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.

The Benefits of Reducing Parking Mandates, Part 2

Ted Sheils
August 15, 2022

Image from http://www.annapolis.gov

This is the second 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 One published in the Capital Gazette (read it here) touched on the tax revenue benefits of eliminating unnecessary parking requirements as well as how those requirements negatively impact the bottom line of restaurants and are applied unevenly throughout the city.

In downtown areas parking minimums prevent infill redevelopment on lots where it’s difficult and expensive to fit both a new building and parking. It also prevents new uses from occupying old buildings because the sites often lack the site area necessary to provide parking for the new uses. In some cases, if an existing building predates the parking code they are not required to provide the minimum amount of parking spaces and they are considered compliant but “non-conforming.” If a new business wishes to occupy that building, and therefore changes the use, they would be required to provide the minimum number of spaces, which can literally be impossible. Therefore, buildings remain locked into one use type, a type that may be underperforming or experiencing low market demand (think office buildings during COVID). This is one reason why the old Fawcett’s building at City Dock was unoccupied for so many years, in such a prominent location – no potential uses could meet the parking requirements given the fixed, limited number of parking spaces on site. The current uses for the building literally required changing the parking code to reduce the minimum spaces required. Infill and adaptive reuse, two very important tools in a historic town, are the primary tools to fight blight, which parking minimums render useless.

There is a staggering amount of waterfront parking along City Dock, shown in yellow. This leaves little room for more productive uses like waterfront dining or a park to enjoy the view. Parking lots are a fairly recent land use and distort the historic landscape downtown.

The alternative to infill development, made difficult by parking minimums, is greenfield development. It’s much easier to fit parking into a site that is unencumbered and can be built to suit parking needs without the restrictions of an existing building. Greenfield development typically occurs on the fringes of a city, where available land exists. Infill is much better for the environment for several reasons, the primary being that infrastructure already exists for infill projects. Infrastructure for greenfield projects needs to be extended to meet the needs of a new building for things including utilities (sewer, gas, electric, water, trash), roadways (traffic lanes, stop lights, curbs, sidewalks, stormwater), and even economic support (supporting uses for new buildings like nearby convenience stores or hardware stores). Since greenfield projects are located farther away from city centers, users must also drive more to reach those destinations. These greenfield sites are also the least likely to be able to take advantage of public transit or even walking or biking. If you’re traveling to a greenfield site, you’re almost certainly driving.

There are 15 public parking garages (not counting Gorman which is under construction) and lots in Annapolis with over 7,000 spaces total available. Image from http://www.annapolisparking.com.

There is no such thing as free parking. Parking may appear free when we don’t exchange money directly in exchange for a parking space but make no mistake, we ALL pay the costs of parking, whether we realize it or not. When we don’t directly pay for parking those costs will be bundled in the costs of other items. It costs a landowner to provide parking – for example, in the case of restaurants those costs are passed down to the restaurant operator, who passes those costs down to customers through increased menu prices. Parking spaces require land and land costs money. According to the American Planning Association, the typical cost per surface space is $5,000 and it’s not just the cost of providing parking that is passed on, it is also the forgone opportunity costs of providing that parking. Because parking spaces take up what would otherwise be revenue-generating dining area, that revenue needs to come from somewhere else to keep a business afloat. It gets transferred to menu prices. So even if you didn’t park at that restaurant, you’re still paying for parking by paying the inflated menu prices. Even If you don’t drive, you’re still paying for parking. In the United States approximately 8.7% of the population doesn’t have access to a car and that percentage goes up for the over 65 demographic. People who don’t own cars typically have lower or fixed incomes and they are precisely the people who subsidize the costs of car ownership for wealthier individuals by paying the hidden costs of parking without receiving the benefits.

On-site parking is especially damaging in a downtown or business district. Those areas are defined by a certain density of housing, businesses, shops, restaurants, etc. and that density is eroded by on-site parking. Parking spreads out uses and creates gaping holes in the urban fabric. Parking also unnecessarily generates more traffic in downtowns. According to the ITE (Institute of Traffic Engineers), an estimated 25 to 30 percent of congestion in a downtown is caused by drivers searching for parking. One way to alleviate traffic is to consolidate parking in certain areas like parking garages. Sometimes drivers cruise for the perfect spot for 15 minutes in order to avoid walking 5 minutes. If drivers head right for a garage, they will save time and reduce traffic.

You might be thinking, why give food establishments a break on parking and not other types of businesses? Although there are benefits to reducing parking mandates for other types of businesses and residences throughout the city, food service is a use that is typically required to provide the most parking and therefore most negatively impacted by onerous parking requirements. Forward Brewing in Eastport, for example, was obligated to dedicate 75% of their total site area to parking. That leaves only 25% of the area to generate revenue. Most restaurants end up allocating upwards of half of their site to parking. Imagine if you were required to convert over half of your property into parking, even if that meant reducing the size of your house. Restaurants were hit especially hard during COVID. Many shut down permanently, and others just scraped by. If any industry could use a shot in the arm, it’s food service. It’s also a large portion of the economy for Annapolis. “Accommodation and food services,” according to the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corporation is the #2 job-creating industry in the City at 3,506 jobs in 194 establishments.  

Restaurants and bars require a much higher percentage of land area to be devoted to parking relative to other types of uses. Note: this graphic is not applying Annapolis parking codes but is demonstrating national trends.

It may be tempting to compromise on eliminating parking requirements and fall back to just reducing parking requirements. That simply will not produce results meaningful enough to affect real change. Setting parking maximums is the preferable position (as evidenced by the recommendations of many urban planners and parking professionals) and eliminating minimums is the compromise. Other cities like Raleigh, Portland, Alexandria, and Boston, to name just a few, have already acknowledged too much parking is harmful and enacted parking maximums. The effectiveness of the current bill before the City Council to eliminate parking minimums should not be eroded further.

You may be reading this and thinking, Annapolis is not Amsterdam. No, we’re not, but the Amsterdam of 15 years ago is not the Amsterdam we think of today. It had some of the very same challenges that we have right now. They thought holistically and ultimately chose change – I think they are probably pretty happy with that decision in hindsight. We are not Amsterdam, we are Annapolis, and we have a specific bill before us that will greatly benefit this city. To date, we have prioritized the car above people, environment, businesses, walkability, financial stability, historic fabric, and livability. As a result, we are reaping what we have sown. As I once read, “We must plan for the city we want, not the city we have.” Let’s choose to follow the data and act boldly.

Call your City Council member or send them an email and let them know you support O-9-22.

Amsterdam wasn’t always pedestrian/bike friendly. They made some tough decisions that demonstrated their priorities.