The True Cost of that Parking Space

(This Op-Ed By our Executive Director Shannon Binns was published in The Charlotte Observer.)

Charlotte has invested, and will continue to invest, substantial sums of money to provide residents more safe and convenient transportation choices beyond cars. These include more opportunities to ride transit, bike and walk to achieve improvements in public health, the environment and to further economic growth.

Undermining the impact of these investments, however, are Charlotte’s minimum parking requirements. These requirements result in abundant parking, which make driving more convenient and affordable than it otherwise would be if parking were scarce. Demand for driving is artificially induced while demand for modes of transportation that compete with driving is reduced as a result. Many cities around the country have caught on to this insidious effect of minimum parking requirements and have eliminated or reduced them, letting the market determine (and naturally reduce) the amount of parking provided.

Parking everywhere

The amount of space devoted to parking will probably surprise you. Researchers estimate that 40 percent of a typical U.S. city’s total land area is used for parking. I know of no Charlotte statistics, but it is likely that Charlotte is similar to other U.S. cities because of its minimum parking requirements.

So how much parking does Charlotte require? Charlotte’s zoning code requires parking for every structure that is built. For example, a newly built condominium or apartment must have 1.5 parking spaces per unit, which for an apartment complex with 300 units, amounts to 450 parking spaces or 66,000 square feet of parking (221 square feet per unit). A newly constructed office building is required to have one parking space for every 300 square feet of office space (about .75 parking spaces per person), which for an 850,000 square foot office tower amounts to about 2,800 parking spaces or 410,000 square feet of parking. As a result of all this mandated parking, it is difficult to find a city block in Charlotte that is not at least partially lined with a parking lot or a parking structure.

Hurts walking

But more than just inducing demand for driving, this abundance of parking significantly harms the desirability of walking. Parking requires entrances and exits, so when a pedestrian is walking next to a parking lot or a parking structure, the pedestrian is in danger of being hit by automobiles coming in and out. Entrances and exits make street-level retail undesirable so it usually does not exist in parking structures. The danger, the lack of street-level retail and the unsightliness of parking structures and parking lots all combine to make walking undesirable around them. And in Charlotte, this is an issue on most non-residential streets because of the amount of parking Charlotte requires.

People who use transit walk to and from their stops and in the neighborhoods or areas around their final destination. If people do not feel comfortable walking in these areas, they will elect to drive rather than ride, so it is important for the viability of transit that walking be desirable in these areas.

Right now, driving in Charlotte is by far the easiest and most convenient mode of transportation, which is due in large part to its minimum parking requirements. If Charlotte hopes to realize the full benefits of its substantial investments in non-automobile transportation infrastructure and become a less car-dependent city, it will need to eliminate its minimum parking requirements, as other cities have. 

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