC, we'll know that those neighborhoods have finally been provided with adequate alternate options to driving. Until that great day, I'd say that reducing the parking requirement will add to congestion on the streets and provide developers with a $30,000 per space gift with no public benefit in return.

by John H on Nov 13, 2013 4:28 pm • linkreport

When we begin to see empty parking spaces on the streets of congested areas in DC, we'll know that those neighborhoods have finally been provided with adequate alternate options to driving.

People park on the street not because metro is bad but because street parking is massively underpriced. Cities with very frequent transit service often have lots of cars parked on the street as well.

provide developers with a $30,000 per space gift with no public benefit in return.

Well I think many would consider subsidizing parking and driving to be the opposite of a public benefit. If you have a parking space in a garage presumably you'll drive your car every now and again and park it on the street when you do so. That's one way parking minimums has fueled congestion rather than decreased it.

by drumz on Nov 13, 2013 4:39 pm • linkreport

You can wish for car-free lifestyles all day, but it won't affect the fact that it is still an exemplary exception, rather than the norm. Transit is inadequate - night time bus service is scarce in this city, and Metro starts packing up after 10. Millions of people have reasons to go to places that are inaccessible to transit, from soccer moms hauling kids to employees whose jobs that require commutes, service calls, or varying work sites.
I can't help the fact that my building was constructed in 1965 with 250 apartments and only 75 parking spaces. But that meant that 175 units would have to have residents who either live car free or park on the street. If government refuses to provide off-site parking, or adequate transit systems, it could at least use zoning to require private developers to provide on-site parking to serve their new buildings.
Dropping parking requirements for buildings next to transit systems that are approaching fully loaded congestion is a pollyanna public policy that will congestion and degrade the public realm of the street.
And please don't claim that dropping a parking requirement will reduce your housing cost, because center city prices are less a function of production costs, and more a result of heated demand. Lower-priced housing only occurs through subsidies and regulation, or where there is a lack of demand due to less desirable conditions.

by John H on Nov 13, 2013 5:18 pm • linkreport

I know of many people who own a car in City pretty much only because they have a parking spot in their building. That element of forced consumption leaves less money available for using other modes, like Metro, Zipcar, a scooter, or a bike. It creates its own demand, and does so in direct contradiction to the City's stated public policy of reducing auto dependence. Like drumz said.

How is this a gift to developers? Have you a shred of knowledge of market economics? The only gift here is the one to residents of parking-exempt buildings by forcing newer residents to pay for parking.

by Crickey7 on Nov 13, 2013 5:24 pm • linkreport

I think we should totally make transit better and reach more people in the city. But, that wouldn't fix the parking problems in DC by itself anyway. The only way to create more street parking is too utilize strategies that can do it. Parking minimums haven't acheived that.

I can't help the fact that my building was constructed in 1965 with 250 apartments and only 75 parking spaces. But that meant that 175 units would have to have residents who either live car free or park on the street. If government refuses to provide off-site parking, or adequate transit systems, it could at least use zoning to require private developers to provide on-site parking to serve their new buildings.

And there isn't a law saying builders of new buildings have to provide parking to residents of parking free buildings. So a new building with more parking probably won't help your neighbors either.

by drumz on Nov 13, 2013 5:28 pm • linkreport

"And please don't claim that dropping a parking requirement will reduce your housing cost, because center city prices are less a function of production costs, and more a result of heated demand. "

supply and demand interact to determine price.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 13, 2013 5:31 pm • linkreport

The fear seems to be that if the restrictions are lifted, no developer will ever provide parking again. Do we worry that if we don't require a certain number of gas stations be constructed, there won't be any?

Barring some evidence of the kind of market failure that normally dictates this kind of significant market intervention, there is no logical reason for parking minima.

by Crickey7 on Nov 13, 2013 5:35 pm • linkreport

"If government refuses to provide off-site parking, or adequate transit systems, it could at least use zoning to require private developers to provide on-site parking to serve their new buildings"

Or it could price on street parking at the price the market would bear, which would mean that either people would choose to have fewer cars, or they would willingly pay developers for parking to avoid the cost of on street parking.

Because parking is provided "free" on street, its excessively used, thus leading to "congestion" (please note by congestion you surely mean a shortage of parking - which in fact by detering car ownership probably means LESS congestion on the roads.)

As long as parking is provided "free" on street, allowing residents of new buildings to get RPPs is a gift of sorts - but then its also a gift to allow residents of existing buildings to use it. Until such time as its politically feasible to charge fully for RPPs, there is a legitimate question if the city should try to get givebacks from developers of parking free buildings - I can see arguments both ways.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 13, 2013 5:36 pm • linkreport

I also think sometimes people think "remove the minimum" means "ban". That's not the case. A few years from now we'll have more off street parking spots than we do right now.

by drumz on Nov 13, 2013 5:37 pm • linkreport

The Zoning Board hearing on Mundo Verde has been rescheduled for Wednesday, December 18 at 1:00 p.m.

(Note that this is a section of a street that serves only unlimited free commuter parking for Maryland residents; no one parks there on evenings and weekends, and no one with a DC plate parks there, ever; that all but two houses on both sides of the block have alley parking; that even on the busiest parking day -- Sunday morning -- churchgoers from Maryland opt for crosswalks, fire hydrants and corners near 1st and P -- none ever uses the eastern end of the street, and few use the illegal parking lot paved by Metropolitan Baptist. In sum, there is a huge surplus of free parking at the Mundo Verde site. There are also four bus lines and a Metro station within minutes.)

The Mundo Verde plan is the best one the District will ever see for the former J.F. Cooke School building, which has until now remained the center of a dead zone.

by Truxtonian on Dec 17, 2013 5:38 pm • linkreport

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