Wisdom > Passenger

Making parking cheap and abundant isn’t the solution

Correcting misconceptions about parking minimums

Businesses make sidewalks their own parking. PHOTO BY R. ANTHONY SIY

In my piece about expensive parking earlier this year, I broke down why cheap and affordable parking could actually do more harm than good. But why is there so much of it in the first place? The answer lies in a set of rules known as “parking minimums,” which guarantee parking in buildings by requiring builders to construct a minimum amount of it.

But isn’t that kind of rule good? Not quite—and it might be one of the most insidious and powerful causes of all our traffic problems. Hang on for the ride with me.

What are parking minimums?

Mandatory minimum parking requirements are regulations that require builders or developers to provide a required minimum amount of parking as part of their plans. In the Philippines, parking minimums are defined in the implementing rules and regulations of the National Building Code. All local government units must comply with the NBC IRR parking minimums in their zoning codes—meaning that they may require more parking than the NBC IRR, but not less. LGUs often zealously set their own parking minimums higher than the NBC IRR to signal that their quality standards are higher.

Parking minimums are set with many different bases. Some look reasonable at first glance. For instance, “neighborhood shopping centers” are required to provide one parking space for every 100sq-m of floor area. Others are just strange. For instance, bowling alleys are required to have one car slot for every four lanes. Why? Also, “restaurants, fast-food centers, bars and beer houses” require one car slot for every 30sq-m of customer area. Think about that: If we want to prevent drunk-driving, why do we require bars and beer houses to have parking?

Besides that, housing developments in the Philippines are required to have parking despite growing trends against car ownership (more Filipinos are choosing alternatives to cars for daily commuting, like using taxis or TNCs when they need a car). Talk about outdated policies.

Parking guru Donald Shoup, the author of The High Cost Of Free Parking and the world’s foremost expert in parking economics, succinctly calls the logic behind parking minimums “pseudoscience.”

We live in a society that accommodates car owners but disregards pedestrians. Isn’t that sad? PHOTO BY R. ANTHONY SIY

What is the general argument behind parking minimums?

The argument for parking minimums is based on two unfounded premises:

1. If parking is not provided by buildings, streets will become congested with illegal parking.

2. Parking is a human right.

The first premise is not necessarily true; it is only true when enforcement of street parking is lax and permissive. If street parking is enforced and parking is not available, people may make many other choices, such as walking, cycling, taking transit, hailing a cab or not traveling at all.

The second premise is false; parking is not essential to human life. Furthermore, parking is only enjoyed by those with relatively higher incomes, and who can therefore afford to drive.

What has the effect of parking minimums been?

Parking minimums transfer wealth from nondrivers to drivers. Parking buildings cost a lot, but make little money. To make a profit after being forced to build parking, property developers must charge higher rents in commercial areas. This means that commercial tenants must charge more for their goods and services to customers, regardless of whether the latter use parking or not. Since car users are a wealthier minority compared to the majority who do not use cars, requiring parking has the same effect as a subsidy to the rich paid for by a tax on the poor. Allow buildings to build less parking, and the cost of everything goes down. How’s that for fighting inflation?

The other effect of parking minimums is to increase car use. Parking minimums make parking supply abundant, which makes driving easier. When driving is easier, people drive more, which increases traffic congestion, pollution and accidents. Building housing with parking also makes it more likely that households will choose to buy cars when they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Parking minimums transfer wealth from nondrivers to drivers. To make a profit after being forced to build parking, property developers must charge higher rents in commercial areas

What should be done in the Philippines?

Mr. Shoup makes the following recommendations:

First, remove parking minimums from the National Building Code. Removing parking minimums does not mean that all developers will build without parking. It means they will build the appropriate amount for their business. So, if you’re a motorist who worries about a world with no parking, relax, you’ll still be able to find it at a fair price.

Second, encourage cities to enforce street parking and use market-driven pricing. Cities must enforce laws against illegal street parking, but also charge for paid street parking based on demand. Street parking is not bad per se—it helps street-level businesses thrive. What’s bad is illegal, uncontrolled street parking that obstructs roads and, worse, sidewalks. Enforcing parking law is key to making sure that infrastructure is not abused by the few.

For efficient and socially optimal use of street space, Donald Shoup recommends pricing parking “at the lowest price that allows one or two spaces to remain open on each block.” This means that efficient parking policy will adjust prices of parking depending on location and time of day. We have the technology to do this already.

Third, use parking revenue to improve urban life and public transport. Street parking revenue can be used to fund enhancements to sidewalks, bike lanes or services such as public Wi-Fi, which shows citizens an immediate return on their parking payments. The money can also improve public transport to really shift people out of cars.

Getting rid of parking minimums is a low-cost step with a sound academic basis, and is good for private and public bottom lines. Making lots of little steps like this is how we’ll win the war on traffic, for good.

R. Anthony Siy

Robert is a transportation expert. As in he has a degree in Transport Economics. So yes, you can trust his thoughts on public conveyance. He believes that smarter policy and planning can make cities better for motorists and nonmotorists alike. He pens the ‘Passenger’ column.