The Benefits of Reducing Parking Mandates, Part 3

Ted Sheils
November 4, 2022

This is the third article in a series on parking mandates in Annapolis and proposed bill O-9-22, sponsored by Annapolis City Council member Brooks Schandelmeier, that seeks to eliminate those mandates for bars and restaurants. Part Two (read it here) explained why parking minimums prevent adaptive reuse and infill development, how the costs of parking are often hidden, and how an abundance of parking is damaging to downtowns.

What can an establishment do when they are short on parking spaces? They can choose to do one of two things (aside from finding a new location). Either reduce the size of the restaurant to allow more area for parking or reduce the number of seats within the restaurant so that the required number of parking spaces is reduced accordingly. A restaurant that is, by every other standard aside from parking, comfortably able to accommodate 100 patrons, may only be allowed to serve a fraction of that number based on how many parking spaces they can provide. This directly impacts the bottom line of a restaurant, making an otherwise viable business a loser. The size of the parking lot will dictate both the physical size of a restaurant AND how many diners they are allowed to serve. Should a parking lot be calling the shots? I don’t think so – it’s the tail wagging the dog.

Let’s face it, establishing parking minimums is pseudo-science. This is not an exaggeration. Parking minimums are established one of two ways. The first is by relying on data from very limited parking studies which are compiled in the Parking Generation Manual. This manual estimates the maximum demand for free parking for a specific use. These studies are typically conducted in suburban areas where uses are isolated so that parking demand can be specifically attributed to the use type being studied. In the suburban context there is usually no other way for a user to reach the site aside from a personal vehicle. There are no other viable forms of transit and they are not walkable so car demand is therefore inflated and certainly not reflective of urban or semi-urban locations where other forms of transit are possible and even commonplace. These studies are also conducted at the busiest times which, by design, are anomalies to the typical parking demand. The second way of establishing parking minimums is to copy and paste from another city’s parking code which may have copied and pasted it from somewhere else that relied on the first, flawed method above. It should be a red flag if a city assumes that the same parking regulations should be non-discriminately applied across a diverse range of cities.

Even Bruce Belmore, the President of ITE (the organization that publishes the Parking Generation Manual) recommended eliminating mandatory minimum parking requirements and promoting alternate modes of transportation to curb parking demand in his President’s Message (2019) in the ITE Journal. The Parking Generation Manual is the rationale behind every parking minimum, yet the publishers of that very resource disagree with its application.

Parking metrics are most often established as a function of floor area. A bakery, for example, requires 1 parking space to be provided for every 200 square feet of floor area. Coupling parking minimums to floor area has been proven to be a very ineffective predictor of demand. The following are proven to be more effective predictors of parking demand for a restaurant: density of surrounding area, proximity to public transportation, menu pricing, or even type of food served. Yet none of these factors are assessed. We’d be better off picking any of these latter predictors and much better off by weighting each factor.

Any examination of most parking codes, Annapolis’ included, will have you scratching your head. A “hotel” requires “one space per three lodging rooms.” But an “inn” requires “one space per lodging room”. Are they that different? Does an inn need 3 times more parking per room than a hotel? A “bed & breakfast” on the other hand doesn’t require any parking in Annapolis if you’re in the C1 and C1A zone. A single-family, detached dwelling is required to provide one space per dwelling unit but a single-family, attached dwelling (such as half of a duplex) needs to provide two spaces per dwelling unit. Isn’t half of a duplex naturally going to be smaller and contain fewer occupants than a single-family, detached house? Yet it requires twice as many parking spaces. And lastly, a gym must provide “one space per two employees, plus one space per 100 square feet exclusive of space devoted to courts (such as tennis or racquetball) plus four parking spaces per court.” What is the likelihood this ever resulted in the optimal amount of parking or something close to it? Isn’t it more likely that a gym owner or manager is better able to determine the parking required based on very real factors like location, membership, hours of operation or class schedule?

Oddly, parking metrics are not meant to estimate how many people visit a specific use – only how many cars do. The average vehicle can carry at least 5 people, but most car trips only involve 1 person. So, a parking lot with 20 spots could accommodate as few as 20 people or as many as 100, but that differential does not seem to be considered. Yet the number of parking spaces required, according to the code, is a function of how many people can be served. It’s apples and oranges. A restaurant gets no parking reduction if it can verify that a percentage of its patrons walk from a nearby apartment building (Carpaccio) or park in a nearby parking garage (Lemongrass) or wander in to take a break during a shopping trip (Rams Head Tavern). The inflexibility of the parking code prevents restaurants from even attempting to reduce parking demand, for example offering a small discount or special parking spot as an incentive for carpooling restaurants could also require employees to park in a nearby garage or provide transit passes to ensure that staff, which at busy times can be dozens of employees, don’t park on-site. However, why would they when there’s no incentive to do so?

One might say that parking should be free because it provides a collective benefit. So does food, medicine, healthcare, daycare, exercise equipment, dental work, and postage, but none of that is free. Not only are these items not free but they are also not required by law (via municipal ordinance) to be offered to users at nearly every single property whether those users express an interest or not. How did parking become such a valued benefit, above all others, that it is foisted on us everywhere? The harmful effects of providing too much parking have been well documented. The difference between parking and the other collective benefits mentioned above is that a glut of those other benefits is not damaging.

So what is a diner to do if parking minimums for restaurants are eliminated? Remember that eliminating parking minimums does not mean eliminating parking. Most, and perhaps all, owners will still choose to provide parking but will right-size the amount of parking provided. It’s likely most diners will still be able to park on-site as they do today. Secondly, a diner may be incentivized to seek an alternative form of transportation, like walking or Uber. Thirdly, they may choose to park on the street or in any number of nearby garages. On-street parking should have variable pricing to align demand with supply. If parking directly in front of a given destination is too expensive, it may be cheaper down the block. Under the new Hillman Garage Concession Agreement, the City will benefit from increased parking revenues in the form of quarterly “waterfall” payments which will be used to subsidize City transit operations. The majority, if not all, of the municipalities that have implemented parking requirement reductions or eliminations, receive no backlash. It becomes a non-event as the supply of parking spaces adjusts to demand more closely.

Paying for parking may seem like an added cost for a night out but consider that you have already been paying these costs as part of increased menu prices or inflated cost of goods—and you haven’t had a choice. Restaurant owners/operators should be able to provide the amount of parking that increases revenues without charging customers for unnecessary parking. By paying at the meter, you will have the choice to pay, or not to pay, for parking. And if you don’t drive, you don’t pay.

Some might say we need abundant parking because our public transportation system is anemic, but I proffer that our public transportation system is anemic because we offer abundant parking. Prioritizing people over cars starts a feedback loop where we build the infrastructure that makes it incrementally easier to choose other modes of transportation over private car trips. Each successive step we take makes the next step easier. The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step, sometimes literally.


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