How parking reform could help boost Hawaii’s housing stock
from Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, August 17, 2023
One issue affecting Hawaii’s critical need for housing is something most people don’t think about: the parking requirements for planned structures.
During the latest episode of “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii, Keli‘i Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, was joined by an expert on the subject: Tony Jordan, president of the Parking Reform Network, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the impact of parking policies on housing, transportation and other vital issues.
Speaking from Portland, Oregon, Jordan said that as difficult as finding a parking spot can sometimes be, there’s actually a surplus of parking in most cities.
“For 60 years, most cities in the U.S. have required arbitrary amounts of parking to be built with every new building or new business,” he said. “And over these 60 years, so much parking has been built that you can’t even count it. No one even knows how much parking there is in the U.S.”
A reason for this, according to Jordan, is that whenever there has been a change of use — for instance, an office building being repurposed for commercial uses such as restaurants — the cities would fail to update their parking rules.
“Once [those rules] got in the zoning code, cities don’t often change them,” he said. “There’s a lot of public process and it could be contentious. So they just kind of got frozen in time and we’re stuck with them today.”
For example, he said, “it’s pretty common for downtowns not to require parking for commercial uses anymore, but they still require it for residential uses. So it’s very hard to build housing or mixed-use developments without spending a lot of money on, you know, underground parking. Obviously, in very dense downtowns, maybe the land value or the economic activity is enough that it can support that kind of expenditure and the things will still get built. But in towns that are growing or struggling, it can really be an impediment to building the kind of walkable dense places that we want.”
Jordan named several cities, including Seattle and Buffalo, where more housing was built after they eliminated their parking requirements. He said that in the future, technological innovation will help all cities make better use of their existing parking, through devices such as apps, license plate readers, sensors and AI.
Akina expressed the hope that Jordan’s work will help resolve Hawaii’s housing crisis.
“We have such a crisis in housing supply, that even little things, like eliminating parking requirements, could make a difference,” he said.
“I think you’re right,” Jordan responded.
8-15-23 Keli‘i Akina hosts Tony Jordan on “Hawaii Together”
Keli’i Akina: Aloha and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m your host, Keli‘i Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute [of Hawaii].
At this time in Hawaii’s history, we’re experiencing crisis on many levels. Some of these crises have been fairly long-term, such as the lack of adequate housing, for both those who want to own homes as well as those who want to rent.
And most recently, [as] the world knows, that the wildfires on Maui, particularly in Lahaina, have left devastation. And our hearts continue to go out to those who have lost life and property.
But as we look at issues with which we must deal in the long run, one of those is providing adequate housing, and there are so many facets to that.
We have learned that one of the problems has to do with something that we don’t think of often, and that is the requirements for parking stalls when permits are given to build structures.
We’re going to take a deeper look at that today, because that’s an issue that affects the immediate need for housing here in Hawaii, and will affect the kind of rebuilding we may do as we restore Lahaina and other portions of Maui.
We’re going to talk about something that a lot of people really don’t know much about, so I’ve asked an expert to join us today. His name is Tony Jordan, he’s the president of the Parking Reform Network, and I want to welcome him to the program.
Tony, thank you for joining us here all the way in Hawaii. Where are you?
Tony Jordan: Thank you very much. I’m in Portland, Oregon, where we are having a 105-degree day today, because that’s how things go now.
Akina: Well, it’s kind of like Hawaii, but we’re just a little less sizzling and we have cool trade winds, like air conditioning outside.
Akina: Tony, you have an interesting area of expertise and you’re with the Parking Reform Network. Is that what it’s called?
Jordan: Correct. Yes.
Akina: What an interesting title for an organization. Can you tell us a little bit about it and how you got involved in parking policy?
Jordan: Yeah. So the Parking Reform Network is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is the only organization at this scale that focuses on educating the public about the impact of parking policy on things that are important, like housing, transportation, climate action, other equity concerns for mobility and access to places of opportunity.
The reason we exist is, as you pointed out, a lot of people have not thought deeply about this topic. Parking is everywhere, and we take it pretty for granted that it’s going to, like … Of course, if you ask an average person on the street: “How much parking should there be?” Their answer should be, “A lot and cheap,” you know [laughs], like, “We just want it to be there.”
But when you look into how we got into the situation with strip mall architecture or abundant free parking or underpriced parking on the streets, it’s kind of surprising.
So I found out about this pretty randomly in 2010. I read a blog post on a website called Metafilter about this book called “The High Cost of Free Parking,” by this professor [Donald Shoup] at UCLA. And I was working in software — I was not a planner — but I got the book and I read it. I was pretty shocked.
I could not look at a parking space the same way without realizing how much it costs or, like, kind of the … what could be there instead, what used to be there. And knowing that we have for, you know, these spaces cost tens of thousands of dollars and they take up hundreds of square feet.
And for 60 years, most cities in the United States, for sure, have required arbitrary amounts of parking to be built with every new building or new business that you want to start.
So I have a little bit of a background in union organizing as well. And so, I started getting involved locally when there were some land-use discussions around parking and housing. And I realized that there was a need to really do a grassroots organizing around the topic to tell other advocacy organizations about it, to help people testify and prepare messaging and just education around it.
And that grew over the years in Portland. And then I wanted to help people do it all over the country and outside of the country. So that’s why …
Akina: Well that’s very, very fascinating. And it’s interesting how your engagement has grown over the years.
Now, there are all kinds of parking rules, not only across the nation, but within individual municipalities. And I’d like to dive in a little bit and hear something about the history of these rules.
I mean, years ago, people commuted by walking and then there was mass transit and streetcars and trolleys and buses and so forth. But about a hundred years ago, cars came to dominate the scene for the most part.
So when did minimum parking rules for structures, for offices, for houses and so forth come into being, and what was the rationale behind that?
Jordan: I’m not sure about the exact, you know, the first place. I think there’s some books in recent literature that might — maybe Oklahoma City, I don’t know, or …. But it’s around in the ‘50s, you know, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s is when these rules really grew. Mostly I think in the 1950s.
It was paired up with, you know — we built a lot of highways, right? And suburbanization. So all of a sudden, more and more households owned cars. And the cities were building highways to bring those cars from the suburbs into their central cities. And there was definitely recognition that there were places needed to store them.
And some of it was, like, as shopping centers and things were built. You can look, there’s this thing called the Planning Advisory Service. And we found this great excerpt from like, 1954, I think it was, in New York. This architect says, “I don’t think anyone can ever figure out how much parking should be at a particular business. No one — we may never agree — we just build some and invariably, it’s too much or too little.”
So we were just kind of throwing darts at the wall back [then] — how much parking should be required.
And then cities thought that they, rather than trying to manage the curb and deal with the situation from a more holistic level, they started requiring … Like a lot of times, what they would do is go out and look, “OK, we have a shopping center, or we have a barber shop or a restaurant. How much parking is there currently?” And they would just kind of write that into the rules.
And then the next city over might copy the rules, or they might tweak them a little bit. And when you look at these requirements all over the country, they really, like, in a same geographic area, you can look at one land use — my favorite is, like, bowling alleys — and you can look at just like how much parking is required at a bowling alley at this city, in this city, in this city, in this city.
And they’ll vary, like one per lane, two per lane, five per alley, five per lane, one per 100 square feet. And that’s within like, just, you know, a small geographic area, and so you really quickly recognize that these are pretty made up
And once they got in the zoning code, like, cities don’t often change them. There’s a lot of public process and it could be contentious. So they just kind of got frozen in time and we’re stuck with them today.
And over these 60 years, you imagine just so much parking has been built that you can’t even count it. No one even knows how much parking there is in the United States.
Akina: Well, you know, just to continue on that vein, buildings used to be built much closer to each other than they are in traditional downtown areas now. So in cities that introduce those parking minimums, how are these historic districts affected?
Jordan: Initially, it was pretty drastic. You can go look at Google Maps on a historic downtown district and, you know, it’s like broken teeth, right? Like there’s pieces missing in the city.
Because what would happen would be either a business, you know, a change of use would occur. So you had a business that was like, you know, an office building or a mill or something. And that would move out and someone would want to start a restaurant or a doctor’s office and the city would say, “You need, you know, one parking space for every 300 square feet.”
And obviously that didn’t exist on-site. So they would buy the building next door and tear it down and then put their parking lot there.
As this happened, I think the initial results were pretty shocking. And what we found is that actually, many, many thousands — at least a thousand, because that’s all we’ve looked at. But that probably — it is like many of the smaller towns, the United States exempted their downtown areas from having these parking mandates — usually just like a little strip — where was the old downtown.
And so it’s pretty common nowadays that they don’t require those anymore because they saw how disastrous they were. But then, they still require them in new development. So then that’s the difference between kind of, like, strip mall architecture or stand-alone business with a moat of parking around it, and the old-style walkable downtown, that is where everyone actually wants to go.
Akina: Well, zooming back to today, how do parking minimums affect downtown areas? Do they make it harder for buildings to be constructed without providing a parking garage?
Jordan: They certainly can if the city does require parking mandates, like, if they require parking. Yeah, it’s pretty common for downtowns not to require parking for commercial uses anymore, but they still require it for residential uses.
So it’s very hard to build housing or mixed-use developments without spending a lot of money on, you know, underground parking. Obviously, in very dense downtowns, maybe the land value or the economic activity is enough that it can support that kind of expenditure and the things will still get built.
But in towns that are growing or struggling, it can really be an impediment to building the kind of walkable dense places that we want.
And then, if you think, just on commercial corridors or areas, business nodes outside of downtowns, it can be very difficult to build the kind of places that you don’t want to just drive to and leave [laughs] as soon as you can.
Akina: Well, cities have struggled with this and tried to solve this problem. There must be some success stories. Do you know of a city that has taken on the parking requirement problem and resolved it?
Jordan: Yeah, I mean, so we’ve seen tremendous progress on this in the last six or seven years. So to some degree, there’s still — you know, it takes a long time to build things, right? A building process to even build a small building can take one or two years. So, you know, like in a lot of these places, we’re still seeing what actually plays out.
But in the early adoption places, Fayetteville, Arkansas, got rid of parking requirements for just commercial uses citywide. And what they saw was that, you know, buildings that had sat empty for a long time — because there was not enough parking to turn them into a restaurant or a new business — actually were converted.
Hartford, Connecticut, is a good example where they got rid of their parking requirements — I think in 2017 or 2018 —and they now have situations where they’re seeing buildings that were appropriate, that were office or derelict buildings, can be turned into housing much easier when you don’t have parking requirements. And there’s so much parking in Hartford that people who want to drive still, they just rent a parking space at a garage that’s just down the street that’s mostly empty.
Buffalo, New York, and Seattle were recently studied. Seattle got rid of parking near transit corridors in 2012 and Buffalo got rid of parking requirements citywide, I think, again, 2018, 2017. And what they found is in those places, more housing was built.
In fact, a majority of the housing that was built would not have been allowed to be built previously. So, like, it had less parking than would have been allowed under the current code. But still, actually, the vast majority of the new buildings built included some parking on-site.
So what you see is that, you know, things don’t change immediately. But you might get — you’re getting marginal new, more housing and more business activity in smaller amounts of space.
And then over time, I think we’ll see that compound because you’ll get more households that aren’t driving as much, which will support greater transit and walkability. And, you know, it will start to heal or stitch these places back together, I think, is what we’ll see.
Akina: What happens more often? On the one hand, I can see how people will change their transportation habits in order to acquire a place to live or in order to work at a certain place. But on the other hand, we could see that apartments stay empty, that office space is vacant, because parking is just not available. Which way does it go, usually?
Jordan: I think that we need to step back and look at the amount of supply that we already have, right? So there’s already so much parking that the system can just absorb, you know, more capacity as it is.
So, like, there’s a first stage where I don’t think you need to worry about, you know, if someone wants to move into this department and they want to either bring their car or have fewer cars — a big part of this is multifamily housing with multiple bedrooms, right? Family-size units through two or three bedrooms, often the requirements require like three or four parking spaces for a three-bedroom apartment, right?
So, you know, if you have a family with two adults and two kids, even if both adults have cars, you’re making them pay for two parking spaces, which can be hundreds of dollars a month in additional rent, right? So we’re exerting this cost.
I think one effect is that you’re just rightsizing things, you know. They’re still going to build some parking. And so I don’t know if people’s habits will change right away. I think that there’s a demand for places and housing that is not car-dependent, partly because large amounts of the population — and you look at average cities, even in car-dependent places 40% of the households own one or fewer cars. 60% of renters, like, even in a place like Orange County, Florida, own one or fewer cars per household.
So we’re overbuilding this. So I think that the first step is we can make a lot of progress by just allowing the current supply to fill in. And then, I think, you know, it’s kind of like clearing rocks and weeds out of a garden. It doesn’t make things magically happen. You have to plant seeds and water them and weed.
You know, the city still has to invest in transit. They have to invest in walkability. They have to invest in other things and subsidize.
We spend so much money on car infrastructure. If we just start spending larger fractions of that on other infrastructure, then we really start to see, I think, the ability for people to shift modes. And we’ll start to really see, hopefully somewhere down the line, the real transformations occurring.
But if it’s in the way, you can’t do it, if you keep those parking requirements there. You know, all those other strategies, they’re not going to work, or they’re not going to work as well, because you’re requiring this investment in auto dependency, basically.
Akina: In free market thinking, supply and demand find a natural way of meeting each other. And this is something that is hard for societies — governments that focus on regulation — to really understand. And it may take some patience, even to see happen, when transition is taking place.
What do you see? Let’s go back, because in the beginning of this conversation, you talked about the fact that a lot of people don’t realize that parking spaces is a market. As such, how is it supposed to function? What would be the best functioning of this market with the least interference from government regulation?
Jordan: Right. Well, I think — this is a great question — because I do think, you know, I think that it’s wise and valid to question whether everything should be market-based, right?
And I think, but of all the things in the United States that we choose to decide if we’re going to have market-based or a more, you know, socialized scheme, parking seems to be the one thing we all can agree on should be socialized. Which is kind of a backwards way. [laughs]
I think that, in a way, I like to say cities should mind their own business when it comes to parking. And I mean that very literally in that the curb that the city owns, or the municipality owns, is a very valuable piece of real estate.
And it has many uses. It could be used for, as we’ve seen after COVID, street dining or parklets or bus lanes, bike lanes — there’s all these uses. But usually the city’s giving it away for free.
So the transportation department is not managing — or they’re very lightly managing — this very valuable piece of land. And then the planning department is requiring every person in the building department — every person who wants to start a business — to shoulder the cost of their mismanagement.
So, if the city manages its on-street parking — even just has a plan to do so — “Well, if it gets congested, we’re going to have a permit” or “If it’s essential city, we’re going to have parking meters that are based on, you know, opening up, based on occupancy,” right? You want to have a space available or so on every block, so someone can, you know, they don’t have to cruise around. And you want to provide a good value for — you want customers for businesses, you want turnover.
So the city does that and then that sends the signal to the builder. It sends a signal to the entrepreneur, to the tenant, to the customer: What do I need? You know, do I want to risk building?
You said, “What if the building goes vacant?” Hey, well, I mean, if I build a building with no parking in a place that there’s no way to get to, and no one wants to rent it, that’s sad for me. I made a bad business decision. You know, if I open a business where there’s not enough parking and no one comes to my business, I made a bad business decision.
If I open a coffee shop and I don’t hire enough staff, the government doesn’t come in and tell me I have to have a certain number of baristas on staff. No, they let that up to the — so why this one thing we’ve decided, like, needs to be codified and told for businesses.
So I think once those two things in place, you know, people will find a place to park. They will — if they have a car and they need to park it — they’re going to find a place to park. And someone is going to provide that place to park for them as soon as the value proposition shifts. And I think that that’s just, you know, it’s a natural thing to happen.
People ask, “Should the city allow shared parking requirements for new housing?” And I’m like, “That’s a natural consequence of eliminating parking mandates.” Like businesses will go and contract — a bank will open up its parking lot for the restaurant, or someone with extra parking will let the tenants in the new building park there.
So I think the key is there’s so much still right now that we can absorb a lot of additional activity without requiring more parking to be built.
Akina: You say that people will find a way. What are some of the innovations in meeting parking demand that have come up in the last several years?
Jordan: Oh, that’s great. There’s a lot of tech, even just since I started learning about this in 2010. The first example of a city that really did a demand-based parking management, like the city, you know, was SFpark.
And they used a federal grant to buy all these sensors and put them in the street. And actually they don’t use the sensors anymore, that kind of fizzled out. The sensors were expensive, and for a long time people would say, “Oh, you can’t get too technical on this because the sensors are real expensive.”
I worked in tech like, you know, that stuff is coming down in cost and becoming more ubiquitous. So there’s a number of things out there. Just general connectivity; allowing people to find and pay for things easier with apps is huge.
Unlocking parking. I speak with companies all the time of places that are either trying to — you know, apartment buildings or office buildings — they want to unlock the extra parking and allow other people to lease it. So the apps and license plate readers and this technology makes that a lot easier to do and reserve things.
But also, smaller commercial parking lots, you know, how do you allow someone to reserve or buy parking in your space when you’re not there? So you can get a little more revenue. The city gets a little more tax revenue, hopefully, and other people find a place to park.
So I think that the app infrastructure combined with better sensor technology, right? You can see occupancy now with cameras, and the AI, you know, machine learning can recognize: Are these spaces full or are they empty? And so you can calibrate the systems more.
This is all still coming online. You know, every year there’s more and more products and more companies out there trying to solve these problems. So I think it’s really important to us. An exciting time to manage the curb with reservation systems and just more intelligence about what’s happening on the street level.
Akina: Well, that’s very fascinating. In fact, aren’t there places where individuals are starting to rent out their parking stalls when they’re not using them, similar to an Airbnb kind of a system?
Jordan: Yeah, I think definitely. You know, there’s a company I know of called Parkade that allows if the business owner, like if the property owner contracts with them, the tenants of the apartment that rent their spaces, they can lease them to other tenants for visitor parking when they’re out of town. Or they can, you know, rent them to other places.
There is a struggle in a lot of cities. In residential areas, for example, you’re not really allowed to have a business use on your property. So if you rent your parking space in your driveway, the city’s probably not going to come shut you down. But if the person parking there trips and falls, your insurance might cancel you, you might get in trouble.
So there is a little bit of legal — like cities could legalize that and facilitate a little bit more of efficiency of parking, if they want to. And it’s like a lesser reform that they should consider. But, you know, allowing those markets to exist legally is probably a smart plan for places trying to transition to less parking mandates.
Akina: Are there any studies that show that the use of mass transit actually reduces the need for cars, and thereby the need for regulation of parking?
Jordan: I don’t know about, like, peer-reviewed studies out there. I mean, I know that there’s some studies that show, for example, more parking does lead to more … There’s a study out of San Francisco that, like, if you have more parking in an apartment building, the residents will own more cars. Like, and if they move into a place that has fewer parking spaces, they will own fewer cars.
We put out all these maps recently. My organization has put out a bunch of maps on parkingreform.org, about showing how central cities have a bunch of parking — like how much parking lots, what are the land uses saved for parking? And there is some correlation, it does seem, between transit use and ridership and the amount of parking that’s in a place.
I mean, it’s kind of natural, you know, if you encourage — you get what you build for in a lot of ways. So if you’re building in a place where people have to walk farther, and there’s more traffic, parking is like a battery for traffic. So more cars in your downtown, they’re going to be blocking the bus lane and making transit work less efficiently anyway.
So I think it’s pretty logical. But I don’t know — we’re still in the early stages, I think of, like, really studying these things and figuring them out.
Akina: Well, Tony, this has been a fascinating conversation, and I want to thank you for taking time to be with us here in Hawaii.
You’re the president of Parking Reform Network, and I wish you the very best. I hope your work helps us out here. We have such a crisis in housing supply, that even little things, like eliminating parking requirements, could make a difference. So I appreciate your input to all of them, Tony.
Jordan: Thank you. I think you’re right. There are reforms on the island of Oahu, right? They’ve reduced their parking requirements for housing quite a bit. And it does seem like, you know, islands are conducive to circulation by transit. And I think that hopefully it can actually probably work out pretty well there.
And I — my heart also does go out to the people suffering from the impacts of these fires and other weather events too. So …
Akina: Thank you, we appreciate that. My guest today has been Tony Jordan of the Parking Reform Network. I want to thank all of you for tuning in. This is Keli’i Akina on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. We’ll see you next time. Aloha.