LCDC parking rules in Oregon

One roadblock keeps Oregon from turning old, unused buildings into new homes, revitalized downtowns, and more: Mandated Parking Requirements. Oregon has a chance to remove this cumbersome obstacle, as well as an opportunity to promote more walkable cities, better transit systems, and accessible homes. 

This is how I suspect most normal people think about housing:

Prices are ridiculously high. New apartment buildings near me are annoying. But I can deal, because more apartments are supposed to be the answer to the price thing. But how can that possibly be the answer when the prices of the new apartments are so high? Developers must be building too fancy. They should build less fancy.

Guess what? Normal people are correct. I’ve spent the last 10 years in housing policy learning that all of the above is basically true. The main factor driving the cost of all housing is the cost of building new housing.

If we want our cities’ older homes to cost less, either to buy or rent, we need it to be less expensive to create a new home. Why? Here’s one way I like to think about it: Home prices are like hamburger prices.

Almost everywhere in the Pacific Northwest, as in the rest of the United States and Canada, it’s illegal to build a home without also building one or more parking spaces to go with it. A common defense of these costly parking mandates is that if there is an off-street space to tuck in every car for the night, curbside parking will never get too full. But this idealized image ignores reality. When storing a car on the curb is free, a garage isn’t necessarily a garage: it’s a great big walk-in closet.

What if more of our collective brainpower—not just our governments, but the billions of tiny decisions that add up to our entire economy—were working to reduce our dependence on the automobile?

How many good little ideas might we come up with?

Here’s one: apartments that come with an all-you-can-ride transit pass included.

Nestled near the Columbia River in Wood Village, Oregon, is the largest Walmart in the Portland region. The building spans three-and-a-half football fields, but it’s dwarfed by something else: the surrounding parking lot, twice as big as the store itself. 

When it expanded from a Walmart to a Walmart Supercenter in 2004, its floor space increased by 45 percent. Its parking lot grew less, though, only adding 36 percent more spaces. Turns out, Walmart has been quietly reducing its parking ratios for years.  

Urban heat islands got national attention this past summer after a record heat wave in the Pacific Northwest killed hundreds. In Portland, where the heat disparities between neighborhoods are among the worst in the country, one thing jumps out when you look at maps of these places: huge parking lots.

Big parking lots create dangerous heat islands


A Portland task force studying how to use pricing tools to make the transportation system more equitable used the word five times in their final recommendations, which are expected to be adopted by city council on October 13th. But is the city up to the task? Side by side with new ideas are ones that somehow keep coming back to city hall every couple years, with few results to show for it.

Fayettevile city planner Quin Thompson built the case to remove parking minimums after several years on the job. He began to see a pattern in the same properties over and over again. Something in the city rules seemed to be keeping those buildings empty—and preventing anyone’s new ideas from taking root. In one case after another, it turned out that the key issue was parking—specifically the minimum number of parking spots required. It was possible for a property owner to get planning permission to reduce the amount of parking required, but people seldom tried.

Now, six years after the mandates were lifted, those addresses have rejoined Fayetteville’s thriving economy.

When asked if a provision to “lift parking mandates for lots within half a mile of transit stops” made people feel more or less favorable towards the middle housing bill in question, 55 percent of likely voters responded as more favorable. About 23 percent of respondents were unsure, and another 22 percent indicated less favorable. The poll was administered to registered voters who indicated they planned to vote in the 2022 election and had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Chart showing that most Washingtonians support repealing parking minimums near transit. The chart is brokwn down between Total, Urban, Suburban, and Rural demographics.The results are encouraging news to advocates like Tony Jordan, co-founder of the national Parking Reform Network. “That question is broad enough to signal that people are more and more aware that housing and parking are intertwined,” Jordan remarked on the results.

When I went to graduate school, I got a dual degree in public policy and city planning. I read [Donald Shoup’s] The High Cost of Free Parking in an economics class for my policy degree, while in some of my planning classes I was hearing people talk about the importance of parking minimums, so it was a fun meeting of those two conversations. In the economics class, we were supposed to do an analysis of a market failure, and free parking was the market failure.

I think a lot of people who love Shoup feel this way. Either you grab onto it and it changes your whole mindset about policy and parking, or you’re like, “Yeah, but where am I going to park my car?” It really did change my whole view of planning in general and zoning.