California parking space law aims for affordable housing and climate change ‘win-win’

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California is famous for its car culture, which the automotive website Jalopnik has dubbed “second to none,” but it's also known for its environmentalism and its sky-high housing prices. So, in an effort to lower the cost of construction and cut down on car dependence, the state has recently adopted a law that prohibits local governments from setting minimum parking requirements for new buildings within half a mile of a transit hub such as a rail station or the intersection of two bus lines.

“Housing solutions are also climate solutions,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, after signing the law on Sept. 23. “Reducing housing costs for everyday Californians and reducing emissions from cars: That’s what we call a win-win.”

The California bill was written by Assembly Member Laura Friedman, a Democrat from Glendale, a Los Angeles County suburb, who is concerned about the cost of housing in her region. CNBC recently ranked L.A. as the second-most expensive housing market in the U.S., just below Miami — the California cities of Long Beach, San Francisco, San Diego, Anaheim and Santa Ana also made the top 10 — and it rated California the third most expensive state after Hawaii and New York. Rising housing costs in California have contributed to an epidemic of homelessness. A recent state count found 173,800 Californians lack stable housing, an increase of 22,500 over the past three years.

Gov. Gavin Newsom at a podium marked More Housing, Faster, surrounded by a group of men in hardhats holding signs saying: Build Homes Now! and #skilledandtrained.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, center, at a press conference on Sept. 28 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“We’re in the midst of a housing crisis, desperately looking for a solution, and we need to consider all options to reduce the overall cost of housing,” Friedman said when she introduced the proposal last year. Her co-sponsors included other legislators, such as state Scott Weiner of San Francisco, who have also been working for years to pass state laws preempting local restrictions that limit new housing construction or drive up its cost.

Before the new law went into effect, zoning in most California cities required developers to build parking spaces for new units. Those costs, in turn, were passed on to home buyers and renters. A 2017 study from professors at Santa Clara University and UCLA found that when an apartment came with a parking garage space, it added approximately $1,700 to the annual rent. In 2018, after Minneapolis eliminated mandatory parking minimums, the American Planning Association (APA), a professional association of urban planners, reported that new studio apartments in areas of Minneapolis, where they typically had gone for $1,200 per month, dropped to less than $1,000 per month.

Building parking isn’t cheap. The Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a Canadian think tank, calculated in 2014 that surface parking spaces in California cost an average of $20,000 to build, with garages costing several times as much, especially when built underground — and that’s not including the cost of installing driveways. Nationally, the Parking Reform Network estimates that surface parking spots typically cost at least $20,000, with spots in underground garages as much as $60,000.

Rows of rebar sprout from the ground on a parking lot under construction.
Construction on a new parking structuring next to the Mickey & Friends lot at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif., in July 2018. (Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

While the connection between parking minimums — which are a staple of zoning codes throughout the country — and the cost of construction is straightforward, the relationship to pollution is more complicated. Relying on nationwide formulas that set a certain number of parking spaces for each bedroom or square foot of retail space, without considering the possibility that some new residents or customers will walk or take the bus, has led to large parking lots and multicar garages, many of which are often mostly empty. The United States has 290 million cars and as many as 2 billion parking spaces, and the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that parking covers roughly 5.5% of land in the country.

Providing ample parking makes it easier to drive, contributing to auto dependence, according to many urban planners and professors of urban planning. The average American drives 16,000 miles every year, the most of any major economy. Transportation is the largest source in the U.S. of the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change, and it is one reason the United States has one of the highest per capita emissions in the world.

“Particularly after World War II, California and the West really sprawled out. And we’re kind of wrestling with a built environment that doesn’t work in terms of efficiency and the cost, but also just the quality of life and then trying to address climate change,” Michael Lane, state policy director at the the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, known as SPUR, told Yahoo News.

The abundance of parking, however, is not the same everywhere out West. Empty lots in front of big-box stores might be commonplace in rural areas, but that’s often not true in much in larger cities. Jackson, Wyo., has 27.1 parking spaces per household, compared to 5 per household in Seattle and 4.5 in San Francisco.

But more populated areas also suffer more concentrated air pollution from cars. This year’s "State of the Air" study by the American Lung Association ranked 11 California regions among the 25 most polluted in the country, including all of the top 4 for ozone and the top 6 for particle pollution. (Los Angeles claims the dubious distinction of being the No. 1 in ozone, and Bakersfield is the worst for particulates.)

A packed freeway, with bumper-to-bumper traffic over five lanes on the right, wends its way through Santa Ana.
The I-55 Freeway heads south from the I-5 Freeway in Santa Ana, Calif., on July 27. (Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Merely eliminating parking requirements won’t be enough to make every Californian go car-free, not by a long shot. Apart from a handful of neighborhoods in a few of the state’s largest cities, the mass-transit options aren’t necessarily available and convenient enough.

“Walking, biking, public transit — alternative modes of transportation,” have to be enabled, Bill Magavern, policy director of the California-focused Coalition for Clean Air, told Yahoo News.

An academic paper published last year by professors from UCLA and UC Santa Cruz surveyed the rates of car ownership and driving habits of residents of 2,654 homes in 197 affordable housing projects built in San Francisco since 2002. They found that residents of developments with more parking have higher rates of automobile ownership and driving. The authors argue that it is causal: They found no evidence that applicants for low-income housing developments — which, in the high-earning San Francisco area, can include two-person households making up to $118,200 — were more likely to apply to the housing lottery for units with parking, but were more likely to have a car once they secured housing that came with a parking space.

“In California, about 80% of our air pollution and 50% of our greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation, so most of our work is to clean up transportation,” Magavern said. “We work on both air pollution and climate change, and this will help with both.”

Although California is the first state to take action, some cities already have. Noting “traditional parking ratios are outdated,” the APA reported in 2018 that “there's a burgeoning movement of municipalities across the U.S. reducing or eliminating parking requirements for certain locales or certain types of development, or even citywide.”

Vehicles arrayed in a parking lot, with regular empty spaces.
Aerial view of vehicles at a parking lot on Aug. 26 in Los Angeles. (Qian Weizhong/VCG via Getty Images)

In 2017, Buffalo, N.Y., removed parking requirements for developments of less than 5,000 square feet, while Hartford, Conn., removed them entirely. Cities such as New York City, Seattle and Portland, Ore., have removed parking minimums for subsidized affordable housing developments near transit.

Some of the largest cities in California, including San Francisco and San Diego, had in recent years reduced or eliminated parking minimums. But many Californians fear having to fight for on-street parking with their new neighbors. Worried about the loss of their power to set parking requirements and a potential future parking shortage, some cities, especially smaller, more suburban jurisdictions, opposed the newly passed law.

“Restricting parking requirements does not guarantee that individuals living, working, or shopping on those parcels will actually use transit,” said the League of California Cities, a nonprofit that advocates for local control of policy. “Many residents will continue to own automobiles and require nearby parking, which will only increase parking demand and congestion. [Friedman’s bill] also would give developers and transit agencies — who are unaccountable to local voters — the power to determine parking requirements.”

Some more progressive California cities, including Los Angeles, dangle exemption from parking requirements as an inducement to developers in exchange for building affordable housing or public amenities such as daycare centers, causing quiet reluctance to back the bill from some local officials. Even some progressive activists and professional planners opposed the bill unless their demand for amendments that would allow local governments to let developers build taller buildings with less parking in exchange for including affordable housing was met. (It wasn’t.)

A Metro bus in Los Angeles with one passenger standing in the aisle and a generous number of free seats.
People commuting on a Metro bus in Los Angeles on July 14. The Bay Area was once a public transit model. Now California's "car capital" leads the state in riders. (Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

On the other side, the deregulatory nature of the bill brought out backers from the business community, including real estate developers and retailers, who supported the bill as a means of lowering costs. (Developers are still free to build as much parking as they want.)

“One of the interesting things about this bill and campaign is that the California Restaurant Association came on to support it, because entrepreneurs trying to open a storefront in a downtown are often hit with the need to find off-street parking,” Lane said.

Although the bill was sponsored by Democrats, it passed with the support of a number of Republicans and conservative policy intellectuals, who spoke up on its behalf.

California policy experts say that the state’s struggle with climate change, which has recently caused extreme heat waves, droughts and wildfires, among other disasters, has helped galvanize public support for efforts to cut back on driving.

“The crisis had become so great — both in terms of just built environment, vehicle miles traveled and the interest in addressing climate change — that we’ve gotten some movement,” Lane said.

Experts caution that California has yet to put many other policies in place if it is to reduce the amount its residents drive significantly. “It’s just one of the many steps we need to take,” Magavern said. “But this at least takes down one barrier, and it removes a disincentive to transit-oriented development. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get transit-oriented development, but combined with other policies, can move us in that direction.”